In films about the military, America's forces play a surprisingly big role behind-the-scenes. We find out more about the Pentagon's ties to Hollywood
War is one of the oldest genres in Hollywood, and with films and TV depicting soldiers, war and the military as popular as ever, it makes sense that the industry has long cultivated close ties with the American military.
But how is the deal done between such hierarchical industries with such entrenched business practices?
Writer/director Rod Lurie, who's portrayed the US military on screens as much as any filmmaker, says it's a business of relationships.
"The person responsible for approaching the military is the one with the best contacts in the military"
"The person responsible for approaching the military is the one with the best contacts in the military," he says. "In my movies that's always me."
It makes sense for many like him who have close military ties. Lurie graduated the prestigious West Point military academy and served as an air defence officer, so has what he calls “a certain level of trust”.
Courtesy of Netflix. Films about the military like All Quiet On The Western Front continue to be popular in Hollywood
But given such volume (not all of it in films and TV—the American military works with sports, video games, live events and documentaries), there's also a structure to deal with. The US Department of Defense works with around 150 productions a year, anything from advice on tactics to the use of bases, equipment or personnel.
The Pentagon's DoD Entertainment Media office is staffed by two former US servicemen, Glen Roberts and Alàn Ortiz (each of the six US military branches have their own operators and office).
Often it starts with a phone call from a previous relationship. "There might be an initial discussion about a potential project to ask about time, availability or resources," Ortiz says. "Sometimes just a contact saying they have this idea and would we be able to support them."
Formal assistance request
But every serious request eventually results in a formal assistance request—a document outlining what the production wants in as much detail as possible. Then Roberts and Ortiz approach the relevant command to see if resources are available and senior officers are interested.
And if they're not? "We don't have the authority to say 'you need to do this' to anyone," Roberts says. "Nor do they have the ability to support a production without our permission—there's a power sharing involved.
"Fortunately in 90 per cent of cases we agree wholeheartedly, and in the other five or ten per cent it might just be they don't have the capacity or personnel available."
Courtesy of Skydance. For bigger productions like Top Gun: Maverick, the military sometimes sit in on-set
But the bigger question is: why work with Hollywood at all? How does it benefit the US military? "Our mission is to inform and educate the American public on the roles and missions of the Department of Defense," Roberts says. "It's something of an accountability issue."
And to—in Roberts' words—"protect and project” the image of the US military, they need to be more than just bureaucrats with rubber stamps.
"If you need their hardware, bases, soldiers or expertise, you're going to have to let them read the screenplay"
As Lurie says, "if you're going to make a movie about the American military and you need their hardware, bases, soldiers or expertise, you're going to have to let them read the screenplay."
Beyond that, a military representative might be present for advice at every stage—commenting on the script, present on set and even giving notes on the edit.
On big productions with high military content (Roberts mentions Top Gun: Maverick as a recent example), sometimes he or Ortiz are even sitting in video village with the principal crew.
Courtesy of Screen Media Films. Rod Lurie's The Outpost didn't receive military support
But before you think that means they're killing any movie that doesn't depict them positively, Roberts cites several examples which don't necessarily show the military in the best light.
Lurie's film The Outpost (2019) didn't receive military support, but not because it was about disastrous planning behind the location of an Afghanistan army base. It was because the Army couldn't get helicopters to the shooting location in Bulgaria.
He says the military is far more accepting of entertainment that's critical of it than it used to be.
Roberts adds that not everything's a good news story. "In fact, I'd argue the ones that aren't are the most important to get right," he says. "We have stories that deal with racism and misogyny in the service—we're not afraid to show the military as the bad guy even in fictional stories."
Lurie agrees, saying that being critical of the army (the subject of many of his films) is ok, as long as it's made plain the institution is willing to remedy wrongs.
But there's one last slightly uncomfortable inference left to deal with. If the military can refuse to support a production that doesn't portray it favourably and thus render it financially impossible (borrowing soldiers in uniform driving tanks is much cheaper than stitching uniforms and buying tanks, after all), that's one thing.
But reading scripts? Sitting in on production? Viewing rough cuts? Isn't that a slippery slope to tacit censorship?
"Try and tell Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan how to make their movie and it's going to be a very short conversation"
"We don't have any kind of outsized influence over productions," Roberts laughs. "Our viewpoint is to protect the stories of our people, not influence the outcome of movies. Try and tell Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan how to make their movie and it's going to be a very short conversation."
Banner copyright: Skydance, Top Gun Maverick
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