When you sit down to watch a movie like Top Gun: Maverick or Captain Marvel, chances are you're not getting caught up in the greater political ramifications of what happens on screen. But behind the scenes, there are people thinking about just that.
It's why in Top Gun, characters never explicitly say what country they're fighting. And it's also why after the release of that movie, enlistment in the armed services shot up. For the Pentagon, movies are safe ways to make them look good and boost recruitment.
But how much control does the military have over the stories shown on screen? And do they change things to make themselves look better?
The answer is a little complicated
The military and Hollywood have a long history. In the best of times, they worked together to raise money and fervor for the United States in World War II, exposing people at home to the atrocities all over the world committed by Axis powers. Relationships waned as the 20th century moved forward, with Hollywood never shying away from films condemning the Korean conflict and the war in Vietnam.
Still, when Hollywood wants to make a movie about the military specifically, they have to work in tandem. There are obvious reasons, like the military having equipment Hollywood wants to use. From aircraft carriers to fighter jets, they're the only people in the world with access to these items. And building them out of CGI just looks and feels different.
They also can help train actors in weapons handling and tactical movement, things directors crave for their works to look and feel real. They also have money and access, which is probably the most important thing.
Hollywood will pay huge amounts to use military equipment, but it makes sense to loan things at cost. Mostly because of the recruitment element for the armed forces. People who want to see these movies may also get the urge to join up. Especially young people drawn to a PG-13 film, at almost enlistment age. When filmmakers want to shoot fighter jets flying, Hollywood has no choice but to use the only pilots who can fly them—Navy pilots.
The Navy is always excited to help out, and all they ask in exchange is final cut on the script submitted to them, to make sure their pilots are being shown in an advantageous light.
How pervasive is this collaboration?
Recently, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed from professor and filmmaker Roger Stahl. Stahl researched 30,000 pages of Defense Department documents, retrieved through Freedom of Information Act requests, as well as "available archives at Georgetown University." Stahl found that "the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have exercised direct editorial control over more than 2,500 films and television shows."
And this happens all the time. The CIA heavily revised Mark Boal’s script for Zero Dark Thirty. It made the torture in the movie look crucial to finding Bin Laden, when in fact his location was actually found by just pouring through files the CIA already had. It also happened when Top Gun: Maverick commits the same omission as the first movie, and again never names the enemy, to keep allies on our side and not ruffle any feathers.
Of course, none of this is new. The first Academy Award went to Wings, a movie that had the Pentagon's support. And when Ridley Scott wanted to do Black Hawk Down, the military was so behind the movie that they gave the weapons, vehicles, and Ranger training to the movie for a deep discount (some people say almost nothing).
The Department of Defense and Hollywood deal is that if a producer wants to use U.S. military equipment in their film, the department will provide funding and multiple resources in exchange for adherence to strict regulations on how the military and its personnel are portrayed. We would publish this list of rules, but it's not made available unless you're making one of these movies.
Some mishaps with these rules include Man of Steel, which, according to an article in Fortune Magazine, was denied the support of the military initially because they thought the Army members in the movie were cartoony. How much money did they save by changing the script? Of the reported $225 million budget for Man of Steel, it cost less than one million to use all the military apparatuses and tech in the movie.
What other things set the military off?
We look back to that Los Angeles Times report, which also lists "depictions of war crimes, torture, security of the nuclear arsenal, veteran suicide, sexual assault, and racism in the ranks" as possible reasons the Pentagon flags your screenplay.
Of course, things get tricky when you incorporate superheroes. Marvel tries to balance reality with these heroes. And while the Pentagon was happy to help with Captain America: The First Avenger and the Pentagon is thanked in The Avengers, they ran into some interesting issues as the series moved forward.
First of All, S.H.I.E.L.D. was not a real government agency, so when there was a plot about them being infiltrated, questions arose if this actually looked bad for the government and military, since the corrupt places were fake. In the end, Marvel was left mostly alone. You could theorize that perhaps that was because the military came out looking good when they shot Captain Marvel.
And what about the Iron Man movies, where the hero is shown to have a deep friendship with the military and collaboration with them? Sure, he made weapons and regretted it, but that's never really explored outside the surface level.
So who reviews all these screenplays?
This is the job of the U.S. Defense Department’s Entertainment Media Office. It also comes across the desk of Hollywood's Pentagon liaison Phil Strub, and he's been doing it for years. If he likes your project, it benefits you greatly.
He liked Captain Phillips, which uses a military boat in the final sequence. In that movie, they were able to use the real crew of the boat and the boat. The military said it was training for them, and it came at a very low price.
Strub said in a 2011 video about the Pentagon possibly censoring Hollywood, "The relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon has been described as a mutual exploitation. We're after military portrayal, and they're after our equipment."
Is there a problem?
If bodies outside a production are ultimately affecting the story and characters of a project without the audience's awareness, then some see that as an issue. In the LA Times piece, Stahl calls it "a stealth propaganda campaign on an unsuspecting public."
This is not suggesting that these groups are nefarious, but they are organizations with their own agendas and talking points. Those talking points are often inserted into movies without you even knowing it. These things don't have to even be facts, they can just be items to sway the public into thinking one way or another. And for most movie studios trying to save millions, they won't push back. Especially when it could mean them having limited access later in their careers or with other projects.
Have you noticed movies where this collaboration stands out? Do you have a problem with movies doing this without a disclaimer?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments.