Completing what has been a record-breaking year for FOIA releases from the Entertainment Liaison Offices of the US Department of Defense, the US Marine Corps recently sent me 1669 pages of reports covering the last 7 years of their activities in the entertainment industry. The documents reveal a number of major films that are not acknowledged in the already-released files, along with indications that the USMC are operating on a scale approaching that of the Army i.e. they are involved in dozens of productions at any given time. Unlike the Army and Air Force documents they contain details of productions that were denied assistance, adding significantly to the picture we have of the Pentagon’s propaganda operations in the entertainment industry.
The USMC reports came in two batches. The 2008 to 2012 reports are relatively extensive if mundane diary-like entries very similar the those used by the US Army during the same period. The 2013 to 2015 are much shorter, are inconsistently formatted and evidently have had a lot of information removed including most of the dates, often leaving headings that tell us nothing. A simple comparison of a page from 2011 and an undated page from the 2013-15 reports shows us the difference:
As you can see, the second page has much of the useful information simply deleted (not even blacked out – it just isn’t part of the file anymore). Given that the US Army also seriously truncated their reports at about the same time, and that the US Air Force refused to give me any reports from 2015 ‘due to a ongoing computer problem in the LA office’ it is obvious that the DOD’s ELOs are becoming more secretive over time. In all likelihood if I file a request at the end of 2015 asking for all ELO reports from this year I will mostly just get back a list of productions with little further information.
The scale and breadth of the state-sponsored entertainment phenomenon
Without a lot more analysis of these reports it is impossible to come up with accurate totals for the number of productions that the DOD has been involved in over the last few years. We know from their own database of films they’ve been involved in that in the period 2008-2015 they worked on at least 20 movies including Iron Man and Iron Man 2, the first three Transformers movies, Captain Phillips and Battleship. From other lists released by the Air Force and the National Guard we can establish, for example, that the DOD worked on both Battle: Los Angeles and the mockbuster Battle of Los Angeles. What the USMC reports add to this is a number of recent movies that aren’t recorded in any of the thousands of pages of previously-released material obtained and published on this site. Iron Man 3, Avatar, Time to Shine, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, In The Pursuit of Happiness, Pacific Rim – these and others are all referred to in the documents as having some kind of production assistance.
The last two of these films are of particular interest. In the Pursuit of Happiness starred none other than wannabe bohemian political comic and amateur porn star Russell Brand, though it appears this film was never actually released. The USMC’s entry on the film is quite funny:
Just as the film was never released, it appears Brand never performed a free comedy show for the Marines Corps at Camp Pendleton. Aside from the fact he worked with them on his film it should also be noted that Vanity Projects and Mayfair Films are Russell Brand’s own production companies. Proving that the USMC will quite literally work with anyone, they also helped Brand’s ex-wife Katy Perry make a music video:
Meanwhile, those of you who know my taste in films will be able to imagine my rage at finding out that monsters-fighting-robots classic Pacific Rim had received assistance from the USMC. Admittedly, the assistance was very minor – the producers wanted to record the sound of one helicopter taking off, but that still necessitated the DOD reviewing the script:
However, it is in the TV realm that the true scale of the DOD’s influence becomes apparent. The ELOs of both the US Army and the Marines have the capacity to work with dozens of TV productions at any given time. The US Army’s reports show that they work on an average of 40-50 TV productions at once. What the USMC reports show is that their TV work is on a similar scale, with very little crossover between the two.
If we compare a report from each ELO from May 2011 we find that the only film the USMC were working on that week was Batman (The Dark Knight Rises). Even though there wasn’t explicit DOD support for this film the USMC were still somewhat involved:
In terms of TV productions the USMC were at that time working on: Made, Veep, Extreme Chef, Swamp Loggers, Top Chef: Masters, Sniper: Bulletproof, NCIS, Coming Home, Bucket List and Curiosity: The Questions of Life. Supported documentaries were: Secret Pakistan, Horizon, Superpowers, Alternative History, Blood We Shed, Mojave Viper, Battle of Okinawa, Battlehercs, The Call to Serve, some AMC Memorial Day Documentary Shorts, Small Town Boy, Togetherness, Route 66 – Along the Mother Road, The Young Marines, Wild Planet: North America, Surviving the Cut, Operation Flintlock, Vietnam in HD, Forgotten Flag Raisers, Live Fire, Combat Outpost: Afghanistan, Patrol Base Jaker, Marines in the South Pacific and Marine K-9. They also worked on the video games Marine, Operation Flashpoint 2 and Call of Duty 5. You can download the USMC ELO report for May 20th 2011 here.
During the exact same week the US Army were working on: Glory Hounds: Animal Planet, The Body Farm, Game of Honor, Extreme Makeover, Indy 500, Army Wives, Fishing Behind the Lines, Homefront, Coming Home, Louie, Combat Hospital, The River, Superpower, Chinook Helicopters – The Sugar Bears, Dog X: Animal Planet, Aerial America, a 9/11 anniversary documentary, A Conception Story, The Mighty Mississippi, Soldiers of Peace, Blackhorse, Dust-Off, Therapists Behind the Front Lines, Battle Lab, Follow the Honey, Drill Sergeant of the Year Competition and other projects including major films Man of Steel and The Avengers, and a music video for Billy Ray Cyrus. You can download the US Army ELO report for May 17th-23rd 2011 here.
Between the two offices they were working on over 70 film, TV and video game productions in that week alone. The productions mentioned above are not even a comprehensive list of everything they were doing at that moment in time, and the documents do indicate an expansion of the Army’s activities since then. If we also include the Air Force and National Guard, let alone the Coast Guard, DHS, FBI, CIA, DEA, BPS and local/state police and other security agencies then the total number of entertainment productions being influenced by the US security state at any one time is likely well over 100.
Requests that were denied
What is unique about the USMC documents is that every report has a section for requests from the entertainment industry that they denied. While the earlier 2005-6 ELO reports sometimes refer to refusals and rejections the more recent ones from the Army and Air Force make little (if any) mention of this. The USMC, by contrast, are front and centre with the information:
Perhaps the most interesting rejection was that of the remake of Red Dawn, originally produced in the 1980s with some degree of DOD support, though director John Milius decided that full scale assistance (vehicles etc.) was too expensive. In the original the country that invades the US is the Soviet Union, bringing about a Communist takeover and provoking a small band of unrealistically good-looking teenagers to form a guerilla resistance unit. In the remake the enemy was originally the Chinese army, but the flags and insignia were changed digitally in post-production to be North Korea (after all, North Koreans and Chinese look exactly the same, don’t they?). The media coverage said that this change was made to make the film more appealing to the Chinese cinema market but the film was never released in China apart from in Hong Kong. In general Red Dawn did very poorly, being panned by critics, making virtually no money outside of the US and not even breaking even on its budget.
So why did they change the enemy from China to North Korea? It is probably relevant that this is what the USMC asked them to do. When the treatment for the film was initially sent to the Marines’ ELO in 2009 they forwarded it to the main DOD entertainment office (i.e. Phil Strub) for review.
The reply came back from DOD HQ – ‘Mr Strub he no likey’, in particular because of who the enemy was:
Three years later, when the film had been produced and then edited in post-production to change the enemy from China to North Korea, the filmmakers asked for help with publicity, but got nowhere:
The message from the DOD to the entertainment industry is clear – cross us once and we will shun you forever. Even after the filmmakers changed the enemy to a less politically sensitive one and even though the request was only for one promotional screening of the movie the DOD still refused to help. The only reason for this is that the filmmakers did not accede to the demands of the DOD’s ELO at the earliest opportunity. No doubt, had the filmmakers submitted to the will of the DOD in the first place then everything would have been fine, after all the DOD wanted to support the original film, which tells essentially the same story.
What the documents don’t say
There is a lot that is absent from the USMC reports. For no obvious reason there is no mention of Homeland, a show which definitely and overtly had assistance from the USMC and which they included in a list of folders in their ELO’s archive. There is also no explanation for why some productions are rejected for having no distribution sorted out, yet they were willing to work on others which likewise did not have a deal in place. It appears that this is just another reason used to reject ‘unfriendly’ projects (such as Matt Alford’s forthcoming film The Writer with No Hands) and that use of this criteria is arbitrary and at the ELO’s discretion.
Aside from the odd comment as with Red Dawn there is no mention of what, exactly, they changed or wanted to be changed in the scripts and projects they supported or rejected. The reports from the Army and the Air Force are identical in this respect – what the DOD put in and took out of these productions is clearly not something that they want outsiders to know about. However, it is clear that they are still adding to and removing from these projects.
It is also apparent that with very friendly producers and projects they get involved from the earliest stages. They first met with the producers of Top Gun 2 back in 2012, even before the first draft script had been completed:
There are also numerous references to the USMC viewing early cuts of films and TV shows that they had assisted and suggested further edits and changes in the post-production phase, for example:
While the official reason for viewing projects before they are released/broadcast is to ensure that the producers do not deviate too much from the agreed-upon script, this is likely untrue. There is no indication of these post-production suggestions being anything other than a final attempt to shape the project before release. There is no mention of a show being canned due to not sticking to agreements made with the DOD, though no doubt that does still happen on occasion.
And finally, what’s with all the fucking cookery shows?
This is something that vexes me, because I am unable to establish a compelling reason why the DOD would be so fond of working on food-based TV. Their taste (pun intended) for this sort of programming – mostly reality shows and competitions – was made clear by the Army documents released earlier this year, but the USMC reports reiterate that, and strongly. Masterchef, Cake Boss, Cookie Commandos, Cupcake Wars, Nashville Cupcakes, Big Kitchens, Top Chef Masters, Private Chefs, Flip my Food, Food Court Wars, Food Truck Faceoff, Chopped, Extreme Chef, 101 Foods that Changed the World – all these shows and more have been supported by the Pentagon. One programme even planned to take retired members of different branches of the US military and pit them against one another in a cook-off:
That the Pentagon is for some reason more obsessed with these shows than 50-something divorcées or gay men in their 20s is quite easy to demonstrate. But as always, the critical question is why? Going back to Kissinger’s NSSM 200 in the 1970s, the US establishment has recognised that food is a weapon, and a lot of these projects do involve some kind of ‘battle’ or ‘war’. That this is part of the DOD’s thinking is implied by these two shows being listed next to one another:
But is there more to it than that? Are they also making hunger into a weapon, and not just a weapon of geopolitics as Kissinger suggested, but of propaganda? After all, most people get a bit irritable when they get hungry, and watching shows full of culinary pornography makes people hungry. Thus, the competitive, Darwinistic values of the show are more likely to appeal to people, as well as the sense that violence is necessary. Were it not for the constant and easy supply of food in Western societies, violence (in the form of hunting) would be a more everyday and necessary part of life, and that instinct, that association, that idea that committing violence is necessary to eat and thus stay alive, will never die out. By associating the military with cookery-themed reality shows the DOD is engaging in a subtle promotion that appeals to some of the most basic instincts that humans possess. Put simply, people are more likely to accept the propaganda of state violence if their tummy is rumbling. Or maybe there just isn’t anywhere good to eat near the DOD’s ELOs at 10880 Wilshere Boulevard, LA.
Is there a place round here that a guy can get a burger?
You can download the 7 years of reports from the Marine Corps Entertainment Liaison Office 2008-2015 here (PDF).