The Department of Defense is the government agency with the largest and most influential operations in Hollywood. But to how many films have they provided production assistance? How many movies have they supported? In this episode we explore the answer to this question, why it is so difficult to answer conclusively and why this matters.
This is not an easy question to answer. Nowhere near as easy as it should be. Frankly, given that the Department of Defense is a publicly funded institution it should voluntarily publish this sort of information. Why not? There are no life or death consequences to this, no pressing matter of national security, no good reason at all why this information should be protected. But I have noticed how since a handful of academics, journalists and people like me have taken this seriously and tried to press for more information that we’re seeing fewer and fewer credits for the DOD at the ends of movies.
So this is clearly something they take seriously and do not want people looking into in any detail. They are particularly protective of details on how they changes the scripts and content of films, and since David Robb’s book Operation Hollywood – now a dozen years old – they have kept very tight lipped about that. But the first step in preventing people from realising that the DOD are using entertainment as a vehicle for political propaganda is to make people think it is only taking place on a small scale. If people think that all they do is help the occasional film or TV series or help make a WW2 documentary for the History channel then it seems like it doesn’t matter, it’s a banal topic.
Hopefully for long-term listeners to this podcast it should be clear by now why I think this topic matters and is the opposite of banal. In some ways it is absolutely critical to what’s going so horribly wrong in our societies, as they become more militaristic, as we become spied on more and more our entertainment not only reflects that, but helps encourage, glorify and normalise it. We live in a period when government resources for the basic stuff people want – good transport networks to help trade and tourism, good healthcare, good schools, low taxes to help build economic growth from the ground up – they’re all being cut. We’re paying more and getting less for it. Part of that is general government growth and incompetence and wastefulness, but another significant factor is the never-ending growth of the security state.
The Pentagon is the biggest organisation in the world. It has higher annual budgets than the revenues of the world’s biggest companies. It employs over a million more people than Wal-Mart or the China People’s Liberation Army. In a little over half a century it has gone from being just another part of the US government to the biggest part of that government. The destruction this has enabled it to wreak over half of the globe simply would not be possible without these massive resources, and I think those resources would be nowhere near as big without this engagement with the entertainment industry. Why else would people not only tolerate it, but actively think it is a good thing? Why else would they complain endlessly about the deterioration of public services and high taxes but so few political organisations highlight the Pentagon as the first and most important place to cut funding?
As we explored last time in the Cinematic Universe episode this isn’t simply about supporting projects that make the Pentagon look good, or even about spreading political propaganda through Hollywood, it’s also about shaping the entire entertainment industry. And the trickle down effect in popular culture is much greater than the effect of trickle down economics – Hollywood, and American pop culture in general, set the standards everyone else aspires to. Indeed, no other country has such a big and influential culture industry. While the Chinese film going market might actually be bigger than the US market in the coming years, they produce a fraction of the films and very few people outside of China watch them.
As such, Hollywood is powerful and important for various reasons, and thus is an obvious territory for the Pentagon to invade. It is much more effective to help set the standards in Hollywood and then see everyone else try to emulate that than it is to do what NATO did to Germany. After WW2 the German culture industry was de-Nazified, and almost all of the people who had helped make fascist propaganda during the war and before that were removed. American movies were imported en masse, and the industry was rebuilt with US help and money. If you watch German TV now, as least the big popular programmes, they are basically the same as the American equivalents. There’s nothing German about them. But that took a long time and lot of effort, and opportunities like that don’t come along that often. Hence the entertainment liaison offices (ELOs).
How many films has the Pentagon supported? – IMDB
So the first port of call in trying to counter this, as a means to countering cultural hegemony and the growth of the security state, is to demonstrate how large and widespread it is. If we look up the Department of Defense on IMDB we can find multiple pages (e.g. here and here) crediting them on around 300 projects, but most of these are episodes of TV series. Likewise Phil Strub, the head honcho of the ELOs has a page on IMDB that credits him on around 50 films. However his predecessor Don Baruch is not referenced on IMDB at all, despite spending 40 years in the job.
Furthermore, all of these IMDB pages are incomplete and don’t include some films in which Strub or the DOD are credited at the end. While it’s forgiveable that IMDB wouldn’t have anything close to a comprehensive record of what they were doing 50 years ago, it’s inexplicable that, for example, Flight and Deja Vu, two Denzel Washington movies that rather obviously had military support, do not appear on these pages. Likewise Armageddon doesn’t appear on either page, the recent Godzilla is on Strub’s page but not on the DOD’s, the 1990s Godzilla isn’t on either. I could cite a lot more examples but you get the point – to the casual user looking at IMDB they would not get any real sense of the scale of the DOD’s involvement in films.
It is the same with TV, and perhaps even more pronounced. In terms of the last few years the DOD’s page only lists Gun Gurus, Nazi Collaborators, The Last Ship and a few one-off episodes of miscellaneous programmes. No Top Gear. No NCIS. No American Gladiators. No Ninja Warrior. And most importantly no Cupcake Wars. Again, this is simply inadequate, though I can’t blame them because until last year we had very little information on the enormous scale of the Pentagon’s support for TV. Even I was surprised to learn than between them the three ELOs that we have reports from – the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps – work on up to 100 projects at once. I’m still waiting on reports from the Navy and the Coast Guard, but I imagine that number will increase when they become available.
So, where else can we look?
How many films has the Pentagon supported? – DOD Lists
Another source of information is the Pentagon’s own database on collaboration with Hollywood. Long time listeners will know I obtained a list of Pentagon-supported films in 2014 that is effectively a list of entries in this database. In response to a more recent request looking for a copy of the whole database they released another list of entries that I posted recently. This more recent list is more complete than the version released in 2014, but still not complete. The 2014 version had around 330, the 2016 version around 420.
But there are films on each that do not appear on the other. It isn’t that the 2016 version simply added new ones they worked on since early 2014, they also added some older ones like Goldfinger, which I discussed a few episodes ago. Likewise, the 2016 version is missing some older ones and some newer ones that were on the 2014 list. Compounding this problem, neither list contain quite a few films that were produced with Pentagon support that appear on separate records provided by the National Guard and the Air Force.
Even then, there are films that were produced with the assistance of those branches of the DOD that aren’t even on those lists, like Brüno. This is kind of ridiculous because the fact that one section of Bruno was filmed on a National Guard base is a matter of public record – it was covered in the press at the time, the production notes released by the studio talk about it and there have even been emails from the National Guard themselves talking about this. So why is Brüno not on the National Guard list, let alone the central DOD database?
The only reason I can think of, beyond useless bureaucracy, is that the producers of Brüno tricked their way onto the base to do the filming. The joke is that Brüno, a gay Austrian fashionista, befriends some American ‘gay conversion therapy’ types and they recommend that he goes and hangs around with the military to straighten himself out. So the producers basically lied to the National Guard and told them they were making a documentary about American culture and that their presenter wanted to undergo a day of drill training to get an idea of what it was like to be in the military.
I’m not a huge fan of the film but this sequence is kind of amusing so I’ll play it for you so that those of you who can’t remember or never saw the film will get a sense of how ridiculous this was:
There is something quite funny about a National Guard drill sergeant doing his best Full Metal Jacket impersonation and shouting ‘I don’t want your finger in my alley’ at an obviously gay man. Or at least, at someone playing an obviously gay man. It seems that this all got a bit embarrassing for the National Guard as some of their soldiers recognised Sacha Baron Cohen but the people in charge of this visit didn’t realise who they were dealing with. The production notes published by Universal Pictures tell a somewhat dramatic, and possibly exaggerated, version of events:
It was not one of the finer days for national defense. When the production’s van came into the training ground, no one was asked for identification. Oddly enough, it turned out to be the perfect storm of confidentiality for the team, as the younger recruits were not allowed to speak freely unless they received the go-ahead by a commanding officer. If they had given permission earlier, the senior members would have known what several of the 20- to 22-year-old guys did: The man behind Borat was in their midst.
Once the crew heard the buzz that some of the young men suspected Baron Cohen was there, they packed up the team and got them out ASAP. As they were loading the performer into the van and driving rapidly off the base, the guards yelled out for them to stop and began to close the gate. Ten seconds too late, as Brüno (and the perfect amount of footage of his acting up during officer training school) were out the door. Had the team been moments later in their exit, the National Guard could have confiscated the tapes and they wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
When finally confronted with the question of “Did you know who that trainee was?,” the recruits responded with a firm: “Yes, sir! Sacha Baron Cohen, sir!”
So I can see why the National Guard might have deliberately left this off their own records of films they have supported, but it illustrates an important point. Without the production company making a splash in the media to promote the film, would we even know that this happened? A similar thing happened recently with NASA when the makers of Operation Avalanche – a mockumentary about faking the moon landings – duped their way into filming at NASA facilities. Again, it was the film-makers who told the world about this, not NASA, otherwise we might never have known.
The curious thing about this is that when the shoe is on the other foot, and the Pentagon gets one over on film producers by rewriting their scripts, the producers don’t say a word. I literally cannot think of anyone from inside the movie industry who has complained to the media about the creative compromises they have to make to get military support. They all just seem to go along with it and keep schtum. The effect of this completely one-sided reporting is to make the government look like fools, as though the entertainment industry is one step ahead of them and can play them at will. In reality, aside from the odd exception like Brüno and Operation Avalanche, the opposite is true.
How many films has the Pentagon supported? Consolidating the Evidence
Even taking all these sources – media coverage, the DOD’s database, other film lists released under FOIA and the IMDB credits, the information still isn’t complete. Going through the ELO reports, particularly those of the Marine Corps, I found several other films that benefited from military support. Avatar, Pacific Rim, Moneyball and Frost/Nixon are all major films that don’t appear in any of these other sources. None of these films feature the military in an overt way like Transformers or Iron Man or Battleship. As a result, even the clued up audience members might not realise that the scripts for all these movies were reviewed and in some cases changed by the Pentagon.
It took some time but I went through everything I’ve got to try to produce a consolidated list of Pentagon supported films. Literally, it took a whole day and I’m not even sure I got everything. I will say that I only included major movies, Hollywood films that are primarily entertainment products to be sold to the mass market. If we included smaller independent productions, foreign films and documentaries then the number would be far higher, but I had to stop somewhere and, at least for now, this is as far as I got.
The number I have is 471. Nearly five hundred major Hollywood movies have been put through the Pentagon’s process of being reviewed for undesirable content and in many cases been stripped of any dialogue or action that did not meet the DOD’s criteria. Just stop for a moment and consider the political impact of that. There are tens of millions of people just in the US, let alone the rest of the world, who watch these films regularly. Something like 15% of Americans go to the cinema once a month or so. They’re getting fed a near-constant diet of films that only contain material that the Pentagon has approved.
The effect of movies on politics
The consequences of this are difficult to measure, but to get a few indicators we can look at an article published last year in Political Science and Politics, a journal published by Cambridge University. The article is titled ‘Argo and Zero Dark Thirty: Film, Government, and Audiences’ but it’s behind a paywall so though I’ve read the whole thing I can’t show it to you. Instead we’ll take a blog post about this article from the author, Michelle C Pautz where she summarises the study. In essence they showed audiences Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and gave them questionnaires before and after the screenings to gauge the films’ impacts on their political views.
This was aimed at testing both general and specific political views, so for example one question asked whether the country was heading in the right direction. Both before and after the films 28% said they weren’t sure, 3% more people thought it was heading in the right direction, and 14% less people thought it was heading in the wrong direction. Similarly they asked whether they trusted the government. After viewing one of the films 5% less people said some of the time, 6% more people trusted the government most of the time, 2% more trusted them just about always, and those who trusted the government not at all declined from 1% to 0%. Basically, people’s opinions were changed in favour of the government and the direction of the nation as a whole after watching these two movies.
They also asked questions about people’s opinions of different parts of the government – whether or not they were actually depicted in the films. Every time, a significant chunk of people had more positive views of these institutions (the military or the CIA or the State Department) after viewing one of these movies. Another table shows the proportion of people whose opinions regarding these different institutions improved post-viewing. 33% of people changed their minds about the military, 31% trusted the government more, 30% rated the job being done by the CIA as better, 25% had a better view of the State Department, 25% had more positive views of the overall direction of the country and 22% had improved opinions of the President and the White House.
Now, there is an obvious caveat here. These were only small audiences and they weren’t tested multiple times before and after the screenings to establish the longer-term effects of viewing films like these. Nonetheless, this is relatively hard data proving at the very least that movies can give a short-term boost to people’s opinions of both the government and specific institutions.
So let’s extrapolate outwards. If one film can convince 33% of people to think better of the military, and 30% to think better of the CIA, then this propaganda is extremely effective. Of course, both of these films were assisted by the CIA and Zero Dark Thirty got a small amount of assistance from the DOD too (though I haven’t included it in the 471 movies on the consolidated list). So what would be the logical effect of not just one film going experience but maybe 50, or 100? Over a lifetime if you went to see every DOD supported movie, which you could quite easily do, you could see maybe 200. The long term effects of between 20% and 35% of people seeing dozens of movies that make them think more positively of the spies, the military and the government in general must be massive. Let alone the amount of time people spend reinforcing these opinions in conversations with other people who saw the same films.
And here’s the part that hardly anyone wants to admit – we are all affected by this. I am one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to entertainment propaganda but I’m still influenced by this in ways I’m probably not even conscious of, let alone able to counteract. So for people completely unaware of the massive government propaganda machine they have no real defence against this. These films play a vital role in maintaining support for the military and CIA and government in general, or at least dampening criticism and opposition to them. I think it is fair to ask whether, without these films and this propaganda machine, would the political status quo even be able to maintain itself? I’m not sure what the answer is and obviously there’s no way to properly test that, but it’s worth thinking about.