ClandesTime 156 – The Pentagon and Pitch Perfect 3

To unsuspecting movie audiences Pitch Perfect 3 is a piece of lighthearted family-friendly entertainment to be enjoyed and then forgotten almost immediately. Lurking beneath this neutrally-toned surface lies a work of military recruitment propaganda, intelligently crafted to appeal to demographics that the DOD usually has trouble reaching. In this episode I break down the film, what the military provided in support of the production, and how they rewrote the script (even making casting decisions) to suit their agenda.

Transcript

As we have explored before, the Pentagon is quite happy to use pop music as another vehicle for pro-military PR and recruitment efforts. This goes back all the way to World War 2, when the USO was founded in response to FDR’s call for help providing recreation services to troops. Movie stars and popular music singers would take part in morale-boosting USO tours, as well as helping convince the public to buy war bonds.

In recent decades they’ve worked on music videos for the likes of Cher, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. From their portfolio we can say they particularly like working on two types of music – country, which appeals to their base, and bubblegum girly pop. Indeed, they’ve awarded country music stars with honorary medals for their service to the military, that’s how close some of these singers get to the DOD’s PR machine. Another event of note was the Rock the Troops, hosted at Pearl Harbor and starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. This is most notable because it’s the first time The Rock publicly talked about running for president, but that’s an episode for another day.

As such, while it might surprise some that Pitch Perfect 3 was a military recruitment poster disguised as a sing-song movie, it didn’t especially surprise me. What the ELO reports make clear is that the Pentagon is involved in all sorts of popular culture, not just the stuff that appeals to in-bred hicks and unemployed mid-Westerners. Just like with all the cookery shows, this sort of film appeals to suburban soccer moms. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Pentagon is trying to recruit MILFs, but they have sons and daughters who will also go along to see this innocent-looking movie and (the DOD hopes) come away thinking about how cool and fun the military are.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this all involves an element of hyperreality. In the first two Pitch Perfect films the Bellas – an all-female singing troupe – go through personal dramas, friendship fallings-out, all manner of struggles in life and love but everything is alright in the end and there’s a lot of singing. I haven’t actually seen either film, but I’ve seen enough singing/dancing/cheerleading movies to realise they’re all the same basic film, just with different choreography.

In Pitch Perfect 3 the Bellas, having graduated from college and now facing life in the real world, reunite for one last big performance during a USO tour. This is where things start to get a little weird, because the actresses who play the Bellas went on a USO tour of a military base in New Jersey as part of the promotion for the film.

Just to clarify – these are actresses playing singers in a movie where they go on a USO tour, going on a real-life USO tour in order to promote the movie, but also to promote the military. Indeed, the USO were promoting the film at least a month before it came out, such was their joy at being part of this mutual branding exercise. Notice how they included snippets of real troops talking about how this reminded them of how cool their job is and how this has boosted morale on the base. The whole thing is a PR circle jerk, with the military thanking the actresses for thanking the military.

Where did the idea come from?

One of my big questions was where did this idea come from? While I can see why the Pentagon would support this movie, I can see what’s in it for them, I wondered if this was the product of their outreach efforts in Hollywood in recent years. But none of the writers or producers went on any of the Air Force’s industry leader tours and only one of them has any history with CIA and DOD movies. Unfortunately, the Air Force ELO reports are heavily redacted so while I’m sure there are entries about Pitch Perfect 3, I don’t know what they say. So I went exploring on youtube, watching interviews and making of featurettes, and I found the answer.

Pitch Perfect 3 was released in time for Christmas 2017, and at the red carpet premiere there were over 200 service members. As this clip makes clear, it was cast member and producer Elizabeth Banks’ experiences on USO tours that were the inspiration for the military angle being so dominant in the movie. She first went on a USO tour in 2015, and since then has been a regular part of their events and other military promotional activities. As the movie was coming out she went on Jimmy Kimmel to talk about all this.

So the idea for this movie came from her tour in 2015 with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the highest-ranking military officer in the US. Notice how when she references the longest war in US history Kimmel immediately leaps in and tries to make it more positive. He also makes sure to equate going on a USO tour and being pro-military with ‘loving America’. I’m not touching the ‘hilarious’ first-world bourgeois nonsense about what it’s like to go to Afghanistan.

So this is a prime example of how someone can be recruited into the military PR world, and then become a self-activating asset for the DOD. Elizabeth Banks was invited in by the USO, who to be sure are an independent, non-profit organisation. Nonetheless, they couldn’t exist without the DOD. Banks got to meet not only very senior officers but also some guys on the ground, and it all sounds very flattering both for the troops and for her personally.

Life as a vacuous celebrity who is most famous for making movies where people sing must get a little tiresome, so I’m sure she’s being genuine when she says this event changed her life, made her feel there was something more important she could be doing. So she came back and as a producer of the inevitable third film in the Pitch Perfect franchise she incorporated a lot of her own experiences into the movie. And then starred in that movie, essentially playing herself. And then replayed both her real-life experiences and her fake, movie experiences by going on a USO tour of a military base, to support her movie about going on a USO tour to military bases, which was based on her real life experience of going on a USO tour of military bases.

What Support Did the Film Get?

One of the major advantages to a film that gains the blessing of the military is promotion. After all, they could have made Pitch Perfect 3 differently, they didn’t need to gain access to military bases and aircraft. We will get to production support in a moment but having both the DOD and the USO promoting the film, on top of the usual studio marketing, makes for a strong combination.

This is the inverse of the film’s role as recruitment propaganda. The film appeals to women and kids, two massive demographics that aren’t usually reached by films like Lone Survivor or TV series like NCIS or Hawaii Five-0. The DOD and USO’s promotional support meant that the marketing reached a different audience to those who would normally find out about the film. You could expect fans of the franchise to be following a website or a twitter feed or a facebook page that would let them know, but the DOD endorsing the film means that single men might be less dismissive and might pay to go and see it. It seems to have worked too, because in spite of mediocre reviews the film took close to $200 million at the box office, making it the second-most successful comedy-musical ever. The most successful is Pitch Perfect 2.

Among the documents I managed to obtain from the Pentagon is the production assistance agreement, which is more or less the same standard contract that everyone signs. It does refer to the ‘Pink Production Draft’ of the script as the approved version, which amused me solely because this is such a girly movie. In reality, studios use coloured versions of scripts depending on where they are in the pre-production process so this is totally normal.

Unusually for the DOD, they also released the addendums to the agreement, which detail exactly what the studio paid and what they got for their money. They paid both the Air Force and the Georgia Army National Guard, for things like access to filming locations and for a few hours to cover the public affairs staff. They also paid to move a C-130 a couple of times for filming purposes. This apparently costs around $10,000 per move, even though the aircraft never left the ground.

They filmed at Clay National Guard Center and Dobbins Air Reserve Base, used F-16s and other aircraft as background props in various scenes, humvees and other vehicles, along with security, drivers, pilots and other personnel. The total was just $185,000 which I think is pretty cheap for a nearly $50 million production. When you watch the film you will notice how maybe ¼ of the whole film involves the military in some way, whether it is uniformed extras or vehicles or locations.

As I’ve said before, Hollywood is desperately short of ideas, hence making a third film in a franchise solely because it should turn a profit unless they completely screw it up. In the film, the Bellas are competing across several USO shows in Europe against other groups, for a chance to headline the televised Salute to the Troops featuring DJ Khaled. In order to make it a bit different, and have different stakes to just another movie about a singing competition, they incorporated the military element. This provided – at minimal cost – visual elements and locations that hadn’t been seen before by this franchise’s existing audience. It also helped bring in a new audience through cross-promotion with the DOD and the USO.

As Hollywood becomes more desperate for new content to prop up existing franchises they will increasingly turn to government agencies and other major organisations. This is a by-product of a big studio system that is very risk-averse and tends to rely on name recognition to drive distinctive and successful marketing campaigns. But the laws of language dictate that the more you show people the same thing, the less impact it has, so you have to keep the brands fresh. Bringing in the National Guard and the Air Force actually rescued this film from being totally redundant, both as a work of art and as an entertainment product.

How the Pentagon rewrote Pitch Perfect 3

As part of their charm offensive to make it seem like the entertainment liaison offices are just friendly people who like working with Hollywood, the Air Force published an article on their website about supporting Pitch Perfect 3. It says:

‘Thomas Lesnieski, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the former director of public affairs for the Georgia National Guard, says there were many 18-hour days on set, helping to scout locations and providing script reviews to make sure the military was shown in a positive light. Since ‘Pitch Perfect 3’ was filmed at Dobbins, Lesnieski even checked that uniforms were worn correctly.’

As per usual, the most interesting documents I got from the military about this film were the script notes. I got one set from the DOD, which are the same notes as the Air Force provided but with a few extra notes added. The other set, from the Air Force, include the responses from the producers to the various points raised. So let’s go through and assess whether this was just about showing the military in a positive light, or something more insidious.

One of the DOD’s notes, likely from Phil Strub or whoever he shared the script with, asks that one of the military characters, called Zeke, be ‘ethnically diverse’. When the Bellas first arrive at the base in Rota, Spain (actually in Georgia) they are met by two military escorts – Chicago, a white guy in an Army uniform who has a solid role as a romantic interest for one of the Bellas, and Zeke, a black guy in an Air Force uniform who has one line in the entire movie and isn’t a romantic interest for anyone.

I’m sure the DOD only made this request for recruitment purposes, because they could have insisted that Chicago be made ‘ethnically diverse’ if they actually cared about the so-called progressive agenda. But apparently a white woman lusting after a black soldier just didn’t cut it, so they made the side character who doesn’t do anything the token black guy. There is also a bit where the Bellas are having a riff-off – an improvised singing competition – with the other groups they’re competing with, and five service members join in. The lead is a white guy – obviously – and the backup singers are two black guys and two women. A more perfect recruitment poster you could not imagine.

The idea to go on the USO tour comes from Aubrey, whose dad is some kind of big deal in the Army, though he never actually appears on screen. When she’s first talking about the idea she says, ‘he practically killed Osama Bin Laden’ which is a really dumb line, and the Pentagon only allowed it into the script after being assured it’s played for laughs and that Aubrey is very proud of her dad.

Then there’s the sensitively-named Fat Amy, whose long-lost dad tracks her down while the Bellas are on the USO tour. He is a criminal and con-artist, and he tricks her into believing he’s back in her life because he cares about her.

The DOD were very careful about how they presented Chicago’s intervention here to rescue Amy from her con-man father. Their note says, ‘While neither Chicago nor Zeke would go after Fergus, but they wouldn’t ignore the threat, either.’ They wanted their guy – though Zeke is present, he doesn’t actually say or do anything – to be seen rescuing a young woman in distress, but without being to aggressive. This is the image of the DOD that they want to present – they aren’t a hostile, aggressive organisation that seeks out violence in order to prove they’re the top dog, they’re diplomatic and polite and controlled.

In another scene the Bellas go to DJ Khaled’s hotel to try to impress him into picking them for the televised Salute to the Troops. Amy is taken away from the others and into the casino, where she first meets her runaway father. In the original script there were military guys in the casino scene, but this was removed after the Pentagon’s note saying, ‘no way uniformed military personnel would be frequenting a gambling casino’. Realistically, military personnel do gamble. And though I don’t gamble myself I don’t have much of a problem with other people doing it, it is only moral conservatives and mostly the religious right who object.

This is what convinces me that the choice to make Zeke ‘ethnically diverse’ was not a sign of the Pentagon being especially liberal-minded. In general when it comes to social and moral issues they are very much on the conservative side, and here we seen that again in this film.

That being said, Pitch Perfect 3 frequently plays up how sexy military guys are, and there are several scenes where Chicago is chatted up by one of the Bellas whose name I don’t know. In one of these the military wanted a line inserted where Chicago says, ‘Family is just who you surround yourself in times of need.’ This idea was incorporated, though the dialogue was slightly different.

This is totally in keeping with a comment made by Meredith Kirchoff, a public affairs officer at Dobbins Air Reserve Base:

Then there’s a scene where the Bellas are being rescued, having jumped off an exploding yacht belonging to Amy’s crooked father. In the original script Chicago finds and kisses Chloe, whose named I’ve just remembered because it’s in the notes. The DOD said:

Pg 102: a ”female soldier lifts Cynthia—Rose out of the raft. They kiss too.” I’m assuming that this kiss isn’t anything like Chicago and Chloe’s reunion kiss will be, since they’re complete strangers.

In the event, this scene was removed from the film. So the Pentagon didn’t object to a lesbian kiss, they merely wanted it toned down because the two women didn’t know each other. This is in keeping with a general Pentagon policy towards minimising romance in films, especially between service members.

However, there is another line that sounds like it was written by the DOD, even though the released notes doesn’t mention it. I should say, these notes are clearly for an earlier draft where the events have a different order to in the finished film, so there was more discussion and script development after this. Towards the end of the movie, when the Bellas realised they are all going their separate ways and talk about their futures, Cynthia-Rose says this:

Again, this is a black character who is a total stereotype – she’s the one who raps, obviously – and who is totally sidelined in favour of the white girls. In fact, I can’t remember her saying anything else in this movie, which is why this line stood out so much. I didn’t even realise the character was a lesbian, I imagine that was set up in the first movie, but this line is straight-up recruitment propaganda. She’s black, and gay, but she’s still joining the military because they’ll let anyone in now.

Finally there’s a scene where the Bellas are performing on stage and mid-song the horns sound for the retreat ceremony – a daily occurrence which signals the end of the official duty day and is about paying respect to the flag. All personnel in uniform are supposed to stop what they’re doing and face the flag, or at least wherever the music is coming from. The Bellas kind of mess up their response to the ceremony, and the DOD were surprised by this, asking in their notes, ‘No one, not even Chicago, explained the retreat ceremony to the Bellas?’

In their response the studio clarified:

OUR INTENTION IS TO SHOW, NOT TELL, THE PROTOCOL OF THE RETREAT. OUR INSPIRATION IS THE USO CONCERT THAT ROBIN WILLIAMS PERFORMED, WHICH HAD A SIMILAR INTERRUPTION. PLEASE SEE IT HERE: (link)

WE INTEND THAT OUR STAGING WILL REFLECT THE SAME HUMBLE

AND DEFERENTIAL RESPECT THAT ROBIN WILLIAMS DISPLAYED.

So I watched the clip they linked to and compared it to the scene in the film. The clip of Robin Williams is from one of his many appearances on USO tours, this one is from Kuwait in 2007.

Then there’s the scene from the film:

This is typical Hollywood, taking a real life event that had drama precisely because it was real and unexpected, and trying to recreate it with their own gloss and spin on the thing, which falls flat on its face. The documentary crew who are following the Bellas around having to explain the joke to the audience should have told the writers that the joke doesn’t really work. I’m also a little surprised the military let them keep this scene in the film because it isn’t at all respectful.

Overall, what should we make of this film? I found it mildly entertaining, despite it not being aimed at me at all. I found it typical of Hollywood in many ways – an ethnically and sexually diverse ensemble where the only people we really get to know are white and straight. It is also a straight-up piece of recruitment propaganda and general PR for the military, which should have been obvious to pretty much anyone watching it. But by a process of elimination, most of the people watching it would either already be pro-military, which is how they heard about the film, or pro-Pitch Perfect, in which case they’d likely forgive a little propaganda in between all the singing and the dancing.

So, is this a carefully honed military recruitment commercial disguised as a singing film? Or is it a single film disguised as a perfect piece of state propaganda? I think it is both. Watch it, and let me know what you think. Or don’t watch it, and let me know anyway.

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