Since the publication of National Security Cinema last summer, we have seen an uptick in the media coverage of the Pentagon in Hollywood, much of it originating with the Pentagon itself. This week I take a look at the PR efforts the DOD has embarked upon, about its own PR efforts in Hollywood. From Captain Marvel to Gerard Butler, this is a reflection on the power of exposing information.
It is sometimes difficult to know whether this work makes any difference. To the fools who say ‘it’s just a bunch of movies’ I reply ‘and movies are the great works of art of our age, and the most effective propaganda tool ever invented (at least until the internet)’. But to a certain extent you have to take it on faith that rooting out government secrets and publishing them for anyone to see is a worthwhile thing to do.
That said, I have noticed a significant increase in the media coverage of the issue of government in Hollywood, especially the Pentagon in Hollywood, since we published the book. Obviously, a lot of that stems from the book, as word spread about the information in it and on my site. But I’ve also noticed the Pentagon being more pro-active in talking about this, as though they’re trying to contradict and counter the added coverage inspired by National Security Cinema.
I’ll start by giving you an example of bad journalism. I was contacted back in February by a writer named Amos Barshad. I don’t normally name and shame journalists but this guy has it coming to him. He asked for a free PDF copy of National Security Cinema, and said he’d follow up with some questions. He did ask a couple of questions but they were of the vague kind – ‘do you think Phil Strub is more powerful than filmgoers imagine?’, that sort of thing. He promised to send a link to the article when it was published, but never did.
A few weeks later I stumbled across his article which is titled ‘Enlisting an audience: How Hollywood peddles propaganda’. The title gives us the first problem – it should be ‘How the Pentagon Peddles Propaganda’, but Barshad wasn’t interested in nailing the Pentagon. Indeed, he references National Security Cinema – by far the most deeply researched and up to date book on the subject – only once. He quotes the bit about Phil Strub inserting the line ‘Bring em Home’ into a scene in Transformers. Nothing about the political censorship. Nothing about the social moulding. Nothing about the extensive rewrites on some films that fundamentally changed their stories, messages and underlying ideas.
Instead, Barshad embarked on a misleading pile of nonsense designed to alleviate any responsibility from the DOD. After laying out a few examples – 12 Strong, Pitch Perfect 3, The 15:17 to Paris, he goes on to argue, ‘What does all of that content have in common? In the details, almost nothing. The connection is in the overarching purpose: it is all a response to market demand. Someone, somewhere, thought somebody would want to see content presenting a positive representation of the US military, and so it was created.’
He concludes, ‘That’s the difference between our propaganda and everyone else’s. In autocratic regimes, a government-backed entity pushes it onto indifferent or unwilling consumers. In America, we, the consumers, happily demand it.’ Thus, it’s not the DOD’s fault it has sponsored nearly 1000 films and thousands of TV episodes, it’s all our fault, for creating the market demand.
In reality, as we saw with Pitch Perfect 3, it came about because one of the stars and producers was invited on a USO tour and become chummy with the military. There was no public outcry demanding a third Pitch Perfect film jam-packed with military PR. Indeed, one the producers said at the premiere that he didn’t care if it made money, it was all about supporting the military and supporting the USO. So Barshad is simply talking out of his ass, in order to try to counter the notion that the military has a massive, conscious influence on the entertainment industry.
He also gave extensive play to Phil Strub, who granted him what sounds like a fairly lengthy interview. The article throws out a stat – ‘Since 1989, when he was first hired, Strub has struck DOD deals with over 100 movies’. In nearly 30 years, that doesn’t sound like a lot. That’s because the real number is much higher – the DOD worked on over 100 movies just between 1989 and 2002. This time, Barshad downplays the size of this phenomenon, based on what Strub told him (and without bothering to check the appendix of my book). Barshad barely mentions TV in the whole article.
The article goes on, ‘After shooting, Strub asks to see a rough edit. “But it’s not a, how shall I put this, hostile or accusative or trustless situation,” he said. “It can be a give-and-take. There are productions that we’ve worked on that weren’t exactly recruitment-type things.” He recalls a long-ago sit-down with the famously leftist filmmaker Oliver Stone, who at the time was working on a (never-made) movie about the My Lai massacre. “He comes to the building and he says, ‘Oh I know you have a blacklist, I know I’m on your blacklist!’ And I say, ‘we don’t have a blacklist! It’s all about the script!’”’
It’s curious, Strub told the exact same story when he was interviewed by George Mason University.
It’s almost as though he thinks the fact he once sat down with Oliver Stone proves he’s not a malevolent political force in Hollywood. And Barshad, like the interviewer at GMU, just took him at his word. Barshad has no excuse, because he was sent a free copy of a book detailing precisely how Strub is a malevolent political force in Hollywood.
The article continues to gently fellate the DOD’s Hollywood liaison, ‘I asked if his office ever uses the word propaganda. Strub blanched. “I associate that with something that is not truthful,” he says. “Something that is put together deliberately to mislead, to brainwash people, to twist the real. They whip [true and false] together in a smorgasbord. That’s propaganda. And maybe you’d accuse me of being too pro-military but to me, the movies we work with, they’re morale-improvement. We don’t say, ‘OK! Let’s see what we can do to exploit this opportunity!’ We’re not trying to brainwash people! We’re out to present the clearest, truest view.”’
First, people in Strub’s office do use the word propaganda. It appears in the Pentagon’s Hollywood database. Second, whipping true and false together is exactly what movies like Battleship do, by portraying the real military fighting fictional enemies who are stand-ins for real enemies. Or movies like Godzilla or Jurassic Park III or Transformers. Thirdly, what’s the difference between ‘morale-improvement’ and brainwashing people? Fourthly, they absolutely do say ‘Let’s see what we can do to exploit this opportunity’ because they’re constantly out there looking for opportunities. And fifth, if they’re out to present the clearest, truest view then how do we account for things like the DOD database entry on The Caine Mutiny, which says:
Navy fought valiantly to avoid assisting on movie claiming it had never experienced a mutiny on one of its ships (not accurate). Stanley Kramer fought even harder to obtain assistance and finally wore down Navy after changing portrayal of Queeg, showing him the victim of the story because his men would not support him.
The other person Barshad quotes in this article is Mark Harris, the author of Five Came Back, a comprehensive history of Hollywood’s propaganda efforts in WW2. This is the basis for the documentary series of the same name. The problem is Harris is an expert in WW2 propaganda, not peacetime propaganda or modern war propaganda. Hence he’s prone to saying things like, “The starkest thing about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan is how scarcely they are represented in Hollywood. It is so manifestly something that people do not have an appetite for.”
So, no knowledge of how many films have been made about these wars, or how many were supported or rejected by the Pentagon, or why. No awareness of the history of war movies, which have been a dying genre since Vietnam. Just an assumption that it must be market forces, it must be because people don’t think about these wars that Hollywood doesn’t make many movies about them. It couldn’t possibly be the reverse – that people don’t think about these wars because Hollywood doesn’t make many movies about them.
The irony about Barshad’s article is that he seems to have tried to write a critical piece about military propaganda in Hollywood, but he gave massive play to Phil Strub, who told him a bunch of things that aren’t true, downplayed the scale of the DOD’s operations, and blamed the general public for the existence of war propaganda. Before then saying the opposite, that it’s the general public’s fault we don’t get enough war propaganda about modern wars. Seriously, this is one of the worst pieces of journalism I have ever read.
Captain Marvel and the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office
Aside from bad journalism, the entertainment liaison offices themselves have been putting out more information on their activities. Like Phil Strub’s interviews, the purpose appears to be to downplay any notion of this being a propaganda effort.
One example is Pitch Perfect 3, where the Air Force published an article on their site about their support for the film. They made out like the script changes were all about accuracy, though one PR officer did say that they were very happy with the resulting film because it really humanized the troops. I’m left thinking ‘if you really wanted to humanize them then you’d treat them like humans, not killing machines that you discard when they’re no longer useful’.
As we know, the script changes went far beyond that, ranging from removing military characters from a scene in a casino through to requesting that a lesbian kiss be ‘toned down’, which ultimately saw that bit scrapped from the movie.
Another example is Captain Marvel, the new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Shortly after I predicted that the Air Force would be supporting Captain Marvel, the facebook page for the Air Force’s entertainment liaison office confirmed this. They posted pictures of filming on an Air Force base, and other posts talking about their support and enthusiasm for the movie. Their site even includes photos from a special screening of the trailer, attended by Airmen.
Indeed, the documents from the Air Force’s Industry Leader Tour to Space Command included several producers on Captain Marvel, so it came as no surprise, but given that the film isn’t even out until next year I have a question – Is this about promoting the film? Is this about promoting the Air Force? Or is this about promoting the entertainment liaison office?
Arguably it’s all three, but I think the third is the primary aim. It does help promote the film but realistically, Marvel are going to spend at least $150 million on marketing so it’s a drop in the bucket. It does help promote the Air Force, but you could say that about lots of things so again, it’s not going to make much difference. But by associating the entertainment liaison office with such a popular brand – Marvel – and their newest product – Captain Marvel – they’re making it seem like it’s cool that the DOD are in Hollywood.
This was even more obvious when the Air Force entertainment liaison office posted an article on their website about supporting First Man, the biopic of Neil Armstrong. The article begins:
Since the inception of the Air Force in 1947, film makers, novelists and even creators of video games have wanted to tell the tales of Airmen. The Air Force Public Affairs Entertainment Liaison office works to project and protect the image of the U.S. Air Force within the global entertainment environment.
From the storyboard to the big screen, at no cost to the government, these Airmen assist with entertainment productions with an airpower tie. The office recently participated in the filming of the major motion picture “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, in theaters Oct. 12, 2018.
So is this an article about First Man, or is this a promo for the entertainment liaison office? There’s a bit about production support to the film, but then the article concludes:
“Our team was really integrated (with Airmen) on set due to some of the explosives we used,” said J.D. Schwalm, “First Man” special effects supervisor. “Anytime that we can work with the U.S. military is amazing and the help makes our vision that much easier to achieve.”
According to the entertainment office, the relationship between the Air Force and Hollywood remains strong by providing script review, location scout visits, costume and research assistance on hundreds of films and television programs such as “Sully,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Man of Steel,” “Lone Survivor,” as well as multiple “Transformers” and “Iron Man” films.
“Being involved in these productions provides the Air Force the opportunity to communicate our capabilities and values to a segment of society we may not be able to reach otherwise,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Broshear, Entertainment Liaison Office director. “If we can inspire the next generation of pilots, astronauts, innovators, explorers and Airmen, then our goal of educating and informing American audiences will have been achieved.”
This entire article is clearly a piece of PR about the entertainment liaison office – PR for the PR machine. Just as the film itself is a piece of Air Force PR disguised as a biopic, this article is a piece of PR about the entertainment liaison office disguised as an article about the film.
Which brings us onto Hunter Killer, and Gerard Butler’s presence at a press conference held at the Pentagon. While other celebrities have been on tours of the Pentagon, I’ve never before heard of a Hollywood actor promoting his film at a press conference hosted by the Pentagon. That strikes me as a new step in the DOD-Hollywood integration process, and something worth looking at.
Just as with the special effect guy on First Man, Butler said the standard thing you say in interviews, behind the scenes featurettes, DVD extras and so on, that we’re very happy to work with the military, they’re great to work with, it really helped us. I’ve heard this same line so many times that it seems this is what they’re told to say, or maybe it’s just become the stock answer to that question and everyone just repeats it because everyone just repeats it.
So I thought I’d do a little digging and try to find out more about how Gerard Butler came to be presenting a press conference for 100 journalists at the Pentagon. It didn’t take long, because he has given interviews about the press conference as part of the media tour for the movie.
I want to pick up on a few points – (1) Butler was invited by the Navy, not the other way round. (2) Once he got there they asked him to do the press conference, at which point he couldn’t really say no. (3) That the press conference was not about the film per se, but about the ‘partnership with the Navy’ and ‘letting the public know why the Navy want to partner with movies’. And (4) That the Pentagon’s briefings for journalists are now basically non-existent.
So at a time when the Pentagon are failing to keep up with their regular schedule of briefings the Navy had no problem setting up an event whereby a Hollywood actor took the stage. He did so not to talk about the Navy, or about the film, but about the Navy’s entertainment liaison office. This point has been missed by everyone who has reported on this bizarre event.
Butler confirmed all this in another interview, which is worth listening to for the interviewer’s – Seth Meyers – reaction.
Note what Butler says, about how the partnership didn’t cost the Navy anything and didn’t mean they deviated from their mission – the exact same talking points the DOD often employs when discussing this issue. Note also what Meyers says – that five years ago the headline ‘Gerard Butler holds press conference at the Pentagon’ would have seemed crazy, but not now. This speaks to what I think is the underlying aim of this recent PR about PR, this recent meta-propaganda – namely, normalisation.
They are trying to make it seem like the DOD in Hollywood is normal, uncontroversial, nothing to worry about. After all, here’s Gerard Butler live from the Pentagon to tell you that it’s all fine, and they couldn’t have made the movie without the Navy’s help. It’s all just so you can enjoy accurate military depictions in your entertainment, there’s nothing more at stake.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As such, Uncle Phil’s claim that he isn’t doing propaganda because that deceives people, that mixes truth and fiction, is not only untrue regarding Hollywood films, it’s untrue regarding the Pentagon’s own PR about their role in Hollywood films.
To underline this let’s look at the Production Assistance Agreement between the Pentagon and the producers of Hunter Killer, among them Gerard Butler. Point 1 of the contract actually describes both the film and the motives for the Navy’s involvement, which is highly unusual.
It is agreed between DoD and the Production Company that HUNTER-KILLER is an action feature film which features U.S. Navy forces engaging in hostile defensive actions outside the territorial waters of the United States against a competent military adversary and includes a senior leader hostage rescue; a distressed submarine crew rescue; modern unclassified submarine warfare tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) demonstrating the professionalism of the commanding officer and crew of Virginia-class and Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines. This film is an opportunity for the DoD and the USN to showcase the discipline of the crew, command structure, and communications. This film represents a unique opportunity to introduce to the public female submarine crew-member integration, and illumination of some of the mystery of undersea operations.
So much for Strub’s claim that they don’t say ‘here’s an opportunity to exploit’. The following paragraph shows just how high up the script went before it got approval:
The film script was screened for thematics and approved 18 December 2014 by the Principal Director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Policy International Security Affairs in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in correspondence to the DoD Director of Entertainment Media in the Pentagon.
Now, I have put in FOIAs for script notes on the film, and for communications to and from the Principal Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Policy about the script. So I’ll probably return to this film at a later date but I want to underline that just this one film, this one document, proves what Strub is saying isn’t true. If they are only concerned with accuracy and recruitment, and not propaganda, then why is a Principal Director for policy reviewing the script? Why is Gerard Butler being hussled into hosting a press conference on behalf of the Navy’s entertainment liaison office?
All of this tells me that the Pentagon is bothered by me exposing the truth about their Hollywood operations. The fact that they’re going this far to try to mislead people, and to try to normalise the entertainment liaison offices, speaks volumes for their concern. It may be significant that the latest reports from the Army’s entertainment liaison office show a distinct lack of activity – they are not receiving the same number of requests they were just a couple of years ago. It gives me hope that all this does make a difference, and that the literally thousands of hours I’ve devoted to this is starting to achieve the desired effect.