One of the recurring propaganda techniques identified by Roger Stahl in Theaters of War is that you can remediate military and intelligence blunders by turning them into Saving Private Ryan – i.e. a rescue story. Black Hawk Down, Argo and The Long Road Home are three prominent examples, all rooted in real world events but rebranding and recontextualising those events to become tales of derring do and getting our guys back.
I have been dwelling on this thematic shifting technique since Roger pointed it out during the editing phase of making Theaters of War, and realised just how common it has become in post-Cold War state-sponsored film and TV. This is what came to mind:
- The main US military presence in Goldeneye is an amusing rescue scene where the US Marines turn up at the end of the film, complete with helicopters and literal ass in the grass Marines disguised as bushes, to pick up Bond, his Russian hacker floozy and Wade, the CIA officer. This is in Cuba, so presumably invading Cuba was still in the back of the DOD’s mind in 1995.
- Apollo 13’s major portrait of the military is the rescue scene at the end, when the Navy fish the weary, bruised but still-alive astronauts out of the water. To be fair, this did actually happen.
- Armageddon and Deep Impact, the twin asteroid movies from 1998, both feature the DOD in some kind of disaster relief/evacuation role. In both cases the DOD rewrote the scripts to remove any scenes or dialogue implying that the DOD would act like the Gestapo when faced with such a space-based crisis. A feature episode on Armageddon is coming soon to ClandesTime.
- Saving Private Ryan recast the misery and destruction that was the invasion of mainland Europe towards the end of WW2 as a rescue story – and a totally unrealistic one at that. There’s no way the US military would even find out that multiple brothers had been killed during the initial amphibious invasion that quickly, let alone give orders to rescue the one remaining brother.
- Jurassic Park III was initially turned down by the DOD due to scenes of the military massacring dinosaurs, but once they were removed (along with shots of Marines aiming their rifles at flying dinos) and the producers ‘wrote in a nice rescue scene’
- Black Hawk Down converted the Battle of Mogadishu – a typical military fuck up which command failed to anticipate and likely provoked – into a rescue story.
- The Sum of All Fears in 2002 features the US Marines rescuing President Morgan Freeman in the immediate wake of a nuclear explosion at an American football stadium, mid-game. This sequence, which was shot using real Marines, was included at the Marine Corps’ request.
- Iron Man from 2008 began the rehabilitation of the war in Afghanistan, in part through a dramatic rescue sequence where the US Air Force pick up Tony Stark in the desert.
- Argo saw the CIA get in on the act, transforming the Iranian Revolution and resultant hostage crisis – which the CIA likely provoked and sort of failed to predict (some people did predict it, but it seems they were ignored) – into a rescue story.
- Godzilla in 2014 shows off more evacuation/disaster relief efforts conducted by the US military.
- The long-running Inside Combat Rescue is, well, a bunch of rescue stories. There is little to no discussion of whether any of this had to happen, just focus on the excitement of them rushing in to pick up some poor bunch of bastards who’ve been hit by a roadside IED.
- The Long Road Home turned the Battle of Sadr City – which command failed to anticipate and likely provoked – into a rescue story. And in the process rewrote the entire story to glamourise a senior officer who was working in Army Public Affairs during the script’s development, overlooks how they pinned the blame on a more junior officer, and messed with the details of how various casualties of the battle were killed and wounded.
- The Courier, the CIA-supported film about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Penkovsky Papers, turned that crisis – which the CIA failed to predict and absolutely did provoke – into a rescue story of how the CIA tried to get Oleg Penkovsky out of the Soviet Union. Which never happened. At all.
- Greenland, another asteroid movie, also depicts the military in disaster relief and evacuation roles. Indeed, without their planes no one would make it to the survival bunkers, so in effect they save the entire human race (or at least, the ones who make it). And, without nuking anything, unlike in Deep Impact, Armageddon and other movies from the 1990s.
- Almost as soon as the Thai Cave Rescue story hit the headlines in the summer of 2018, the Air Force began pitching it to producers. The rescue involved Air Force Special Operations personnel, so their public affairs department wrote a Thai Cave Rescue briefing into their tour of Special Operations Command that September – just weeks after the rescue took place. As one email put it, ‘Hollywood is going to do what Hollywood does best…and sometimes it’s better to lean forward and provide the insight and facts up front than stand on the sidelines and see a movie come out that completely misses the AFSOC piece. Whereas, we have an opportunity to shape the narrative now.’ Word got out – AFSOC personnel were included as major characters in 2019’s The Cave.
There will be other examples (Lone Survivor?) but the point is that when it comes to dramatic, emotionally resonant rescues, it’s typically the military, the CIA or perhaps the FBI and/or police and/or Homeland Security who get to play the heroes. While I am deeply sceptical of much of the doctorganda that duplicates these cultural heroism but with doctors, the reality is that firefighters and emergency medical staff save a hell of a lot more lives than all of the security state combined.
Even leaving aside the crude statistics about saving lives, the most important question when it comes to rescue narratives is who is alleviating the most suffering? It certainly isn’t the CIA, LAPD and the US Marine Corps.
So the ‘conversion to rescue story’ technique isn’t only a means of remediating historical FUBARs by the military and/or CIA, though that is a powerful way to use it. It also helps project a much more benign image of the DOD, CIA, FBI, NATO and so on, underlining how they are the leaders of the ‘rules based international order’.
The fact that they’ve actively pitched this to producers, and asked them to write in ‘nice military rescue scenes’ shows that this isn’t a by-product of Hollywood looking for new ways to include the military in their stories. It is the result of a conscious propaganda effort to reinforce the saviour image that the narcissists within the security state insist upon. Imagine you’ve watched all these movies and you’re faced with a nuclear, international or planetary crisis.
Who you gonna call?
Well, it’s a good question. The prevailing wisdom is to call the police, the military, the FBI or CIA, maybe the CDC. All of whom have leant large-scale support to major movies depicting them doing exactly that – coming to the rescue like the Thunderbirds. Incidentally, Jeffrey Epstein’s island is up for sale and is struggling to find a buyer (shocker), so if someone’s looking for an ironic set for the next Thunderbirds movie, I think you could get a good price.