War Stories

Uniform Entertainment

Loosening the Pentagon’s hold on war scripts.

The $100 million-plus box office success of the gripping but jingoistic Black Hawk Down had a clear meaning for post-9/11 entertainment—it will feature many tales about the U.S. military. They won’t all be gripping, of course, but most of them will be jingoistic. In part, that’s because audiences want jingoism right now. But there’s another reason: It has become increasingly difficult to tell an authentic-looking modern war story without the help of the Department of Defense. After all, it wasn’t called Chopper Down—and the only place a producer can go for access to Black Hawks is the Pentagon.

That building may have five sides, but it tends to like stories with only one. DOD civilian employee Philip Strub (a Vietnam-era naval officer who later went to film school and worked on movies and TV commercials), who for 13 years has been the Pentagon’s principal decision-maker on scripts, is very upfront about this. Strub told me that when considering requests for DOD assistance, he pretty much limits himself to two questions: “Is this production something that is likely to be of benefit in increasing the American public’s awareness of the U.S. military? Or is this something that will be of benefit to military recruiting and retention?”

The problem is that this filter strains out a lot of worthwhile stories. Obviously, it rejects almost all anti-war movies. The Pentagon didn’t participate in Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Catch-22,or Apocalypse Now.Less obviously, it also rejects many more movies that are not flatly anti-war but in which characters confront tensions between their own choices and the unique demands of military service. And that’s too bad, because well-told stories of this sort can help a nation—now comprised mostly of lifelong civilians—better understand those demands.

The David O. Russell-written-and-directed Three Kings, by far the most interesting Gulf War movie, is a case in point. All the main characters are larcenous GIs whose attempted heist forces them to learn about the moral complexities of their war and ultimately enables them to do the one right thing they can for its victims. That’s movie-making value-added of the highest sort, because there was absolutely no moral complexity in the CNN version of the Gulf War. But the Pentagon saw “the main characters are all Army thieves” and went TILT.

You could say the same about such worthwhile shades-of-gray military movies as An Officer and a Gentleman, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Forrest Gump, and Crimson Tide—all of them Pentagon rejects. And Strub thinks his criteria would probably rule out some older estimable movies that did receive Pentagon assistance, such as From Here to Eternity and The Great Santini.

Strub candidly concedes some additional factors that can keep the Pentagon from saying yes to more movies. Sometimes it’s clear they are going to get made without the Pentagon’s help and create good buzz for the U.S. military anyway, so why bother? And, he says, “If you bring up problem points and the filmmakers ignore them and you provide support anyway, well how long do you think it would take for that to get around Hollywood?”

Strub’s SOP is far from crazy—the Pentagon is not in the entertainment business. It has far more important things to worry about. (In fact, Strub says, the secretary of defense doesn’t sign off on film cooperation deals because he’s too busy.) So, it’s perfectly understandable that when considering show biz projects, the DOD should insist on a connection to its main objectives. But there must be some way of working around the Pentagon’s own narrow bureaucratic tendency toward military boosterism that would better serve the nation’s need for more military nuance.

How about this? Let the Pentagon retain absolute control over most of its entertainment cooperation decisions, but let it cede some of them—for, say, three movie and three TV projects per year—to an outside panel whose findings the Pentagon agrees a priori to accept. I suggest the outside panel be formed not by the studios or networks (which have enough nuance-killing imperatives of their own), but jointly by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and that all the panel members would have to be writers or directors.

Sure, this arrangement would be good for the country, but what’s in it for the Pentagon? How about the prospect that it will get credit for being morally sophisticated  enough to have helped produce the next Three Kings?