Phil Strub is the Director of Entertainment Media at the Department of Defense.
When people see what looks like an actual modern American combat vehicle or aircraft in a movie like “Transformers” or a TV show like “24,” chances are they don’t wonder “Did they get that from the U.S. military?” But for my two-person Defense Department (DoD) office in the Pentagon, and the small Military Service staffs based in Los Angeles, working with Hollywood filmmakers is a full-time job.
Entertainment media producers have wanted access to U.S. military equipment and real estate — including ships — since the dawn of American cinema. The first movie to get an “Oscar” in the then-new “Best Picture” category was the 1927 silent film “Wings.” “Wings” was a big hit commercially and critically because the support the studio got from the Army Air Corps allowed it to portray World War I training and combat far more realistically than it could ever have done on its own. And the Army got a great opportunity to showcase itself to millions of Americans.
Things haven’t changed much since then. Despite the sophistication of special effects, computer generated graphics, and other technologies, filmmakers still very much want U.S. military production support — even though it comes with strings attached. For example, along with their “wish lists” for military support, filmmakers must also send us the scripts. These ultimately have to present a reasonably realistic portrayal of the military — though obviously what is reasonably realistic varies widely depending on the production. It’s one thing for “Black Hawk Down,” and quite another for “Iron Man 2.” If filmmakers are willing to negotiate with us to resolve our script concerns, usually we’ll reach an agreement. If not, filmmakers are free to press on without military assistance, and they often do.
Filmmakers are notorious for claiming to be sticklers about realism. But, in practice, realism is quickly reduced or tossed aside altogether when they think it interferes with drama and action. Often this is quite understandable. Submarines can’t maneuver nearly as quickly as the ones in “The Hunt for Red October,” but a realistic depiction would’ve been boring and time-consuming as well.
And, what about those high-level Pentagon scenes in which there is never an accurate representation of the leadership? In these kinds of movies, there’s usually only meaningful dialog for one leader. So if that leader is the Secretary of Defense, then the Chairman looks useless, and vice versa. Filmmakers almost always want to fill these scenes with very senior admirals and generals, but there is almost never anything scripted for them to do. Fortunately we’re usually successful in talking them out of it — and sparing all of us from having to watch actors trying to look important but in fact just looking extraneous at best and ridiculous at worst.
And, by the way, another string attached to military production support is that the government is reimbursed by production companies for all of the operations and maintenance costs — such as flight hours — that we incur as a direct result of providing the support.