Decades of movie award ceremonies and other celebrations of the “seventh art” could easily fool us into thinking that the film industry is (and always was) mostly about culture and entertainment. The US military establishment and political elite, on the other hand, quickly recognized its potential, not for improving human society, but for controlling it better.
In that sense, and as Roger Stahl reminds us in his new documentary Theaters of War (2022), there’s hardly a point in recent history when the military branch of the US government and Hollywood were not decisively intertwined. What Professor Stahl (Department of Communication Studies, University of Georgia) uncovers for us in his 88 minutes-long documentary is the depth of this relationship—traditionally veiled, but not exactly secret.
He does so not only with the help of documents obtained by a small group of researchers using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but also by actively debunking the work of military-industrial complex gatekeepers. These gatekeepers—like military historian and film critic Lawrence Suid—were fairly successful in whitewashing the Pentagon’s influence over Hollywood by circumscribing it to a need for “accuracy and realism”. Sadly, that worked out until the turn of this century, when researchers such as David Robb—author of the 2004 book “Operation Hollywood”—started to get into the subject (and Suid hated it).
The depth of the collaboration between the entertainment industry and the US military and its many branches—and later in the documentary, also the CIA— is hinted at the first minutes of “Theaters of War”, when we learn how the Pentagon plays the role of a powerful film producer: its operators in Hollywood review scripts, “weave in key talking points”, pitch original projects to film and TV studios and, more importantly, hold a de facto veto over film ideas that fail to live up to their ‘PR’ demands.
This veto power is based on the monopolistic ownership of the indispensable “toys” needed to produce some films, greatly improving their chances for commercial success and industry recognition. A segment titled “soft sell” even demonstrates how Hollywood movies are often used to showcase new fighter jets, armored vehicles and all kinds of war technology (produced by private arms manufacturers and sold to governments all over the world).
In its own words, the ideal outcome of the Pentagon’s influence over Hollywood is a movie that amounts to a “two-hour infomercial about the participation of Army Special Forces in one of (their) many… missions”. And the reason why people would sit through hours-long covert military “infomercials”, again taken from the documents declassified by this researchers, is that the silver screen: “isn’t inflected with negatives connotations about propaganda”.
Using the movie Top Gun (1986) and its main character’s impossible and reckless aviation feats as a prime example, Stahl and his interviewees easily dismiss the justification preferred by the whitewashers. In other words, “realism and accuracy” is actually not that high on the list of priorities when the Pentagon review film scripts. And that’s when the documentary gets even more interesting: by listing the topics that the Pentagon deems “show-stoppers”. In fact, Stahl’s documentary suggests that it’s too much accuracy and realism what the military establishment is afraid of.
Fragging—the killing of officers by their own soldiers—incompetence, structural racism, rape culture, suicide, and murdering innocent civilians, are all off-limits when it comes to film scripts and projects for war movies that expect to gain the Pentagon’s favor and access. But those are only the “general terms”. When we get to the specifics, we found that the military establishment and the intelligence community also need to whitewash certain shameful incidents, boost recruiting, as well as cement a number of “necessary illusions” in the mind of the public, like the usefulness of torture.
Good examples of this are presented to us in the form of movies such as “Black Hawk Down” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. The former is inspired by a real-life military blunder that happened in 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, and turns it into a tale of heroism. The latter—in this case more related to spying and terrorism than traditional war—attempts to give credence to the idea that torture “save lives” and that it was crucial in catching Osama bin Laden.
What makes “Theaters of War” an excellent documentary is the fact that Roger Stahl draws upon researchers who, in recent years, have uncovered the details and magnitude of the Pentagon’s influence over Hollywood, making them part of its production. Tom Secker (“Spy Culture” magazine), Matthew Alford, Tricia Jenkins, Tanner Mirrless, and Sebastian Kaempf are among the experts sharing their views for Roger Stahl.
Then there’s Oliver Stone, whose admirable career suggests that making realistic movies about the US Army and its “adventures” around the world might be hard, but not impossible. And Stone, Vietnam veteran, isn’t the only one with first-hand experience showcased in Stahl’s documentary, which compares Hollywood fiction—and TV “reality” shows—with the experience of soldiers that were part of the actual events.
There are, of course, a few things to observe in Theaters of War. Although the CIA’s influence over the entertainment industry isn’t the main topic, the fact that the documentary mentions it by remarking the year 1996—when the agency opened an office very much like the one that manages Hollywood for the Pentagon—could mislead viewers into thinking the CIA only got into this practice recently. A very telling story from the 50’s would’ve been useful to swiftly dispel this perception: The intelligence agency bought the rights for the movie Animal Farm, based on George Orwell’s novel, and, in 1954, an animated movie was produced. It soon found its way into classrooms all around the world.
Stahl’s documentary could also have benefited from a small segment on the role of prizes and awards (such as the Oscars) in popularizing films useful for the Pentagon and the US government. Regarding the film “Argo”, winning the Academy’s Best Movie award, a prize presented for this particular ceremony by the First Lady of the U.S. herself, was probably not a coincidence. But, is this practice systematic? The Oscars seem to work as a way to promote convenient films into becoming international blockbusters.
Finally, the role of the public that passively absorbs propaganda in the form of movies is not addressed. Perhaps this isn’t a mistake of the documentary as much as a trend in propaganda analysis at large. When the interviewees ask themselves if the public would pay to watch government-influenced films if they knew about their propagandistic intent, the answer perhaps isn’t as straightforward as they seem to believe.
It’s hard to imagine young fans of Marvel movies refraining from going to the cinema to watch the last “Iron Man” flick because of its collaboration with the USG and its many branches.
In that sense, the answer to the question—would you pay to watch for propaganda movies?—could be: yes, if they´re fun. Swallowing the propaganda and not asking critical questions that could expose those in power is, as many people know from experience, the easier and more convenient path. The fact that, as “Theaters of War” clearly states, Pentagon propaganda advertises “the most powerful and violent organizations” in history, might not be that important to fans of sci-fi movies like the “Transformers” saga, correctly portrayed as a “military parade” in the documentary.
This does not, however, refute one of the conclusions “Theaters of war” gives us in the last minutes of the documentary, when he explains how these films “skew (people) toward the edge” when it comes to accepting the military establishment’s narrative.
Finally, by taking all this recently acquired knowledge from the highly specialized field of propaganda research and putting it in cinematic format, Roger Stahl and his production team have created a documentary with an outstanding potential for reaching the same masses of people targeted by the Pentagon’s marriage of convenience with Hollywood, an educational achievement for Professor Stahl and his crew.