Written by: Shawn Funk
Much of my knowledge of war has been from the consumption of film rather than through historical documents and letters. Thus, like many others, I know my war history through the movies I have watched rather than factual accounts relayed in books, notes, and documentaries. In most films, there is a clear distinction between good and evil; that is, a distinction between America and “the enemy.” So, I was not surprised to find out many of them had been produced with the guidance of the U.S. military. What is the purpose of these films?
In the absence of an official state propaganda bureau, some Hollywood filmmakers have partnered with the U.S. military to produce films described by some as soft propaganda that influence public perceptions of war and the U.S. military. Propaganda persuades a mass audience to believe and act on a specific idea. The subtlety of soft propaganda is such that we are numb to its existence; it is almost invisible, and it relies on a version of the ‘truth’ that is characterized more by the omission of facts than by flat-out misinformation or lies. Soft propaganda is effective because much of the information relayed is true. What you see is all there is, do not ask questions! In essence, soft propaganda gives you tunnel vision. Yes, seeing is believing, but what you do not see also has a tremendous impact on how you understand your environment. Soft propaganda obscures more than it will reveal and is embedded into popular entertainment, making it hard to identify; here lies its power. It is, thus, propaganda that hides the fact that is propaganda.
The relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. military bears fruits on both sides. Filmmakers receive a large subsidy in equipment, technical assistance, and soldiers, significantly reducing their production costs. At the same time, the military gets a powerful recruitment tool and a potent medium to tell war stories the way they want them told. These films are used to rally support for war while they legitimize the methods employed by the U.S. Army. The popularity of Top Gun (1986) led to increasing interest in Navy recruitment as it showed off America’s deadly weaponry, land, sea, and air. Further, propaganda obscures facts while promoting other, more acceptable facts, leading to tunnel vision that distorts your sense of the events in question.
Within the Department of Defense (DoD), a small officehouses the Film Liaison Unit (FLU). It is the closest the U.S. has to an official propaganda film department. The FLU collaborates with producers from Hollywood studios to guide military themes. According to the FLU, its main goal is to portray the U.S. military realistically to foster patriotic spirit and positivity toward the military while encouraging recruitment and public support (Mirrlees, 2015). Phil Strub, former head of the FLU, states that “It’s quite true that we look for realism . . . if you depict the US military as unrelentingly negative, that’s not realistic. So, yes, in a sense, we’re looking for a positive portrayal,” (Mirrlees, 2015). If I didn’t know any better, I would have to conclude that Strub is suggesting that films that do not indicate a positive portrayal of the U.S. military are unrealistic. The FLU is clear on this point. The FLU only approves “war scripts that fulfill the DoD’s content requirements” (Mirrlees, 2015). Thus, the U.S. government is favouring one side of the story while obscuring the others by using subsidies to prop up pro-war films in a soft censorship of so-called ‘unrealistic’ narratives. This is propagandist because war movies that show unfavourable portrayals are not supported, making them harder to put into production because of the high cost. This favouring also ensures that those unfavourable scripts are buried beneath a glut of state-sponsored propaganda
To be clear, it is not a requirement that producers send their scripts to the DoD every time they want to shoot a war movie. However, military assistance is bought at a deep discount, making it very attractive for filmmakers. War movies are expensive to film because of the special equipment and knowledge that is needed for the film to appear authentic. Therefore, filmmakers who want to evoke high levels of realism often depend on the military for support “in the form of technical advice, men, and hardware” (Suid, 2002). To produce Top Gun (1986), Paramount Studios paid the U.S. military only 1.8 million dollars. In exchange, they received “the use of Miramar Naval Air Station” as well as “four aircraft carriers and about two dozen F-14 Tomcats, F-5 Tigers and A-4 Skyhawks, some flown by real-life Top Gun pilots” (Zenou, 2022). To put that discount in perspective, “A single F-14 Tomcat cost about $38 million. The total budget for “Top Gun” was $15 million” (Zenou, 2022).
In exchange for the military support for Top Gun (1986), the Navy scored one of the most successful recruitment films of all time bolstered by the celebrity of Tom Cruise. Upon the video release of Top Gun (1986) “Paramount Pictures proposed placing a ninety-second Navy recruitment ad at the beginning of the Top Gun videocassette in exchange for $1 million in credit toward their debt to the Navy for its assistance. The DoD rejected the offer, saying that the film is “already a wonderful recruiting tool for the Navy” (Mirrlees, 2015). While the point is made that the movie is great propaganda, the unwillingness to release the video with the 90-second ad is curious. The distinction here is between the hard propaganda of the ad versus the soft propaganda that is the film itself. Perhaps the ad would make it known that the movie is propaganda, making the film less effective. Does knowing that something is propaganda make it less effective? I think so, and it is very effective under the guise of entertainment because we are always the most agreeable when we are smiling.
Apart from the recruiting opportunities that military-supported films generate, there is another reason why the military loves to collaborate with Hollywood film studios; that is, to get their version of the truth out before someone else’s version starts to proliferate. In other words, it is an excellent medium to spread propaganda that glorifies the role of America’s military to its citizens while downplaying other countries’ roles in international affairs. Argo (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) are two recent examples of military-supported films that have been sharply criticized for their obfuscations and revisions, leading to questions surrounding their authenticity.
Argo (2012) is a film based on the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. It stars Ben Affleck, and the movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012. It has also been widely criticized for its unabashed attempt to gloss over the U.S.’s involvement in the events that led up to the hostage crisis while playing up the role and importance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in bringing home the hostages as they obscure the roles undertaken by other entities or countries in the crisis. No “mention is made of U.S. complicity in the Shah’s brutal dictatorship or CIA operations carried out from the U.S. Embassy–while the critical role of Canadians in the hostage crisis is virtually ignored,” (Boggs & Pollard, 2016). The Academy Award for this movie was presented by Michelle Obama. Her celebrity adds extra weight and authority to the story’s veracity. For all its influence and acclaim, Argo is just another soft propaganda bomb like Top Gun , leveraging the expertise of the military and the star power of Ben Affleck to produce a very carefully curated account of the Iranian hostage crisis which doubles as an advertisement for the CIA. This film can be labelled as soft propaganda for its obfuscation of the truth and its glorification of the CIA, stressing its importance and justifying its existence.
It has been argued that positive depictions of the U.S. military legitimize the methods and tactics they employ to meet their military objectives worldwide (Boggs & Pollard, 2016). For example, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a dramatization of the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and, according to Boggs and Pollard, it is responsible for “legitimizing several post-9/11 U.S. agendas in the Middle East: torture, black sites, extrajudicial killings, special operations, CIA maneuvers,” that were used to locate, capture, and kill the world’s most wanted man (Boggs & Pollard, 2016). By focusing on the ends, the means are largely unimportant even though, by all accounts, these methods are abhorrent, unethical, and a stain on the country that calls itself exceptional. For this reason, Boggs and Pollard indicate that Zero Dark Thirty is best viewed as an “imperial propaganda effort.” While this movie did not have an influential celebrity like Tom Cruise or Ben Affleck, the big draw came from the realism that was depicted in the film, especially during the final scene when they capture Bin Laden at his compound.
The big takeaway here is that propaganda campaigns are just as alive in the west as in more repressive regimes like Russia or China. The difference is the way the messages are transmitted. I said before that the U.S. uses soft propaganda that hides behind entertaining films and the power of celebrity to transmit their messages. These propaganda campaigns are detrimental to our history, as in Argo that attempts a clever reconstruction of reality by the omission of the facts. They are detrimental to our values when torture and murder become legitimate means for achieving military objectives, as in Zero Dark Thirty. Lastly, these movies obscure the horrors of war when they glorify military might and power, as in Top Gun. To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t go watch these movies. I love movies, and I like the war genre. What I am suggesting is that we be mindful when we watch these movies. Recognize these movies for what they are; that is, fictional accounts. You might also ask yourself the question. Am I watching a clever advertisement for the U.S military?
Boggs, Carl., Pollard, Tom. (2016) The Hollywood War Machine. New York: Paradigm Publishers.
Mirrlees, Tanner. (2015) Hearts and Mines: The US empire’s culture industry. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Suid, Lawrence H. (2002) Guts & Glory: The making of the American military image in film. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
Zenou, Theo. (2022) “Top Gun,” brought to you by the U.S. Military.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/05/27/top-gun-maverick-us-military/.