Did the Pentagon make Hollywood an offer it couldn’t refuse?
That’s the charge David Sirota made in an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post. According to Sirota, for decades the U.S. military has waged a sneaky propaganda war with pro-military films, tricking the apparently dim-witted masses into blind devotion through movies featuring “sweat-shined martial machismo.” The plot is diabolical in its simplicity: The military allows directors to film military bases, tanks, planes, ships or personnel only after approving their scripts.
Case in point: 1986 megahit “Top Gun,” in which screaming fighter jets and shadow-kissing duped an entire nation onto the Highway to the Danger Zone.
“Not only did enlistment spike when ‘Top Gun’ was released,” writes Sirota, “And not only did the Navy set up recruitment tables at theaters playing the movie, but polls soon showed rising confidence in the military … America fell in love with Maverick, Iceman and other high-fivin’ silver-screen super-pilots as they traveled Mach 2 while screaming about ‘the need for speed.’”
But what, exactly, does Sirota expect the Pentagon’s film liaison to do? Open our military bases to every scruffy-faced, long-haired kid with a camera who comes knocking? Say Matt Damon had asked to use military resources on “Green Zone,” which alleged that the Bush administration created and propagated false information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs in the run-up to the Iraq War. Surely a wartime Pentagon isn’t required to help Hollywood produce movies that make such irresponsible, demoralizing and damaging accusations.
What if a disciple of terrorist imam Anwar Al-Awlaki demands to use an Afghanistan operating base to film Al-Qaeda propaganda? Does the Air Force have to let him pose in the cockpit of a F-22 Raptor, or must it let him fly the plane?
It’s not as if theaters are full of pro-military propaganda. Audiences have plenty of chances to wallow in the smell of napalm in the morning. The same year “Top Gun” was released, Oliver Stone released his excellent but critical Vietnam War opus “Platoon.” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Good Morning Vietnam” soon followed. High-ammo ’80s hits like the “Rambo” franchise and “Commando” do not exactly portray the U.S. military positively, for all their high body counts. Then, as now, for every pro-military “Battle Los Angeles,” there is a negative “Green Zone” or “In the Valley of Elah.”
Sirota’s real issue is with the movie-going public, not with the Pentagon. Despite a steady stream of movies calling into question America’s policies and methods, the masses stubbornly refuse to pay for the privilege of sitting through a two-hour anti-war screed. “Battle Los Angeles” made a respectable $83.5 million domestically, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. “Green Zone” brought in $35 million, the Oscar-winner “Hurt Locker” just $17 million and “In the Valley of Elah,” which featured abuse of prisoners and post-traumatic stress in soldiers, a paltry $6.7 million.
It seems there’s just no market for movies lecturing us on the bad behavior of U.S. troops and the wrongheadedness of U.S. policies.
Sirota confuses the chicken and the egg. “Top Gun” took our breath away because it reinforced Ronald Reagan’s message that the military is an agent for good in the world and something of which to be proud. There is a tendency on the left to believe soldiers somehow are duped into joining the military and that they’re victims of predatory recruiters, just as people who are pro-military must be ill-informed. Soldiers and others who believe in the mission of the military? To quote Vizzini of “The Princess Bride,” “Inconceivable!”
Movies like “Top Gun” and “Battle Los Angeles” do well because we’re proud of our military, not the other way around.
Maybe Americans are smarter and more patriotic than Sirota realizes.
Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic and entertainment reporter.