David Sirota wastes the opportunity to say something interesting about Hollywood and the military:
Americans are souring on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military budget is under siege as Congress looks for spending to cut. And the Army is reporting record suicide rates among soldiers. So who does the Pentagon enlist for help in such painful circumstances?
In June, the Army negotiated a first-of-its-kind sponsorship deal with the producers of “X-Men: First Class,” backing it up with ads telling potential recruits that they could live out superhero fantasies on real-life battlefields. Then, in recent days, word leaked that the White House has been working with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow on an election-year film chronicling the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
A country questioning its overall military posture, and a military establishment engaging in a counter-campaign for hearts and minds — if this feels like deja vu, that’s because it’s taking place on the 25th anniversary of the release of “Top Gun.”
That Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, made in collaboration with the Pentagon, came out in the mid-1980s, when polls showed many Americans expressing doubts about the post-Vietnam military and about the constant saber rattling from the White House. But the movie’s celebration of sweat-shined martial machismo generated $344 million at the box office and proved to be a major force in resuscitating the military’s image.
There’s quite a bit of interesting stuff going on here, although Sirota leans too heavily on Top Gun, which is notable more for its box office success than for its production relationship with the Navy. The Pentagon has worked with Hollywood a lot over the years; the influence over Top Gun wasn’t particularly notable in terms of effect on script or on production. The much worse, much less successful, but if anything more flag-waving Iron Eagle was released six months earlier, and made without Pentagon cooperation, because the plot turned on the theft of an aircraft. Top Gun surely did have a strong impact on Navy recruiting numbers (lots and lots of young men soon figured out that you didn’t get to fly F-14s just by enlisting), but I think it’s a touch of a stretch for Sirota to accord as much cultural impact as he does.
Sirota is half-right on the points about Pentagon influence over scripts. Indeed, the Pentagon is loathe to lend its equipment to any production that reflects badly on the military, a posture which is hardly surprising for a federal department. However, Pentagon influence can also serve to increase realism; believe it or not, many war films scripted in Hollywood demonstrate not the faintest familiarity with military life, military equipment, etc. But then again, the Pentagon certainly was of no help to Transformers script…
Sirota also dances a bit on the question of Hurt Locker and the new Kathryn Bigelow Osama bin Laden film. Sirota more or less describes the former as anti-war, which makes me wonder whether he’s ever seen the movie; whatever you can say about Hurt Locker, it’s not an anti-war film. More problematic, in the next paragraph Sirota essentially describes the bin Laden project as the product of “ideologically compliant filmmakers,” which is interesting given that the Kathryn Bigelow who directed the “successful and critical” Hurt Locker is the same Kathryn Bigelow who is associated with the Bin Laden project.
Sirota ends badly. I’m not such a fan of his work, which I think combines a commitment to populist left rhetoric with a belief that people are, by and large, quite stupid. This makes his writing unappealing calculated, as if he approaches each paragraph with the thought “has this been sufficiently dumbed down for people to understand it?” And we get this:
Why does the Pentagon treat public hardware as private property? Why does the government grant and deny access to that hardware based on a filmmaker’s willingness to let the Pentagon influence the script? And doesn’t such a practice violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government abridging freedom of speech?
Let’s take a crack:
1. It doesn’t. The Pentagon is a federal department that lends its assets to filmmakers based on its own particular understanding of the public interest. By definition, “government propaganda” is not “private.”
2. This is the interesting question of the bunch; a blanket policy of acceptance to all filmmaker requests for using military hardware is impractical, so the real alternative would presumably be a policy of blanket denial filmmaker access to military equipment. This hardly seems ideal, although I can appreciate the logic. The Pentagon is not the only government agency to collaborate with filmmakers in an effort to improve its image, but the effects of Pentagon collaboration are at least arguably the most negative.
3. I’m going to be extraordinarily charitable and say that I’d like to see the constitutional theory behind the idea that anything Sirota has described represents government abridgement of free speech. Until then, my provisional answer to this question will be “No, you idiot.”
UPDATE: Sirota responds on point 3:
RE: The First Amendment question – it’s not a theory, it’s rooted in precedent. Here’s David Robb, author of “Operation Hollywood,” laying it out in Mother Jones (he’s backed up by GW law prof Jonathan Turley in other places, too):
”The First Amendment doesn’t just give people the right to free speech; fundamentally, it prevents the government from favoring one form of speech over another. There’s a great 1995 Supreme Court case called Rosenberger v. University of Virginia that says, “Discrimination against speech because of its message is presumed to be unconstitutional. It is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on the substantive content of the message it conveys. In the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another.” And yet that’s what (The Pentagon) is doing every day.”
Next time, maybe you could do a bit of research without just resorting to name calling
I can do both! In the case cited, a Virginia student group sued and won after being denied funding for the production of a film with a specifically Christian point of view. I don’t find the logic particularly applicable to this case, but at least it’s something, and mileage may vary.