Friday, April 03, 2009

Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies

This book by David L. Robb is a real eye-opener. It explores the influence the Pentagon exerts on filmmakers who use military equipment or bases in their movies. If a movie's credits thank the armed forces for assistance, there's a good chance the Department of Defense (DoD) edited the script. The military has played a similar role in certain TV programs. JAG is an obvious one, but even Lassie and The Mickey Mouse Club were altered by the DoD.

What the DoD really wants are recruiting films, rah-rah stories like Top Gun that make teenagers enlist. The Pentagon film office examines the script and sends the producer a list of changes that must be made. Sometimes it's just a few lines of dialogue, often it's a scene or two, but occasionally the entire story is rejected. Films that address racism or sexism are unlikely to get support (because, of course, those do not exist in the U.S. military!). Even when history is on the filmmaker's side, the military will insist on its own version of events. To get DoD approval, a movie must show the military in a positive light. Without approval, a movie will cost millions more to make (although the producers pay to use military resources, it's cheaper than fabricating their own), or the entire project may be abandoned. Politics and business relationships come into play as well -- a studio would rather kill a movie that criticizes the military than jeopardize future DoD cooperation on other projects.

Some may view this as a logical quid pro quo -- you can use our toys as long as you don't make us look bad. But it is more insidious than that. At best, it's propaganda. At worst, it's censorship. The author argues that Congress is violating the Constitution whenever it passes appropriations bills to fund the Pentagon film office ("Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech...").

Robb cites dozens of examples of Pentagon-movie industry conflicts, talking to people on both sides and reproducing documents that dictate changes to filmmakers. He provides enough background that I enjoyed the book without having seen many of the films discussed. For those that I have seen, it was fascinating to learn how different the original scripts were. After reading Operation Hollywood, I may never be able to watch a war movie again without wondering whether it was edited by the Pentagon.

Current tally: 25 books finished, 25 books acquired

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