The Pentagon’s Use of “Popcorn Propaganda”

June 5th, 2022 - by Roger Stahl / Los Angeles Times

Why Does the Pentagon Give a
Helping Hand to Films Like ‘Top Gun’?

Roger Stahl / Los Angeles Times

(May 30, 2022) — As this country commemorates Memorial Day, many will head to theaters to bathe in the nostalgia of “Top Gun: Maverick,” which opened Friday. With Tom Cruise on screen, the multiplex will crack with high-fives and roar with F-18 fighter jets, those sleek emblems of American power.

The film’s F-18s and other military gear are courtesy of the Pentagon. This is the job of the U.S. Defense Department’s Entertainment Media Office, which allows use of such assets in exchange for control of the script. Each military branch — except for the Marine Corps, which operates out of Camp Pendleton in San Diego County — maintains satellite offices along Wilshire Boulevard to do outreach with the entertainment industry. The original 1986 “Top Gun,” which was intimately guided by the Navy, has long represented the military’s capabilities when it comes to steering pop culture.

Until recently, the scholarly consensus had been that this phenomenon was isolated to perhaps a couple of hundred films. In the past five years, however, my small group of researchers has acquired 30,000 pages of internal Defense Department documents through Freedom of Information Act requests and newly available archives at Georgetown University, which show that the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have exercised direct editorial control over more than 2,500 films and television shows. These discoveries raise questions about the government’s reach at a time when deciphering propaganda from fact has become increasingly difficult.

This includes a history of excising unsavory or controversial topics — or “showstoppers” as they’re often called in the documents — including depictions of war crimes, torture, security of the nuclear arsenal, veteran suicide, sexual assault and racism in the ranks. At the same time, these institutions have used their clout to promote weapons, gin up recruiting and normalize U.S. military action around the world.

We have also discovered dozens of instances where films, denied U.S. government assistance because of objectionable content, were ultimately never made. Jerry Bruckheimer, a top producer, said that “Top Gun and 2001’s “Pearl Harbor” simply wouldn’t exist without military approval. Mace Neufeld, who produced virtually the entire Jack Ryan film franchise, also needed Pentagon and CIA support. Neufeld has acknowledged that Paramount Pictures would greenlight the first film in the series, 1990’s “The Hunt for Red October,” only if it secured Defense Department approval first. It was even in the contract. One can imagine the chilling effect this has on screenwriters.

“Top Gun,” also a Paramount product, came out post-Vietnam, at a time of public reticence about military adventurism. The movie became a military-supported public relations blitz that supercharged recruiting. As we found in our research, the Pentagon’s Entertainment Media Office internally wrote that the film “completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam War.”

The film later caused trouble for the military, though, during the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which hundreds of Navy servicemen sexually assaulted more than 80 servicewomen at a convention in Las Vegas. When Congress investigated, it called out “Top Gun” for fostering an assault-prone environment.

Now, more than three decades later, memories of Tailhook and other sexual assault controversies have faded with the help of the Entertainment Media Office’s red pen, no less. That has allowed the Navy to dust off the franchise. According to documents obtained by our research team member Tom Secker, the military began meeting with Bruckheimer, the producer, about the reboot as far back as 2012. In 2018, Entertainment Media Office personnel found “no major problems with the storyline,” but asked for “some revision to characterization and actions of Naval aviators.” Later that year, the “Production Assistance Agreement” formally stipulated the Pentagon’s right to “weave in key talking points” in exchange for all that expensive equipment.

What exact changes did the Pentagon make to the new “Top Gun: Maverick”? We don’t know, and that’s part of the problem. While we have script change details for hundreds of other productions, such as “Godzilla” and “Fast and Furious 8,” the military has repeatedly invoked a “trade secrets” exception to block our Freedom of Information Act requests when it comes to its most high-value assets.

Americans should have a right to know the extent of the military’s influence on the shows and films they consume. One solution would be to require that all script negotiations automatically be made public. Barring that, Congress could pass legislation that requires producers to disclose CIA or Department of Defense influence before the opening credits. Such a notice would alert moviegoers that they were about to experience a “two-hour infomercial” as the Pentagon proudly called “Lone Survivor,” a 2013 film about four Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, in one of the internal memos we obtained.

The entertainment industry can play a role too. Although producers and directors have largely benefited financially over the years from these arrangements, they should fight for creative integrity and refuse to give up control of their scripts. With rising audience awareness of this issue, turning a movie into a propaganda poster may no longer be the blockbuster brand strategy it once was. In fact, successful evasion of military influence might well be viewed as a badge of honor.

If we’re to truly honor the ideals veterans fought and died for, we shouldn’t allow the military to wage a stealth propaganda campaign on an unsuspecting public by commandeering the world’s largest entertainment industry.

Roger Stahl is a communication studies professor at the University of Georgia and director of the documentary film “Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA Took Hollywood.”

Hollywood Isn’t Holding Its Lines Against the Pentagon