In the aftermath of a horrific battle between U.S. service members and robots, the script called for uniformed men to unload caskets from a truck. Philip Strub objected.
“That’s not how we do things,” the director of the Pentagon’s entertainment media office told filmmakers. “Caskets aren’t just cargo. We always move them with full honors.”
That’s the nature of Strub’s role at the office that oversees the military’s relationship with the American movie industry. The department was created the same year the first Hollywood studio opened, and it is far older than the Pentagon building itself.
The Pentagon does not keep statistics, but private counts put the number of movies the Defense Department has supported above 1,000.
This relationship became very public and deeply partisan this year, when some Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of giving special favors to Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow for the upcoming film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which tells the story of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
The accusation was that the administration granted unusual access in the hope that the film, now expected to be released in December, would boost President Obama’s reelection bid. Access included meetings with Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
The Pentagon said there was nothing unusual or improper about the meetings. However, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he is awaiting the conclusion of inspector general investigations he requested.
Strub said that meetings with filmmakers are not rare and that “Zero Dark Thirty” did not get official Pentagon support. Bigelow got some information, he said, but others get much more. The practice of supporting films is so ingrained that the Pentagon has a price list online for military hardware leased out to approved films.
An hour’s rental of an airborne command post — which in the event of nuclear war would serve as Air Force One — costs $72,000 for a movie the Pentagon wants to support. A B-1B long-range bomber costs $50,529 an hour, and an F-16 fighter goes for $10,181 an hour. The budget-minded could rent a training glider for as little as $89 an hour.
The rates include the wages of the military personnel involved in flying the planes. Tom Cruise was allowed to climb into jet cockpits in the 1986 film “Top Gun,” but he was not allowed to fly the fighters.
Strub’s job is to nudge an industry devoted to fantasy and fiction toward an odd sort of cinema verite. He and others in his department pore over scripts of television shows such as “Hawaii Five-0,” even on weeks when the show is not featuring anything military in nature. That way, they can be familiar enough with the characters that when they make suggestions in the future, they will be able to fit them into the way a show works.
Most of Strub’s work is with feature films. His push for a change in the way military dead were handled came in the filming of “Transformers” — or maybe the sequel, he doesn’t quite remember. This summer, audiences can spot similar bits of military-approved detail in films about war with space aliens (“Battleship”) and about superheroes fighting otherworldly gods (“The Avengers”).
Film historian Lawrence Suid said that before the 1960s, virtually every American film about the U.S. military had official support, from advice on a script to the use of military hardware and installations.
In his book “Guts and Glory,” Suid noted that the Pentagon benefits from movies when recruiting and by informing the public and Congress about its activities.
The effectiveness of movies as a recruiting tool has never been quantified, but Suid notes that films helped each branch of service rehabilitate its tattered image after Vietnam. And it is no accident that many of the movies the Defense Department supports are blockbusters, which attract teenagers, many of them approaching or at the age at which they can volunteer for service.
Strub emphasized that he pushes for an accurate portrayal of the military, not a sugarcoated one. He noted the Pentagon’s willingness to support a movie — as yet unmade — about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which U.S. troops killed hundreds of civilians, and the trial that followed.
The first example of cooperation between the film industry and the military came in 1911, when director William Humphrey persuaded Lt. Henry Arnold to fly his biplane in front of a camera for “The Military Air-Scout.” By 1927, the relationship had helped create the movie “Wings,” the winner of the first Academy Award for best picture.
The importance of supporting films has increased with the advent of the all-volunteer military, Strub said.
“In World War II, virtually every American had a friend or relative in the service,” he said. “That’s not the case today. A much smaller percentage of the country has a direct tie to the military, so for many Americans what they learn about the services comes through film. ”
Some of the films that have received support would be familiar to most moviegoers: “Top Gun,” “The Killing Fields,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Jurassic Park III,” “Invaders From Mars” and “It Came From Beneath the Sea.”
“We could never hope to buy that level of exposure,” Strub said.