A Brief History of the Military in Media

The depiction of the military, both on the small and silver screen has a varied history both in terms of accuracy and indeed, authenticity in how it is portrayed. The influence, of the military over the production process and indeed the general narrative is an interesting discussion to consider in itself. Emerging from the golden era of Hollywood, the military has had a consistent presence, and indeed influence, over a great many productions since that point in time with access and use to personnel and hardware pre-conditioned on the input and oversight of the military in the creative process. In a society that enshrines the freedom of speech and restriction of Government input into what is acceptable discourse, this intervention of the military into media narrative has caused consternation at this perceived attack or challenge upon one of the Unions founding principles.

Any film, and by implication, series in the US that looks to use military resources in their production will be influenced to some degree by the Department of Defence. Up until 2018 the liaison between the Pentagon and Hollywood was Philip Strub as reported in the Guardian, talking about the relationship with more military focused directors such as Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. By fostering this relationship between the military and the studios, it allowed these productions to bring into the public domain and awareness the latest in military hardware and technology often clouded in secrecy given their very nature of being at the forefront of the nations defense. With the purported insistence of vetting by the Department of Defense over the narrative and script changes, it does gives credence to the notion of influence and infringement over cherished, first amendment principles when it comes to the freedom of expression of the creative process.

“”Our desire is that the military are portrayed as good people trying to do the right thing the right way,” says Strub. “That’s probably our single most important imperative. We want the equipment to be operated in a way that’s more or less the way it would be; and for servicemen to act towards each other and towards others as they would in real life.”

The Guardian 6th July 2009

The open influence of the Department of Defense and the connections to the entertainment industry has never really entered the public domain to a wide extent despite the establishment of the entertainment liaison office in 1948. Through leaked documents, it was revealed the extent of influence the CIA had on the entertainment industry, having established a similar office in 1996 and being supportive in the development and production of films centered around that particular organization such as The Recruit and the Bin Laden assassination film Zero Dark Thirty. Whilst the influence of the military over the production process is now coming into the light, ostensibly one of the key questions to consider is to what impact this has had on the wider general society, whether it had the unintentional consequence for instance of bypassing strict advertising guidance in targeting children by presenting the military without foibles or failings. Or a more understandable objective of ensuring service personnel are portrayed in an accurate and realistic fashion.

Despite it’s existence being shrouded in mystery for much of the 20th century in terms of its presence in media, the effort of the Central Intelligence Agency to give critical context and background to its actions to the extent it can without compromising national security is a valiant one though as with any agency, organization or company in the modern age, the influence of optics and perception, whilst not new mechanisms has seen this particular part of the US Government moving to adapt to modern day exposure and scrutiny. Whilst conjecture, it’s perhaps a modern day sensibility and practise of the social media age of erasing any transgressions and attempting to portray itself in an almost puritanical sense, free of sin and misdeeds in the best possible light. Where individuals, companies and agencies can be ‘cancelled’, the online practise of social outrage in that particular bubble targeting individuals and Governments to influence change, it’s quite understandable why the DoD and the CIA look to attempt to portray themselves in the best possible way to avoid this scrutiny.

In fact, the United States military was going to support this and supply us with a lot of costumes and airplanes and stuff. Their one demand was that we remove Area 51 from the film, and we didn’t want to do that. So they withdrew their support.”

Dean Devlin, Uproxx 24th June 2016

The relationship between the two however could be seen to be changing with this decision to push forward with production of the film utilising the location and the withdrawal of support of the military with the advance of CGI imagery to the extent of having minimal impact on its production. Whilst hardware, personnel and locations add a layer of authenticity to a major production, and if shot in conjunction with normal operations incurring no additional charge it is no longer a critical requirement, Independence Day was able to depict through digital imagery the air attack sequences which still today looks believable in the absence of model work or actual hardware. Even directors such as Michael Bay who had fostered good relations with the military decided to produce The Rock without the involvement of the service due in part to the depiction of a team of Navy Seal’s being killed at the hands of other US soldiers. As the reliance to add authenticity to the production erodes and fades away, so the nature of the relationship between the two evolves from one of dependence to instead, depict each other acting in good faith with integrity.

Another anecdotal example that has come to light, the purported insistence and amendment to a tertiary character in the James Bond movie Goldeneye. In one scene, a military officer is engaging in sexual activities with one of the central villainous characters resulting in his death. Purportedly, the US military took issue with the depiction of the incompetence and portrayal of one of their flag offices that they insisted on changes to his nationality. As a result, the officer’s nationality was changed from American to French however with that nation taking issue eventually they decided to on sex crazed officer being Canadian with a lingering shot of the associated security pass confirming his country of origin. Consequently, the film production was allowed to use military assets in addition to the final rescue shot featuring a unit of marines coming to the eventual rescue of the British spy. It’s fascinating to see how Government bodies and agencies were keen to control the optics of their actions whether in fiction or in reality.

The Changing Relationship Between Studios And The Military

Theatrical presentations have a limited window to convey their narrative, whether that includes any form of directed charge against the military, with a multitude of information to portray it requires a skilled director to produce a lasting message that resonates beyond the confines of that particular movie. In contrast, with the impact of longer form serial dramas and the evolution into streaming services and content, it creates a new frontier and opportunity for the armed forces to connect directly with audiences in their homes. The argument of manipulation of a target audience and propaganda, arguably still remains. It’s actually a modern fallacy of ours that exists today, like us it presents an image and perception of the various branches of the military as they wish to appear to the outside world, whether that reality holds true in any context is another topic for another time. One of the oft cited examples of this practise was the presence of Air Force recruitment tables outside movie complexes in America on the release of Top Gun in theatres. Whilst today, the lasting legacy of that film has changed somewhat, you can understand the motivation and notion of appealing to an audience fresh from seeing this idealised version of the Air Force and looking to live in that ideal world of fast jets and carefree attitudes.

As sensibilities and attitudes to the military have changed in recent years, so has the nature of the depiction of the military both on the large and small screen with a more, earnest attempt to show a reflection of the struggles and issues facing service personnel and the spirit to overcome them in the defense of their country. The use of longer form dramas specifically has allowed audiences to follow and buy into characters to a greater extent, one of the notable examples of this in recent years the Air Force characters in the series Stargate SG1. An evolution of the movie of the same name, from the beginning the series approached the Air Force to gain their co-operation in presenting the service personnel in a fair and accurate fashion. Though the series utilised a similar sci-fi based premise in tackling wider social issues as seen in Star Trek, its contemporary setting allowed it to make use of existing military architecture. This fostered a positive relationship between the studio and the Air Force which saw the appearance of active serving officers depicting themselves during its run including Air Force Chief of Staff, John Jumper and former Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Ryan.

The Air Force’s relationship with “Stargate: SG-1” actually goes back almost seven years, when producers first approached the Air Force to help make sure scripts and characters “accurately reflect the Air Force

Doug Thar, Stars and Stripes March 12th 2004

From a holistic perspective, the series never challenged or looked to confront the impact of the events of the series on their characters behaviours and actions, ever the consummate professional they behaved and acted at all times in the spirit of the Air Force, as noted the series main star and executive producer Richard Dean Anderson being made an honorary Brigadier General as a reflection of the show’s continual positive portrayal of the US Air Force. The series, though at times in a more lighthearted manner, utilised a similar framework as established in Star Trek in presenting their officers in the framework of a militaristic organization without ever confronting or challenging the impact of the service on their physical or mental wellbeing. In addition, focusing primarily on the sci-fi aspect of the series whilst framing it inside the world of the US Air Force. I enjoyed the series, and to a deeper extent, appreciated the fact this particular armed service wasn’t depicted as some machiavellian agent of the state with a nefarious agenda. The ability to present and evolve these characters over multiple seasons allowed the series writers and staff to depict certain aspects of the military in their behaviors and reactions as circumstances presented themselves, on occasion framing any constentaton of the military through the perspective of its civilian characters.

The legacy of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to overthrow the Taliban and Iraqi Government shifted the optics towards the military and intervention in the middle east. Whilst films such as Black Hawk Down questioned the merits of intervention, it never went beyond the conflict to look at the impact on the operators and soldiers depicted in the film or the reasons and failures behind the raids in Somalia. It was however changing how the military was used and depicted in media with the wider focus on the reason and purpose behind these interventions that would perhaps have been brushed aside historically. As such, shows which presented the services without this level of ambiguity behind its actions or deeper analysis looked like a product of a different era. In recent years, TNT’s The Last Ship looked to use a similar dynamic and relationship with the US Navy in its production, filming aboard the USS Halsey and USS Dewey in San Diego presenting a post apocalyptic scenario of a viral strain infecting humanity, and thanks in part to a mission to the arctic isolating them from the effects of this pandemic, the last hope resting on the shoulders of the fictional naval vessel, the USS Nathan James.

The Secretary of the Navy [Ray Mabus] himself has been to our set and actually recorded a cameo. It’s the episode where they find the message that was buried in the files of the White House. The guy who’s playing the Secretary of the Navy, is the real Secretary of the Navy.”

Hank Steinberg, Fox News July 17th 2015

As with Stargate and it’s depiction of the Air Force, so The Last Ship exemplifies the best behaviours and traits of the US Navy, and whilst benefiting from the use of hardware and logistics unfortunately suffers from a fairly outlandish action film tone inconsistent with the tone and trend of military films and series in the present day. The actors benefited immensely from the co-operation with the navy, before shooting begun the series was ‘vetted’ by the Navy to ensure its portrayal in the best possible light but as such, it again succumbs to the fallacy of presenting this idealised version of itself without ever shining to great a light on the impact of these events and actions on themselves. Everyone is heroic by default, any mistakes or errors swiftly resolved, its enjoyable to watch but easily dismissable as extended propaganda. By admission, the series navy technical advisor for production quoted in the LA Times as saying “We have a vested interest in not having the Navy look bad. This is great because we get to show sailors in an awesome light“. An admirable sentiment but equally, unfortunately, supporting the notion and idea of this series being a targeted advertisement for the Navy t0 present themselves in the best possible way to an impressionable audience.

Setting aside the subjective argument for a moment it is reflective of the push to bring these high production shows to network and today, streaming platforms that deliver an aesthetic and environment restricted entirely to the cinematic universe in years gone by. With the use of the naval vessels in San Diego and a liberal use of green screen filming it was able to create the appearance of a modern missile destroyer at sea, utilising practical and digital effects in equal measure. Equally, through collaboration with the Navy with active personnel serving as extras during its production, it served to demystify life aboard ship whilst portraying some aspects in a realistic fashion. One of the highlights in recent years has been the inclusion of veterans from the different tranches of the services in a production capacity that serve to provide context and clarity on short harm terminology for instance or standard operating procedure. Certainly some aspects you would imagine cannot be depicted or shown faithfully but where possible, normalising life aboard a missile destroyer for instance in this series, in this fashion dispels the unknown and confusion around the military.

Looking Into The Future

In recent years, as the role and function of the US military has continued to evolve and change adapting to new arenas of operation, so its depiction has reflected this change, notably in the ongoing serialised drama Seal Team on the CBS network in America depicting the fictional Navy Seal unit Bravo Team, planning and undertaking missions around the globe in keeping with the reported and more well known accounts of Seal activity. The series has attempted to depict a more rounded version of life as a special forces operator, touching upon domestic issues where applicable but with a general focus on the brotherhood of the operators on the series. Whilst, restricted in this smaller format with recurring backgrounds and areas becoming a little familiar as the show progresses, it has attempted to bring specific narratives and subject matter to the foreground such as PTSD from combat and its effect on veterans in its second series, the impact and strain on domestic relations throughout its run and in the most recent season, the evolving nature of combat and the requirement for these types of operators in a digital age. In contrast to the more pristine and wholesome reflection of military service depicted in other media, this series has attempted to show a more fully realised idea of life in the Elite services and its very real emotional and physical impact on those who make that sacrifice.

From its genesis in the opening moments it had the support and contribution of a number of former and retired operators with experience across the spectrum of services in the US military including Seals and Marines who have provided support in shaping and portraying the characters in as realistic fashion as is permitted. Notably, the inclusion and appearance of Tyler Grey to the show adds a certain authenticity as a recurring character and member of the fictional Brave Team. It was a response as reported in the article at military.com by Hollywood to add authenticity to its depictions by bringing on technical advisors who had served in those conflicts and arenas, notable inclusions being Lone Survivor with its use of NAVY Seals. This series from its very beginning had in place the technical advisors to pick up the small details and aspects, how and why the actors held certain lights, providing assistance and training on the gun range. But beyond the technical aspects the general fatigue of continual operations and recounting its detrimental effect on personal relationships between each other and those closest to them. Because the series has the benefit of being this longer form drama, whilst still a network series with a certain narrative structure it allows characters to grow, to break down and show this more nuanced and realistic take on the impact of service.

People complain that the military is portrayed wrong all the time. If we want to be portrayed more realistically and in a more authentic way, we have to participate. If you’re just complaining and you’re not actively trying to solve something or you don’t have a solution, then quit complaining

Tyler Grey, Military.Com 2017

Any form of fictional media has its own story and narrative to tell, its own particular bias and perspective natural with any form of creative content. The inclusion and use of retired veterans as technical advisors in this particular genre of entertainment, both on the large and smaller screen at the very least adds a certain level of deserved authenticity as to their depiction. As noted in the final interview, whilst there are many who can bring that level of knowledge and guidance to the creative industry, sometimes the illicit thrill comes in just seeing stuff blown up with the pomp and ceremony on a bombastic soundtrack regardless of the attention to detail easily overlooked in the heat of the moment. The move towards long form drama, especially with the changing nature of media into the public domain through streaming platforms provides opportunity to extend our time with these characters. As such, to buy into them, to invest in these particular narratives and stories requires authenticity in the product and as the man said, you can complain the portrayal of the methods and approach is wrong or you can actively look to participate and be an agent of change. Seal Team attempted to bring a level of realism and allow its audience to see beyond the idealised notion of the Special Forces, in doing so you buy into and appreciate the authenticity of these people.

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