Enlisting an audience: How Hollywood peddles propaganda

Movies like ‘12 Strong’ and ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ exemplify military valor without considering the cost of war.

Enlisting an audience: How Hollywood peddles propaganda

Movies like ‘12 Strong’ and ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ exemplify military valor without considering the cost of war.

This January, an American war movie starring the Australian dreamboat Chris Hemsworth opened in theaters nationwide. 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story Of The Horse Soldiers told the tale of Task Force Dagger, an advance combat unit operational in the early days of the War in Afghanistan, partially on horseback. It was a rousing product with crisp action and a delightfully triumphant conclusion and, as advertised, lots of cool horse stuff. It was also, in the context of the current day state of affairs, an insane thing to release. A few scenes before the end credits, Hemsworth reverently buries a piece of scrap metal from the Twin Towers in the Afghan dirt. A little bit after that, two of the horse soldiers have a very peaceful conversation about how, whatever happens next here, in this land far from home, it’s out of their hands. And at no point does a title card appear pointing out that, 18 years after the events depicted, US combat forces in Afghanistan are still stuck in a bloody and hopeless morass.

It was one of two new movies from the last few months to praise the death-defying merits of our American soldiers. In Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 To Paris, we saw the real-life thwarting of a 2015 terror attack on a Eurorail train by former American servicemen (played, with bizarre flat-affect, by those real-life American servicemen). Mark Harris is the author of Five Came Back, the definitive history of Hollywood’s propaganda efforts during World War II, from John Ford’s The Battle of Midway to Frank Capra’s Why We Fight. As he put it, “It certainly seems propagandistic to say, The way to stop terrorism is with three strong Americans.”

Military pageantry in Russia, massive rallies in North Korea, blunt messaging from China. We cluck at shameless self-aggrandizing when we see it overseas. But it doesn’t take much effort to see that American propaganda is everywhere, too. It’s not government-made, and it’s not quite as brazen as its counterpart from abroad. But it’s here, and to ignore that a piece of content is, at its core, propaganda — especially these days, while Trump openly pines for grand army parades — is a mistake. “There’s all kinds of ways to make an ideological point,” Harris added. “Sometimes I do think we’re not attuned enough. We do not look hard enough for propaganda.”

So what does American propaganda look like? If the US government is not its producer, where does American propaganda come from? And is it working?

“We’re not trying to brainwash people! We’re out to present the clearest, truest view.”
Phil Strub, entertainment liason at the Department of Defense

In February, Men’s Health’s first ever “Tactical Issue” — or SPECIAL MILITARY ISSUE, as its coverline screamed — hit newsstands. On the cover, a burly Army Sergeant named Diamond Ott stared at us with his powerful arms powerfully crossed, while a headline offered the secrets to getting “Soldier Strong!” Over email, Ben Court, Men’s Health Deputy Editor, Cross Platform Content, explained the angle: “We’ve recently observed a greater reader interest in the military space, so we decided to dedicate our first full issue to all things tactical.”

The same wave that Men’s Health noticed has also hit the small screen. As The Hollywood Reporter declared in September, “The biggest trend of the fall television season is a move toward what could be called ’Patriotic TV.’ Shows like CBS’ SEAL Team, NBC’s The Brave and The CW’s Valor focus on the U.S. military or the heartland.” THR also offered a theory as to why the “military space” is so interesting all of a sudden: the news shows were “an attempt by broadcast networks to appeal to Trump’s army of supporters.”

We likely are experiencing a specific post-Trump content glut. But as anyone who’s ever strolled through a Hudson News can attest, “military space” content has long been with us. That includes anything from Tom Clancy-esque genre-fiction paperbacks to memoirs of bravery and death from any given wing of the armed forces’ ex-soldiers. (Ever since the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden, the SEAL Team Six brand has been particularly strong). That’s the obvious stuff, but being attuned to what may or may not be propaganda means looking for it everywhere.

Even — nay, especially — in Pitch Perfect 3. A few months ago I was delighted when a buddy texted me a Medium post headlined “I Paid To See A Movie About Singing. I Got Ninety Minutes of Pentagon Propaganda.” I had, admittedly, checked out on the franchise. But, uh, what the fuck? It turns out that in Pitch Perfect 3, the Barden Bellas acapella team heads out on a USO tour.

The writer of the piece, an independent journalist named Caity Johnstone, explains that “the first Pitch Perfect is a firm favorite in our household” and that she’d excitedly planned a night out to the movies with her husband and children to catch this new one and that they’d even got sugary soda! But then — the movie started: “The heroines were constantly drooling over the handsome, sexy servicemen, there was nonstop saluting, flag-waving and patriotic ’thank you for your service’ lines, the lead cast did an entire number dressed in camouflage … I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, but I also wasn’t expecting to be blasted in the face with ninety minutes of blatant war propaganda.”

TV shows created and magazines edited post-Trump. Movies originated both before and after (12 Strong is the former, The 15:17 is the latter). Movies both about and not about singing. What does all of that content have in common? In the details, almost nothing. The connection is in the overarching purpose: it is all a response to market demand. Someone, somewhere, thought somebody would want to see content presenting a positive representation of the US military, and so it was created. (Results on return on investment are mixed: 12 Strong and The 15:17 both cracked $50 million in international box office, a fine-enough number. Meanwhile, Pitch Perfect 3, which had a built-in franchise audience, pulled over $180 million worldwide)

Certainly, the content has alternative, sincere agendas, too, but it’s the giant, amorphous market of consumers that has called it forth. That’s the difference between our propaganda and everyone else’s. In autocratic regimes, a government-backed entity pushes it onto indifferent or unwilling consumers. In America, we, the consumers, happily demand it.

Promotional art for 12 Strong.

Promotional art for 12 Strong.

The Department of Defense actually has a liaison to Hollywood. His name is Phil Strub and he’s a ex-Navy man and film school kid. In-development productions regularly send their scripts to, as Fortune explained in 2013, “an ascetic office at the Pentagon in hopes of procuring military cooperation.” If Strub gives the go-ahead, “the filmmakers stand to access the most awesome arsenal in the world, and in turn, the image and message of the American armed forces get projected before a global audience.”

Since 1989, when he was first hired, Strub has struck DOD deals with over 100 movies — and also, Katy Perry. Her video for “Part Of Me” was shot at MBC Camp Pendleton in San Diego, with Marine Corps support. After a rough breakup, Katy sees a Marine bumper sticker and signs up for boot camp. We see her bayonetting a mannequin torso and blasting an M16 in slomo and crooning and twirling in full fatigues under a massive American flag. An undeniable jam; a literal recruitment video.

In a genial phone conversation with The Outline, Strub described his office’s decision-making process. First they ask for a script for the project: “Not just a script that only has our scenes in it, but the entire script so that we can read it in context. We don’t wanna get our operatives lined up just to say, ‘by the way, the script sucks.’” Then, once the greenlight is given, either a rep for the office or Strub himself will be present on set.

According to the 2017 book National Security Cinema, during the shooting of Transformers — Michael Bay’s supremely Army-happy shape-shifting-robots-from-space series — Strub even had a hand in writing an on-set kicker. A scene was shot in which American forces come under danger from the Decepticons. Jon Voight, playing John Keller, Secretary of Defense, fished around for an impromptu line. According to Cinema, “Strub suggested, ‘Bring ’em home’ and ‘murmurs of agreement moved through the circle.’” The line made the final cut.

After shooting, Strub asks to see a rough edit. “But it’s not a, how shall I put this, hostile or accusative or trustless situation,” he said. “It can be a give-and-take. There are productions that we’ve worked on that weren’t exactly recruitment-type things.” He recalls a long-ago sit-down with the famously leftist filmmaker Oliver Stone, who at the time was working on a (never-made) movie about the My Lai massacre. “He comes to the building and he says, ‘Oh I know you have a blacklist, I know I’m on your blacklist!’ And I say, ‘we don’t have a blacklist! It’s all about the script!’”

I asked if his office ever uses the word propaganda. Strub blanched. “I associate that with something that is not truthful,” he says. “Something that is put together deliberately to mislead, to brainwash people, to twist the real. They whip [true and false] together in a smorgasbord. That’s propaganda. And maybe you’d accuse me of being too pro-military but to me, the movies we work with, they’re morale-improvement. We don’t say, ‘OK! Let’s see what we can do to exploit this opportunity!’ We’re not trying to brainwash people! We’re out to present the clearest, truest view.”

The DOD’s involvement with Pitch Perfect 3 and The 15:17 was the providing of general “real estate,” Strub said; with 12 Strong, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was opened for use. “I would have thought 12 Strong would have done much better than it did,” Strub offered as an aside. “I ran into a lot of people who saw it and thought it was terrific. But it sure didn’t manifest the enthusiasm nationally.”

Strub added that his office has never “actually plotted out return on investment.” He said, “We have a criteria in our guidance and it’s deliberately broad. It says, the reason we get involved at all is because it’s an opportunity to tell the American public something about the military that they may not know or to be a benefit to military recruitment or retention. And we don’t have any statistics that confirm that any of those is legitimately happening.” He made the whole thing sound like almost a holistic approach. “Somebody, I don’t remember who it was — he might have been a critic — once said something like ’nobody knows anything.’ I think there is something to that.”

As Harris put it, “When you’re looking at movies today, the most that happens is favor trading. You get access to military equipment in return for a favorable portrayal. When you’re talking World War II, you’re talking about literal propaganda — material actually created by the government. It’s apples and oranges.” But, he added, “in the aggregate, if the government was really interested in creating movie content, it wouldn’t have that much of an issue with something like Lone Survivor.”

In Survivor, Mark Wahlberg portrays Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who was the only member of his unit to survive a 2005 attack by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. Speaking to Vanity Fair, Berg explained his motivation: “Nonfiction. Merciless tales of people uniting to face overwhelming odds.” Movies that end “with a deep belief in the value of persistence. This epic world of the truth … inspires us.” The tagline for Lone Survivor even skips a tried-and-true cliche in favor of a much meatier phrasing: “Based On True Acts Of Courage.”

Berg is an accomplished and capable filmmaker; his propaganda movies are surprising in their deftness and light hand. Alongside Michael Bay and Eastwood, he’s part of a small coterie of Hollywood filmmakers that has regularly successfully produced this kind of content. (One would perhaps not go so far as to use the word “light” to describe 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Bay’s bombastically on-brand 2016 addition to the genre, yet even that movie is actually excessively watchable.)

But being surprisingly non-bad doesn’t absolve these movies of their agendas. In the context of our heretofore eternal wars, “Based On True Acts Of Courage” doesn’t really have much connection to an objective idea of truth. A narrative has been selected. A thin selection has been sliced. All other truths will have to remain buried for now. Lone Survivor was released in 2013, around the time Obama began an inevitably failed attempt at ending the Afghan War. What does the story of Marcus Luttrell’s inspiring and incredible survival tell us about the reason the United States was still in Afghanistan? How can you celebrate the former without ever broaching the latter?

In December of 2012, the movie Zero Dark Thirty — a captivating telling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden — was released. Within months, reports surfaced that during production its filmmakers, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, might have been privy to classified information. A recent New York Times Magazine piece on the 9/11 trial defendant Ammar al-Baluchi alleges that the movie’s opening scene even echoed al-Baluchi’s torture reports.

Zero Dark Thirty suggests that enhanced interrogations led directly to information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts, a contention that has never been independently proven. The movie, then, is an implicit, horribly-misguided defense of the US torture program. It’s also a cinematic achievement: tough, unceasing, inspiredly evocative of our murky times. All of which is to say — to call something propaganda isn’t necessarily to dismiss it as wholly unworthy as a piece of content. Propaganda can be anything. It can even be art.

There’s one persistent “military space” content trope that’s largely escaped critical attention. If you’ve been on YouTube or caught an episode of internet-punch-drunk Ellen at any time in the last five years, you’ve probably seen a military-family-reunion video. The format is simple and quick. Unsuspecting family members are filmed (in a living room, on a basketball court at half-time, at a talk-show studio) under some false pretense. Unsuspecting family members are then surprised with the arrival of a father or mother or brother or sister (but usually a father) from an overseas deployment. Unsuspecting family members break down with joy.

These videos are crushing. The emotions of these family-members are real and earned. Watch one and you’ll find it hard not to weep yourself. They’re also a free commercial for the army.

“If your stance is anything that acknowledges the existence of the US military in a way that doesn’t explicitly condemn it is propaganda, then you’re going to see a lot of propaganda out there,” Harris tells me. “To me that’s a little bit ‘to a hammer everything looks like a nail.’” That’s an important stipulation. But these videos are not just a non-critical representation of the military. They’re aggressively uncomplicated and irresponsibly sweet. All they show is the relief. They’re glowing.

In 2013, writing for Deadspin, Sam Eifling took aim at the arena-version of the practice. “My own two brothers did a total of three tours in Afghanistan and Qatar,” he wrote, “and during those months my parents and I were consigned to that limbo where every casualty on the news, every bomb and every body, arrives as there-but-for-the-grace-of-God … What it’s like for kids to wait for their parents, I have no idea. Maybe a big stadium hoo-rah is a fitting reward for the months of limbo. But if the people applauding our servicemen and women really want to help out? Don’t back any more bullshit wars.”

And that is precisely the insane part. Have Americans ever been better at separating the wars the country is fighting from the people fighting them? It’s not a fringe opinion to criticize our eternal wars: our more rambunctious congresspeople do it from the Senate floor. Here’s Rand Paul, last September: “What we have today is basically unlimited war — war anywhere, anytime, any place on the globe ... I don’t think anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty believes these authorizations allow [the] current wars we fight.”

And yet, somehow, decades into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and years into fatal mission creep in Niger — Hollywood has no problem making movies like 12 Strong and The 15:17. In past eras, in past times of war, cinema reflected a national mood. Now, in our American propaganda, soldiers are presented as heroic in a vacuum.

But it’s not just that propaganda is being made — it’s that most contemporaneous war movies are propaganda. An actual consideration of the wars in which these soldiers are being heroic is not offered — cannot be offered, because our wars today are too ugly and too long and too strange to engage in with any sort of effortless pride. But American propaganda flows forward, and will continue to flow forward. The market demands glorious stories of valor.

When Donald Trump inveighed against the NFL’s National Anthem protests, he did so by suggesting that the kneeling was disrespectful to our flag and, therefore, disrespectful to the troops that fought for that flag. His straw man argument created a national fervor. This was a bit of inanity that proved delightful to millions of American. A few days before the Eagles beat the Patriots, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster passed an official proclamation urging, with wild-eyed glee, that all of the state’s citizens “STAND FOR THE FLAG SUPER BOWL SUNDAY.”

When Trump talks about service people, he also does so as if they are an abstract concept: he presents “the troops” as removed from the actual wars those troops are fighting. The idea is powerful, and appealing in its simplicity. In this world view, some things are beyond reproach. In this version of America, the military is to be respected and cherished at all times, in all ways. It’s nonsense, and its dangerous, and it’s what propaganda believes, too. The kneeling protests are an exercise in the critical thought that free speech allows. Propaganda is the absence of critical thought, and it appears very much to be working. Because to identify is not to disarm it. If it exists — if we let it take up space — it’s working.

“The starkest thing about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan is how scarcely they are represented in Hollywood,” Harris says. “It is so manifestly something that people do not have an appetite for.” Why have American filmmakers failed to reckon with the wars Americans are fighting? It, again, may be the fault of the market’s demands. Perhaps current cinema is reflective of the national mood on our eternal wars. That mood is indifference. Honestly, we just don’t think about them all that much.

Amos Barshad has written for The FADER, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn. He previously wrote about dog prisons for The Outline.