The movie Act of Valor, which opened in theaters last weekend and earned nearly $25 million, was commissioned by the Navy's Special Warfare Command to drum up recruits for its elite SEALs program. But this is by no means the first movie made with the military's cooperation.
Hollywood's relationship with the military can be traced back to the 1927 film Wings, which won a Best Picture Oscar, says Jordan Zakarin, an editor with hollywoodreporter.com. That film was proposed to the Department of War, directed by a veteran and given planes, guns and other military equipment. But the partnership between Hollywood and the military didn't truly blossom until World War II.
"They knew that the burgeoning medium of film was very important to get public support," Zakarin tells Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered.
Walt Disney's studio made many famous glory-filled films, he says, including some that in hindsight seem almost like caricatures.
"But at the time, they really drove support," he says.
There was a divorce of sorts between Hollywood and the military during Vietnam, and it lasted at least until 1986, the year of Oliver Stone's classic Platoon. But what really turned things around that year was Top Gun.
"Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola — they did not want to work with the Pentagon," Zakarin says. "They didn't want to change their message. So it was a bit of a difficult time, but then Top Gun came out and made a lot of money and they realized, 'Wow, we can do this on the cheap, get a lot of promotion and look real good.' "
Zakarin says the military worked with producer Jerry Bruckheimer on the film and even placed recruitment tables outside movie theaters.
"I think what happened was that it was long enough ... after the Vietnam War ended that filmmakers and studios realized that they could do this little bit on the cheaper side and make a lot of money," he says. "And ultimately that's beyond message. That's what it comes down to in Hollywood."
How it works: The Pentagon requests five copies of a script. It has to be informative and must help in recruitment.
"They don't want a movie that'll make the U.S. look bad even if it's, you know, based on a true story," Zakarin says.
He cites the example of 2002's Windtalkers, set during World War II. It had a character called the dentist who would take gold fillings out of fallen Japanese soldiers' teeth.
"Even though it was true, it didn't reflect really well on the military, so they had them take that out," he says.
Ultimately, Zakarin says, the dominant ideology in Hollywood is what makes money.
"We've seen a lot of movies that are very good [and] a number of films that fell short of the box office despite being critically acclaimed," he says. "Maybe Hollywood's realizing that maybe people don't want to see difficult war on their TV screen after seeing it 24-7 on CNN, on Fox News, so maybe now they're into a little bit of escapist entertainment."
In that vein, coming to your local multiplex: director Peter Berg's Battleship and Zac Efron in The Lucky One.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to the military 's efforts to curate its image in popular culture. Exhibit A: The biggest movie in America right now was born at the Pentagon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ACT OF VALOR")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sir, leave two men here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
CORNISH: "Act of Valor" was commissioned by the Navy's Special Warfare Command to play up its elite SEALs program. And it follows the Navy SEALs' remarkable moment in the spotlight, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and a huge spike in public interest. The unabashed propaganda film opened in theaters across the country Friday and earned nearly $25 million.
We're going to look now at the long and complicated relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon. Our tour guide is Jordan Zakarin. He's a staff editor with the hollywoodreporter.com. Hi there, Jordan.
JORDAN ZAKARIN: Hey. How are you?
CORNISH: So, Jordan, you trace this relationship between the military and Hollywood, and you trace it back to 1927 and the film "Wings." Tell us about it.
ZAKARIN: Yeah. That was actually the first Best Picture winner. The film got proposed to the Department of Wars, it was called then. And they liked it, and they had a military veteran direct it. And the military gave them planes and guns and all those sorts of things that they still give today.
CORNISH: And you talk about, in your article, the different departments that were set up over the years to accomplish this at the Pentagon.
ZAKARIN: Yeah. World War II, especially, they knew that, you know, the burgeoning medium of film was very important to get public support. So they had two departments, you know, Bureau of War Information and another one that kind of looked over scripts and checked them, and then one that decided if you could export your film to foreign territories, which kind of means your film will be made or not.
And they took over Disney studio who produced a lot of famous sort of propaganda films. And there was a lot of great glory-filled films that, if you look back on it today, a little bit of caricatures, especially the Japanese soldiers. But at the time, they really drove support and later on established national office for this permanently.
CORNISH: Now, I understand there was kind of a divorce between Hollywood and the military around the time of Vietnam that continued right up into the early 1980s with the release of Oliver Stone's "Platoon," which was made actually with no help from the Pentagon. What happened there?
ZAKARIN: Well, Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola, they did not want to work with the Pentagon, and they want to change their message. So it was a bit of a difficult time. But then "Top Gun" came out, made a lot of money, and they realized, wow, we could do this on the cheap, get a lot of promotion and look real good.
CORNISH: Why was "Top Gun" the turning point?
ZAKARIN: Well, you know, it made a lot of money. A lot of it was because of Tom Cruise. But the military really worked with Jerry Bruckheimer on that, and they had a recruitment tables outside the theaters. And I think what happened was that it was long enough, like 10 years after the Vietnam War ended, that filmmakers and studios realized that they could do this a little bit on the cheaper side and make a lot of money. And ultimately, that's beyond message. That's what it comes down to in Hollywood.
CORNISH: You've talked about the things that directors can get in terms of the props and scene settings. What does it mean creatively in terms of script approval or the screening of the Defense Department might do for the story and plot?
ZAKARIN: Well, it requires five copies of the script. And they go over it and tell you what can and can't be in there. They say it has to be informative, and it has to be true. It has to help in recruitment. They don't want a movie that would make the U.S. look bad, even if, you know, it's based on a true story. There was one called "Wind Talkers" about World War II and people in Japan, and they had a character called The Dentist. And he would take gold fillings out of fallen Japanese soldiers' teeth.
And even though it was true, that didn't really reflect well on the military, so they had them take that out.
CORNISH: Jordan, the makers of the film "Act of Valor" have said that there is still a sort of antimilitary ideology in Hollywood and in entertainment. At the same time, I see films that have the support of the Pentagon coming out all the time. I mean what kind of phase are we in now?
ZAKARIN: Well, I think the ideology ultimately is what makes money. You know, we've seen a lot of movies that were very good, "Hurt Locker" one of them, "Jar Head, "a number of films that fell short of the box office despite being critically acclaimed. Maybe Hollywood is realizing that maybe people don't want to see difficult war on their TV screen after seeing it, you know, 24/7 on CNN, on Fox News. So maybe now they're into a little bit of escapist entertainment.
You've got "Battleship" coming out with Peter Berg, a Zac Efron movie called "The Lucky One" - a little bit of romance there. You know, especially as the war is ending and we're in a kind of a support-our-troops mode, there are going to be less focusing on the renegade or difficulties that happen in Iraq and elsewhere.
CORNISH: That's Jordan Zakarin. He's a staff editor with the hollywoodreporter.com. Jordan, thanks so much for talking with us.
ZAKARIN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.