Rastko Novakovic speaks to Roger Stahl about his ground breaking new film, exposing the extent of military and US intelligence influence in the Hollywood films we all watch.
Important: The event advertised in this interview takes place on Wednesday 12 April at the CCA in Glasgow. One of the businesses hosted by the CAA, the Saramago Cafe Bar, is the subject of an ongoing union picket after dismissing several staff members over union activities. On the advice of the workers in dispute, we request that those attending the event refrain from spending any money at the Saramago. You can learn more about the dispute and how to support the workers here.
As Europe plunges ever deeper into war, killing machines are in the news and on our mind. Triumphally, the carcasses of Russian tanks are being dumped on the streets and squares of European capitals. Meanwhile, the German company Rheinmetall, which enriched itself during WWI and WWII, is brokering a deal with Ukraine to build a brand new factory on its territory. There, it plans to build ‘Panther’ tanks, like it used to do for the Nazi government of Germany, which sent them to the Eastern Front, including in Ukraine. The Challenger tanks which the UK government is sending to Ukraine, include artillery rounds tipped with depleted uranium – there is no treaty to prohibit their use, but the increasing evidence from Fallujah is damning when it comes to its legacy. Once again, US nuclear rockets are being deployed at RAF Lakenheath, where they twice caught fire, threatening to turn Suffolk or the rest of England into a dead land. It was due to sustained protests that the rockets were removed in 2008 and anti-war and peace activists are once again preparing to oppose this deployment.
Hollywood is well-known for parading weapons and a militaristic ethic through its output. However, it is little known that the military equipment used in its films often comes at a price. The new film Theaters of War (2022) exposes how the Pentagon dictates storylines to fit narratives, imagery and alternative versions of history which are to its liking. In advance of the UK/Scottish premiere we are organising at Glasgow’s CCA on 12th April (tickets here), I wanted to know more. What follows is an interview with Roger Stahl, the film’s director, who is a professor and researcher, specialising in understanding propaganda and public relations as they relate to state violence, conflict, and security.
Rastko Novaković: You have written a book about the ‘weaponized gaze’: Through the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze (Rutgers UP, 2018) and then went on to make a film exploring its findings. One of its central explorations is how commonplace it is to film war (both fiction and documentary) in such a way that we are encouraged to identify with the crosshairs, with the soldiers, weapons and the perpetrators, rather than the victims. Now, in the film Theaters of War you expose how it is in fact the US military which is often writing or rewriting films to fit this militaristic perspective. What are the effects of this?
Roger Stahl: As I was writing that book – about smart bomb cameras, drone cameras, satellites – it became clear that this kind of footage was carefully curated. For example, virtually all the drone strike footage we see comes from a big US military newsfeed called DVIDS (Defense Video Distribution Service). I wondered if there was a similar attempt to push this way of seeing in movies. I started checking in with some of the researchers who had gathered the documents on the CIA and Pentagon media offices that lend out their wares to filmmakers in exchange for the right to doctor the script. Lo and behold, virtually all the films that featured some dramatization of the weaponized gaze come right out of officially supported films. Over time it has proven to be attention-grabbing device that poses no real threat to the official narrative and in fact greases the gears of the military-industrial complex.
RN: How has the ‘military-entertainment complex’, as you call it, evolved over the years?
RS: To keep it simple, we could just talk about the Pentagon and CIA offices that are specifically charged to work with film and TV. These institutions are in some ways the beating heart of the military-entertainment complex. And we didn’t know much about them until the last few years. So the first thing that I’ll say is that our understanding has taken a huge leap. Scholars assumed that maybe a couple hundred films had been subject to official oversight and rewriting. Now we can confirm that the number is at least 2,500 films and television shows.
As far as the institutions themselves, the DOD’s apparatus has been around the longest. Individual branches were making deals and rewriting scripts back before WWI. These were peacetime endeavors different from the formal wartime propaganda agencies that were set up during WWI (the Committee for Public Information) and WWII (the Office of War Information). After WWII, the US established a permanent military, and part of that involved establishing a permanent office for dealing with Hollywood. So they christened the Motion Picture Production Office in 1949. Today it’s called the Entertainment Media Office, and it has expanded into every available medium: TV, reality TV, video games, social media influencer shows, etc. The documents indicated that the office has ramped up its operations in recent decades.
Early on, it was maybe five or six movies a year. Now they’re working on dozens of productions at any given time. Top Gun (1986) was a turning point. It convinced the industry that there was real money to be made, and the Pentagon took advantage of it. The CIA’s history has not been as well documented to this point. There are good books on the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom activities, and we knew that they had a hand in rewriting films like Animal Farm (1954) and 1984 (1956). Beyond that, there was very little until Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood opened up the story. And now we have obtained lots more documentation through Freedom of Information. The CIA formally established its own media office in 1996 just after the Cold War ended, because they were worried about their continued relevance. They got started with the Mission Impossible series, the Bourne series, and Jack Ryan. They’ve had some serious success with Argo (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) in more recent years.
RN: What are the implications and the effects on freedom of speech of this persistent interference?
RS: Filmmakers don’t have to approach the Pentagon or CIA, and they’re free to go their own way if they don’t want to abide by official edits. Regardless, the influence of these institutions on the industry is tremendous. So, for a filmmaker, you’re often writing scripts with military support in mind. You’re thinking about the studio, which sometimes won’t green light the picture without support. And it’s true that official denial really can kill a project. We have found that the number of denied films that were never made exceeds the number of supported films never made by a factor of more than 2-to-1. Films made without support sacrifice realism and cost millions more. In the end, the effect is the same as a system of formal censorship and propaganda. Lines get cut, character arcs added, certain films don’t see the light of day, etc.
RN: What have been some of the reactions to the findings you and the other researchers brought to light in ‘Theaters of War’ – from Hollywood, from civil society, from politicians?
RS: The film has only been out on the educational market thus far – colleges and universities – so the exposure has been limited. In my experience, though, audiences are largely gobsmacked. Many knew of the existence of these offices, but they had not understood the depth of influence. Even colleagues who study in this area were surprised. I sent a screener to one who told me that his wife had to come check on him because he was repeatedly yelling some version of “WTF!” at the screen.
We got a large donation to “get it on Netflix” recently, so we’re preparing it for commercial release. That’s when I think we’ll see the reaction from industry folks, these media liaison offices, and politicians. The weekend that Top Gun: Maverick came out, I wrote an op-ed to the LA Times, which led a bunch of media appearances and interest. I thought that the entertainment office might respond publicly, but so far, they have not. Industry folks have been quiet up to this point as well aside from the occasional Oliver Stone. They typically do not want to bite the hand that feeds. Perhaps we’ll see other industry defectors as the story gets out, though. I’d love to see the issue come to a head where politicians have to acknowledge the issue and weigh in.
RN: I understand that the Pentagon has focused on shaping how the post-WWII history of US empire is told and perceived in movies. Can you point to specific examples of changes to earlier historical periods where they also decided to intervene?
RS: The post-WWII period is the most dramatic, particularly after Vietnam. Public trust in the military and foreign policy leaders took a nosedive, so you get a lot more films rejected, more radical script changes, etc. Rescuing the military from the memory of Vietnam became a primary objective.
But there were PR objectives going all the way back to the invention of cinema. We know that the Army supported The Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, which was a landmark film but profoundly racist. It was originally called The Clansman and was a huge factor in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. We don’t have detailed documentation on the script review, but we can at least say that the military endorsed the film and was essential in its success. WWI was breaking out in Europe, which had been involved in a huge arms build-up, so painting heroic, epic battle scenes from the Civil War helped to lionize the military and stoke nationalistic fervor in the US.
During America’s involvement in WWI, we had the Creel Commission, which was an official propaganda ministry that worked with film, but most people don’t know that these efforts continued into peacetime. In the 1920s, for example, there was a huge push to get the American public to invest in air power. The first academy award went to Wings (1927), which was heavily supported as a kind of advertisement for air power.
RN: Is this a model for state interference that other countries have tried to emulate? How does it compare with other models of vetting or state censorship?
RS: Yes, other developed, democratic nations have taken a lesson from the US model: the UK and Israel have systems that go back at least into the 80s. Germany has more recently engaged in a number of military-themed reality TV shows as they build up the Bundeswehr. We have documented similar reality shows in the post-2000 era in about a dozen countries. The US is still the dominant player, though. A lot of countries serve as foreign sites of production for officially approved projects. Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Hurt Locker (2008) were filmed in Jordan, for example, a US ally and outpost. Mexico and Colombia are other examples.
If you want to talk more traditional propaganda systems, of course there’s China, which exerts a force on Hollywood as well. To access its market, producers sometimes need to abide by Chinese government rules. There was a controversy around Top Gun: Maverick that involved a Taiwanese flag sticker on Maverick’s flight jacket. The Chinese asked that it be removed, and the filmmakers did it, which caused controversy here in the US. It’s good to keep our eye on this kind of influence, but it’s entirely predictable and relatively limited. I think the more pressing question for those of us in the US is why we allow the military to conduct propaganda operations against our own population. And for those of us elsewhere in the world, the question is what geopolitical effect it has when the largest military in the world is able to wield the largest entertainment system in the world for PR purposes.
RN: Can you speak to how decades of Russophobia marched through film after film in Hollywood and what effect it might have had in shaping the US and global perceptions of the ongoing war in Ukraine?
RS: The main problem with the dominant narrative now is that there is no room to consider how the expansion of NATO, which in recent years has erected U.S. missile sites in Poland and Romania, has played a role in Russia’s lashing out. What could have been contained through negotiated military drawdown has been turned into a protracted disaster for Ukraine. The relentless demonization of Russia by Hollywood and the Entertainment Media Office has fed into this. One can point to countless examples. Of course, you have the holdover demonization from the Cold War, but even after that the Russian bogeyman appeared consistently in officially supported productions. The Call of Duty games featured a lot of evil bit players, but the main puppet-masters were Russian. The first Iron Man (2008) movie had him fighting in Afghanistan, but remember the second one (2010) had an evil, whip-wielding, S&M Russian played by a lumpy Micky Rourke. You have others like The Courier (2020), Hunter Killer (2018), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Fate of the Furious (2017), much of Jack Ryan (2018-22), and Bridge of Spies (2015) all either digging up Cold War tropes or just slotting the Russians in as the problem. Stuff like this has the effect of building up this reservoir of animosity. These attitudes directly affect whether we can have a real conversation about US foreign policy with regard to Russia. Right now, the situation is very good for arms manufacturers but extremely dangerous for everyone else, particularly considering the possibility for nuclear escalation.
Photo Credit: Media Education Foundation, 2022