Helping Hollywood: The military's service in film runs deep

September 1, 2011 

Backstage at the Camp Pendleton base theater in California, stars of the upcoming movie "Warrior" Tom Hardy, left, and Joel Edgerton banter with Sgt. Major Ramona Cook.

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On a sultry mid-July afternoon, a few hundred Marines, some with spouses and children in tow, muster for a free screening of the movie "Warrior" at a cement cinema house at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

In the film, which won't arrive in theaters until this month, a Marine just home from Iraq (played by Englishman Tom Hardy) and his estranged brother, a fighter-turned-teacher (Australian Joel Edgerton), train for a mixed martial arts tournament.

The military's involvement ran deeper, though, than just throwing open the doors to the Bulldog Box Office at Camp Pendleton. The "Warrior" script was vetted by a Marine Corps liaison to the entertainment industry, and more than 200 real Marines appear in uniform in a crowd scene.

The Department of Defense regularly cooperates with Hollywood on projects large and small, from Lifetime's fictional Army base-set series "Army Wives" and CBS' naval police procedural "NCIS" to Paramount Pictures' warring robots franchise "Transformers" and Sony's Columbia Pictures film "Battle: Los Angeles," about Marines fighting an alien invasion. The military has allowed Universal Pictures to film its coming action movie "Battleship" on the battleship Missouri and permitted Navy SEALs to appear in Relativity Media's February thriller "Act of Valor."

Over the decades, the relationship between Hollywood and the military has served the needs of both sides: Filmmakers gain access to equipment, locations, personnel and information that lend their productions authenticity, while the armed forces get some measure of control over how they're depicted.

That's important not just for recruiting but also for guiding the behavior of current troops and appealing to the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills. Given that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is currently serving in the military, entertainment -- including movies, TV shows and video games -- is key to shaping the public's idea of what it means to be a soldier.

"Hollywood feature films have served as the most significant medium to argue for the military," said Lawrence Suid, author of "Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film." "Americans love violence, and war movies provide all that violence without the danger."

But controversy over a coming movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden -- and how much U.S. officials should assist director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal -- has shed light on some of the minefields that must be navigated by real-life warriors and the showbiz engine that seeks to portray them.

There are tensions over how troops are depicted -- the military often is uncomfortable with the defiant, cocky heroes that filmmakers, and moviegoers, embrace. And rank-and-file troops have complaints from everyday details like the color of a soldier's boots to broader questions about the true character of men and women in uniform. There are debates about how much access is too much and even whether certain films might serve partisan purposes.

On the surface, cooperating with filmmakers on a movie about the bin Laden mission would appear to be a no-brainer for the Defense Department -- after all, the operation was a victory for U.S. forces.

Bigelow's movie -- which was gestating long before May's deadly raid in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs and CIA operatives -- is slated for release in October and will attempt to chart the pursuit of the terrorist leader. The filmmakers haven't locked a script or announced shooting plans.

Each branch of the armed forces has its own intermediary to the film and television industries, all of them housed in an office building in Westwood, Calif., while the Department of Defense overseas the largest-scale collaborations from Washington. Some Hollywood heavyweights including "Black Hawk Down" producer Jerry Bruckheimer and "Transformers" director Michael Bay have enjoyed long affiliations with the offices. Phil Strub, director of entertainment media at the Defense Department, said the number of productions -- including documentaries and even game shows -- that receive some form of military assistance annually are too many to quantify and said that producers reimburse the government for out-of pocket expenses such as dedicated flight hours or servicepersons' time.

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