WASHINGTON -- In the background, in the aftermath of a horrific battle, uniformed men unload caskets from a truck. Philip Strub had to tut as he read the description.
“That’s not how we do things,” the director of the Pentagon’s Entertainment Media office recalls telling film makers preparing to incorporate that scene into a movie. “Caskets aren’t just cargo. We always move them with full honors.”
Strub was pleased when the director got the message, and the fallen warriors were treated with white gloves and respect. That was more than they’d gotten from their robot-monster killers, of course.
That’s the nature of Strub’s role at the office that oversees the military’s relationship with the American movie industry, a department that dates to the year the first Hollywood studio opened and is far older than the Pentagon building itself.
Strub laughingly describes the relationship as “mutually exploitive.” Certainly, it’s one that American moviegoers see all the time. The Pentagon doesn’t keep statistics, but private counts put the number of movies the Department of Defense has supported above 1,000.
This relationship became very public and deeply partisan earlier this year, when some Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of giving special favors to Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty,” which tells the story of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
The accusation was that the administration granted unusual access in the hope that the film, now expected to be released in December, would boost President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, including meetings with Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers. The Pentagon confirms the meetings but says there was nothing unusual or improper in them. House Homeland Security Committee Chair Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says he’s still concerned that the filmmakers got “special access” to “sensitive information” on a secret mission.
“I am still awaiting the conclusion of the ongoing Department of Defense and CIA inspector general investigations that I requested,” he said.
Strub points out that meetings with filmmakers aren’t exactly rare. In fact, “Zero Dark Thirty” didn’t get official Pentagon support. Bigelow got some information, but others get much more. The practice of supporting films is so ingrained that the Pentagon even has a price list online for military hardware leased out to approved films.
An hour’s rental of an airborne command post – which in the event of nuclear war would serve as Air Force One – costs $72,000 for a movie the Pentagon wants to support. A B-1B long range bomber costs $50,529 an hour, and an F-16 fighter goes for $10,181 an hour. The budget-minded could rent a training glider for as little as $89 an hour. The rates include the wages of the military personnel involved in flying the planes. Tom Cruise would have been allowed to climb into jet cockpits in the 1986 film “Top Gun,” but he wasn’t allowed to fly the fighters.
Strub’s job is to nudge an industry devoted to fantasy and fiction toward an odd sort of cinema verite. He and others in his department pore over scripts of television shows such as “Hawaii Five-0,” even on weeks when the show isn’t featuring anything military in nature. That way, they can be familiar enough with the characters that when they make suggestions in the future , they’ll be able to fit them into the way a show works.