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'Act Of Valor' And The Military's Long Hollywood Mission

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A crack team of highly skilled warriors, outfitted with the most advanced weapons of the world’s most powerful military force, storms an enemy compound, firing round after round of ammunition through concrete walls and the skulls of their terrorist adversaries.

The good guys have yet to suffer a single casualty until, suddenly, one of its leaders takes a rocket to the chest. The audience cringes, but the bang never comes -- the rocket clangs to the ground, unexploded, and the battle rages on.

The upcoming film "Act of Valor" is replete with that kind of action, but there are a few things it doesn't have: There are no corrupt officers, no damaged heroes, no queasy doubts about the value of the mission or the virtue of the cause.

That's because "Act of Valor" was born not in Hollywood, but in the Pentagon. It was commissioned by the Navy's Special Warfare Command and its success will be measured not in box-office receipts, but in the number of new recruits it attracts to the Navy SEALs.

"Early on, we were pretty honored and humbled to be asked to take a look at potentially telling their story," said "Valor" producer and former stuntman Scott Waugh, "to take a look at what telling their story would even look like."

This may be the U.S. armed forces' first feature-length recruiting film, but it's far from the first time unsuspecting audiences have been treated to Pentagon propaganda at the movies. As early as 1927, when military assistance on the film "Wings" helped it win Best Picture at the first Oscars ceremony, the Department of Defense has long maintained its own production office that offers filmmakers the latest in arms and high-tech vehicles at cut-rate prices -- as long as their scripts are deemed worthy.

That's not the most restrictive the government has been, however. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States officially entered World War II, the film industry fully enlisted in the war effort. Studios fell in line behind the government's Office of War Information, which included the Bureau of Motion Pictures and the Office of Censorship. Together, these agencies kept a close watch on Hollywood's output. Actors went to war on film (and some, in real life), narrated documentaries about the threat posed by the Axis powers, and lampooned America's enemies -- especially the Japanese -- using racial stereotypes.

While studios may have been happy to help out, they also didn’t have much of a choice; the Motion Pictures Bureau read over movie scripts and the Office of Censorship controlled all international film exports.

After the war, while House Committee on Un-American Activities waged a campaign against suspected Communists in Hollywood, the military sought to influence the industry with access to technical advice, weapons, vehicles and troops. The Film Liaison Office, established in 1948, was charged with reviewing scripts by filmmakers who wished to use U.S.-issued guns, tanks and ammunition to ensure that they portrayed the armed forces in a suitably positive light.

For nearly two decades, the Pentagon and Hollywood told stories of the Allies’ glorious victory, with John Wayne and friends taking down the Nazis time and time again. By the late sixties, however, filmmakers' love for the military began to sink like boots in the swamp as the horrors of Vietnam were broadcast nightly to homes nationwide.

From "M*A*S*H" to "Apocalypse Now" to "Platoon," heroism was supplanted by harrowing portrayals of hopeless, endless brutality. Soldiers coped with drugs, leaders went mad and the government conspired against its own men. Unsurprisingly, those war films, among the greatest of the past half-century, were produced without assistance from the Pentagon.

By the time "Platoon" was released in Christmas 1986, however, the Film Liaison Office had started reasserting a measure of control over the military's image. Earlier that year, Paramount Pictures released "Top Gun," which did for pilots what James Dean did for mopey teenagers with red cars.

The military was ready to capitalize on "Top Gun." After a two-hour romp in which Tom Cruise made the Navy look like an adventure filled with catchphrases and gorgeous women, theatergoers, who may not have known that the Pentagon worked closely with producer Jerry Bruckheimer to tailor the film’s message, were greeted by recruitment tables outside their theater. While it's difficult to quantify the movie's direct impact on the image of the military, recruiters to this day point to anecdotal evidence of a "Top Gun" boost.

Hollywood liked what it saw, too. With $176 million in domestic box office receipts and another $177 million internationally, "Top Gun" was such a hit that the film industry's requests for military assistance quadrupled by the outbreak of the first Gulf War a few years later.

Today, the Film Liaison Office is among the most powerful forces in the movie business. Teaming with each armed service’s own film arm, the office cuts sweet deals with studios desperate for the kind of real-life props and troops that can't be generated by computers.

Philip Strub, the current head of the office, wields one of the mightiest pens in show business. He reviews scripts sent in by producers and studios, deciding whether or not to provide material assistance based on, he said, "whether [the film] is something that might be of information value to the public or whether there is some benefit to military recruitment and retention."

As David Sirota recounted in his book "Back To Our Future," John McTiernan, director of famously Pentagon-rejected film "The Hunt for Red October," says studios began telling screenwriters and directors to be sure that they could "get cooperation from the military, or forget about making the picture."

As displeased creatives might tell you, every organization deserves to protect and promote its image, but most polish isn’t taxpayer funded.

Michael Bay has enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship with the Pentagon, especially while making his blockbuster "Transformers" movies. The sci-fi series, in which gigantic alien robots team up with the U.S. military to defeat other gigantic alien robots, received record amounts of DOD aid, including various aircraft, tanks and active-duty soldiers (the first film alone had access to 12 different types of Air Force aircraft and troops from four different bases). Some "Transformers" scenes were even filmed in the Pentagon, as well as various other bases and training fields.

Strub acknowledged that the Bay movies aren't exactly realistic, but argued that they accurately reflected the way the military would act if facing down extraterrestrial invaders with a General Motors-inspired sartorial flair. A recently announced fourth "Transformers" movie is slated for release during Independence Day weekend 2013. Meantime, those impatient for more military-alien quarrels can check out "Battleship," the board game-turned-science fiction war flick starring Liam Neeson, which hits theaters in May. The Pentagon helped shepherd that one, too.

On the other hand, the Iraq War drama "The Hurt Locker," which starred Jeremy Renner as an explosive ordnance disposal officer, saw its Pentagon assistance pulled just before it began production. Strub attributed that call to last-minute script additions by director Kathryn Bigelow, including climactic sequences during which Renner's character recklessly heads into town and battle by himself.

"I think one of the things that we encounter is the tendency of filmmakers to stick to proven stereotypes," Strub said. "Whether they're in uniform or not, they seem particularly fond of the loner who must disobey the rules, thwart his or her own organization and kind of go rogue in the name of achieving justice or redemption or whatever the goal might be."

"The Hurt Locker" divided the Defense Department. Some decried it as a gross exaggeration of warfare, while others, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hailed it as the most realistic sketch of life in Iraq to date. The film won Best Picture and Bigelow won Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards.

The past decade has seen a flurry of other gritty looks at U.S. wars in the Middle East that have eschewed the support of the Film Liaison Office. Paul Greengrass’s "Green Zone," starring Matt Damon, was a less-than-flattering look at life in Iraq, Kimberly Peirce’s "Stop-Loss" focused on the purgatory between the front lines and the homefront, and Paul Haggis’ “In The Valley of Elah,” based on a true story, tackled post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects.

Unlike their Vietnam-era forerunners, however, most such films have failed to resonate at the box office -- even "The Hurt Locker" made just $17 million in the United States.

With ticket receipts fixed as the north Star guiding Hollywood, those fiscal failures haven’t gone unnoticed. And if the message taken from those losses is that today’s audiences prefer big booms to existential treatises on violence in their war films now, it only help increase the Pentagon’s influence on the industry.

Still, public opinion polls matter to the military more than box office numbers, and by 2007, the military realized it had to shift perceptions to up recruiting for the nation's two draining, unpopular wars. Bolstered by findings in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, an internal report that set a goal of increasing Special Operations Forces enlistment by 15 percent, the Navy solicited recruiting video pitches from friendly producers.

Among those, the "Bandito Brothers" -- Waugh and motocross champion Mike "Mouse" McCoy -- who had worked with other offices in the Army and Navy on a number of commercials through their production company of the same name. The pair spent six months visiting the Navy base in Coronado, Calif., conducting interviews and research as they developed their pitch.

That face time led them to suggest using real SEALs instead of Hollywood actors for "Act of Valor." The brass loved the idea, though the SEALs themselves were initially resistant to the idea of acting, Waugh said. They needed some convincing, he said, that, "it was going to be authentic and legitimate and not some hokey, cheesed-out Hollywood version of their community."

Eventually, the Banditos’ reassurances -- and, not least, the Navy’s move to make acting in the film a compulsory assignment -- compelled eight active-duty troops to step forward and play dramatized versions of themselves.

The film, also directed by the Banditos, is nearly all action and is based on five real-life stories strung together by Kurt Johnstad, who wrote the screenplay for the Greek war epic "300." The narrative has the SEALs tracking a Russian-Muslim-Filipino-Mexican terrorist cell seeking to set off a media frenzy and economic collapse within the United States with one deadly bomb.

The terrorists' international flavor presents a nice representative sample of U.S. enemies and bogeymen from the past half-century, though their most important trait is their inability to properly fire their guns.

The battle scenes were shot during live SEAL training missions, plotted out and blocked by the troops themselves, with cameras placed atop their helmets for a video game-like first-person view of the action. To a generation well-accustomed to guiding digital soldiers through combat zones, all that’s missing is a PlayStation controller in a theater seat.

The filmmakers said they were unconcerned with the recruitment angle of the film, focusing principally on the sacrifices made by the SEALs. They also stressed their full creative control of the film during its four-year production process, asserting that the only edits made by the Navy Special Warfare Command were designed to scrub military secrets from the final cut.

The Banditos, of course, were carefully pre-screened. Their final product is a mix of trying acting and "Call of Duty"-style action, earnest and visually impressive but unlikely to garner the kind of praise "The Hurt Locker" and Hollywood's grittier takes on combat have received. Then again, the military has never had Oscar in its sights -- he’s far too old to enlist.

Even McCoy admits that the picture is about changing perception and breaking away from the cynicism still pervasive in Hollywood, not winning gold.

"I'd like to see the legacy of Vietnam put to bed. Vietnam was 40 years ago, and I think arts and entertainment is still suffering from that hangover," he said. "It was a really bad time in American history, absolutely, but it's time to sort of forget that and forget those sensibilities and don't associate our troops and our men and women to that conflict anymore, and time to really open our eyes to say, 'What's going on in this world? What are our men and women in uniform really doing right now for us?'"

Will "Act of Valor" accomplish that? Relativity Media, which won a bidding war to distribute the film following the SEAL-executed death of Osama bin Laden, has been aggressively pursuing publicity, airing multiple trailer spots during the Super Bowl and holding big premieres on each coast -- the New York City opening was held on the USS Intrepid, while SEALs parachuted down to the theater for the Los Angeles bow. Every ad for the film touts the participation of real Navy SEALs; whether that is appealing to young audiences or smacks of propaganda, may help determine how it performs.

Only time will tell if the military can be a viable lead producer, and even Strub admits that the big screen is best at reflecting public opinion about a war, not leading audiences to a conclusion. “I'm of the opinion that movies don't create public opinion, but they can bring focus to it,” he said. “What's going on now, you can make an argument that it's too soon to tell."

In the meantime, the covert mission to win hearts, minds and boots will continue to run through Hollywood.

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