Problematic Visual Culture: “Pentagon Pictures: What is the Military-Entertainment Complex?”

By Dana Connolly, class of ‘22

In an article recently published in Harper’s Magazine, the acclaimed director wrote that the art of moviemaking has been “systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator,” that is, movies have become “content.” In the patois of marketing and business analytics, “content” is any media that is rapidly shared through the internet, consumed, and dismissed without critical thought. TikToks, celebrity endorsements, YouTube videos of cats, Twitch streams, viral memes, tweets, and everything in between. The torrent of readily available, instantly gratifying visual media on the internet is by no means less legitimate than movies and literature. However, the endless flood of “content” may be hindering our ability to critically engage with visual media—making us more susceptible to bias and propaganda as a result. 

In the kingdom of “content,” profitability reigns supreme. For that reason, major Hollywood blockbusters are becoming increasingly more expensive to produce. Production companies are happy to overspend on the assumption that bigger sets, better visual effects, and star actors will reap greater rewards at the box office or on streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not only must these movies wow audiences, but they must also compete with the constant barrage of other, more instantaneous media like Snapchat or Youtube. 

Image from Patty Jenkins, 2020, Wonder Woman 1984, Atlas Entertainment.

Film producers want to make as much money as possible without overspending their precious millions of dollars. For planned blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984 and WandaVision, a surefire way to keep production costs down is to partner with the United States Department of Defense (DoD). Most moviegoers are completely unaware of the Pentagon’s involvement with the film industry, and the U.S. military would like to keep it that way. As of 2016, the Department of Defense has helped produced more than 410 movies, including classics like James Bond’s License to Kill, biographical thrillers such as Captain Phillips, and many more popular movies like Transformers: Dark Age of the Moon. The most successful entry in the DoD’s oeuvre is Top Gun. Directed by Jerry Bruckheimer in collaboration with the Pentagon, Top Gun was a massive box office success and grossed $356.8 million from a budget of $15 million. However, the return on investment for the US Navy was even greater. The well-timed release of Top Gun led to a 500% increase in young men signing up to become naval aviators and, crucially, portrayed the pro-military, colonialist themes to help rehabilitate the U.S. military’s post-Vietnam public image.

The agreement is dead simple. Films that portray the U.S. military in a positive light receive taxpayer funding, set locations, and military consultation from the Department of Defense. However, the specific criteria for film selection and military involvement are still highly classified. I personally don’t think that the Department of Defense should influence the film industry. Some critics argue that in the competitive movie market, the military-entertainment complex is a necessary evil. If that is true, why the total lack of transparency from the Department of Defense? If taxpayers must line the pockets of the film industry, don’t we deserve to know where our money is going and how much is being spent? On social media, we know the individuals behind the screen and can evaluate biases using our own judgement. For movies backed by wealthy producers, funded by the Pentagon without any government transparency, American moviegoers cannot critically evaluate the ideological undertones of movies.

Image from Clint Eastwood dir., 2014, American Sniper, Warner Bros.

More importantly, when audiences return to the movie theaters, will we treat these movies the same as any other piece of content? As it stands, the Department of Defense wields its power to toy with the narratives of major blockbusters to benefit their public image. There are no checks and balances for a government agency able to alter the narratives on important historical events like the Vietnam or Iraq War. As it stands now, American audiences risk absorbing hawkish, colonial ideologies from popular films. If we allow the Pentagon into our theatres and streaming services, what will be next?

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