This week’s movie release of Jarhead once again revisits the relationship between Hollywood filmmakers, the Department of Defense, and the American public. Written and based upon former Marine Anthony Swofford’s best-selling book about his training and experience in Operation Desert Storm, this film explores more so the individual’s dilemmas of warfare than the operation itself. Although the DOD did not provide any assistance towards the movie’s production, there still exists a complimenting relationship between filmmakers and the U.S. military.
For Hollywood, war movies have been the moneymakers from the beginnings of silent films. The portrayal of war on the big screen seems to naturally attract viewers due to the suspense, action, historical relevance, and more often than not, the love stories (which by the way runs the risk of ruining movies such as Pearl Harbor for the sake of satisfying a larger, more female oriented audience). Movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Men of Honor not only proved to be box office hits, but they also portrayed historical events in a realistic manner.
For the U.S. military, war movies and TV series can either become a recruiting powerhouse tool or a media nuisance. Classic films such Top Gun and Full Metal Jacket proved to be the most successful recruiting tools ever for the Navy and Marines respectively. In addition, they are often the cheapest ways of letting young America know what it is like to part of the military because such films are almost entirely financed by Hollywood but advertise the military for free. In fact, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen actively worked to support the film industry and once praised, “The film industry is important in shaping what people think about our military and supporting them. We in the Pentagon wanted to say 'Thank you' to Hollywood." (Cohen)
However, films that portray strong political views and often more realistic images of military events and service can produce negative identity effects. The DOD can and frequently does actively influence war film images and production by either offering or denying assistance. Assistance comes in the form of either by technical assistance on operational protocol or asset usage such as equipment, real soldiers, and on-site filming locations on military property. Director and publicly self-described political activist Oliver Stone was denied military assistance for his war movies Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. Stone comments, “They [DOD] make prostitutes of us all because they want us to sell out to their point of view. They want a certain kind of movie made” (Stone). The script for Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger was changed several times by the DOD to better portray the involvement of the State Department and national sovereignty recognition of Colombia before assistance was guaranteed (Stone).
Jarhead is Hollywood’s latest attempt to portray U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Previous works have been hit and miss such as the profitable Gunner Palace and FX’s soon to be cancelled TV series Over There (AOL). Perhaps Jarhead will be more successful in the box office because it doesn’t have to compete with the daily, 24 hour news outlets. Nevertheless, this film is sure to get people thinking more about the changing realities of war and perhaps positively influence Marine recruitment. However, it will be hard to beat the line, “I feel a need, a need for speed”.