You Can Be My Wingman Any Time

F-14 Tomcats, 1987, courtesy US Navy



Theaters of War (2022) is a new documentary that reveals deeper connections between the Pentagon, the CIA, and American film and TV productions. It is not just the Top Guns these entities have a hand in, and their participation does not begin or end with providing war machines and personnel to make movies look credible.

As the documentary concludes from Freedom of Information evidence (only a few instances of which are shown) and scholarly experts, “thousands upon thousands upon thousands of products [i.e., films and TV episodes] have been affected and are often rewritten at script level by the national security state in the United States.”

The Pentagon—which has its own Entertainment Liaison Office, as do branches of the military and the CIA—said the first Top Gun in 1986 “completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam War.” The movie was a huge draw for recruitment. The Marine Corps hoped for a similar surge with Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge, the same year, a “comedy” about a foul-mouthed gunnery sergeant but were so embarrassed by the result they withdrew support. (This increased publicity for the studio on that movie’s release, but the fact is that many films get canceled before they ever get into production if the Department of Defense does not sign off on them, due to withholding of military hardware and troops.)

The documentary interviews Oliver Stone (who weirdly was first offered Top Gun to direct), reveals key figures in the government offices responsible for American military propaganda making its way into our entertainments, roasts the likes of Ben Affleck (Argo) and Jennifer Garner for their “gushing” embrace of the CIA, and gives examples of what the US military and the CIA do to change films to their liking.

“What they don’t want anyone to know is that this is done systematically,” one of the documentary’s experts says. “And they also are particularly wary of the public knowing about script rewrites.”

In Meet the Parents, for instance, the script originally called for Ben Stiller to see CIA torture manuals on the home-office desk of intimidating dad Robert DeNiro, but the CIA squawked, so all Stiller sees is framed photos of DeNiro with Bill Clinton, Norman Schwarzkopf, and a guy in Keffiyeh.

After 9/11, in productions such as 24 and Zero Dark Thirty, torture is shown as a way of getting information that will save American lives, which the CIA wanted seen. Zero shows it as beneficial to the capture of Osama Bin Laden; a clip follows, in the doc, of John McCain saying it never happened that way.

The CIA had the story of Argo on a page on their media relations site called “Now Playing,” and Affleck picked it up. (He had starred in Sum of All Fears, a “CIA sponsored” film, according to the documentary.)

“The synergy couldn’t have been more perfect,” a scholar says. “The CIA working with Hollywood to tell a story about how the CIA worked with Hollywood to save the day.” But what Argo purposely left out was how the CIA helped engineer events that would eventually set the Iran Hostage Crisis in motion, and it did not mention the aborted, disastrous rescue attempt of the other fifty-two American hostages, or its effect on American politics.

“And so the story is not on the failure,” says Tricia Jenkins, from Texas Christian University. “It is on the success. And so Argo really becomes a story of redemption for the CIA in the face of one of its intelligence failures.”

And remember the virtuous SEAL-team leader in Lone Survivor, with Mark Wahlberg, who orders his men not to murder goat herders, including a boy, who might give their position away? Turns out in real life he insisted on killing them but eventually agreed to put it to a vote. When asked by director Roger Stahl about this change—despite the DoD insisting their main role in the film process is to make events accurate—Admiral Moynihan, former Navy Chief of Information, says his litmus is: “Does it reflect well on the military? Can it be used for recruiting?”

“It’s the Pentagon operating like a slickly oiled PR machine,” a scholar says in the documentary. “But it’s a slickly oiled PR machine that is not just advertising toothpaste. It’s advertising the most violent and powerful organizations on the planet.”

Boosterism, weapons-love, political scrubbing, image manipulation, and other suggestions, demands, and changes have been made in Discovery and History Channel episodes, Cupcake Wars, Hawaii Five-0, Biggest Loser, Ice Road Truckers, The Price is Right, the Ellen Degeneres Show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, Dude Perfect, Cake Boss, and many more. Representatives of the military and CIA offices actively go to conferences and trade shows for film and TV people to find partners.

The main thing I took from the documentary was the feeling that this phenomenon might be responsible for a good part of the poor quality in Hollywood and other storytelling, because propaganda’s agenda is different from art.

Top Gun: Maverick, the second movie in the now-franchise, broke the Memorial Day weekend record for a movie release and is Tom Cruise’s new “biggest domestic box-office debut,” earning $550 million globally in only a week. Somewhere there are admirals celebrating the range of their wingmen.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.