When you're a reporter, getting through to individual servicemembers -- especially when they're deployed -- is often a teeth-gnashing affair.
You reach out to a public affairs officer who may be somewhere in the general vicinity you're interested in. He may make the connections to the troops you want, or he may not, or it may take six weeks to set up a single phone call with someone who can help you with your story. ("OK, sarge, so how's the war really going out there in RC-East?")
And yet sometimes, the clouds miraculously part and you've got sources coming out of the woodwork who can't wait to talk to you. When the Coast Guard staged a heroic rescue after an Alaskan fishing vessel sunk a few years ago, the crews responsible had all the time in the world to talk about it, even by satellite phone at sea. When the Navy was excited about PBS' documentary "Carrier," it had no trouble locating sailors who had been featured on the show, even though it had wrapped months before and some of them were out of the service altogether.
Gee, that's odd -- why is it so difficult to reach troops sometimes, yet other times, it's as though their commanders take extra effort to make them available to reporters? Not only that, why are there posters for movies and TV shows on the walls of the E-Ring and in the spaces of the DoD public affairs offices? Why did the Air Force make its small fleet of CV-22 Ospreys available for filming in "Transformers" before they'd done any actual missions? Why did the Pentagon, the White House and the CIA grant access and interviews to a Hollywood contingent that wants to make a movie about the Osama bin Laden raid?
Because they want to look good, and they spend millions of dollars every year to do so.
The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch lifted the curtain this week on the nuts and bolts of how this selling of the Pentagon actually takes place: Directors, producers and screenwriters get to meet with people the rest of us can't and see places the rest of us don't; White House and Pentagon officials hope it all translates into products that are at least "accurate" and, in the case of the bin Laden movie, make President Obama look good.
Administration critics are trying to blow this standard practice into something beyond a tempest in a teapot, with accusations that the Obama administration leaked classified information to director Kathryn Bigelow or her colleagues in its zeal to get the most bang for its buck. Judicial Watch's document dump includes no evidence of that, and in fact it quotes the screenwriter on the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" as stressing to CIA officials that he wanted to protect "tactics, techniques and procedures," as he argued he had on the EOD flick "The Hurt Locker." But conservatives who already have labeled Obama a "celebrity president" smell blood in the water, and for everyone else in Washington tired of hearing how much the White House "hates leaks," the documents are clear evidence of hypocrisy.
One thing they are not is surprising -- anyone who has ever been to the multiplex for a big summer blockbuster has seen the evidence of DoD's long collaboration with Hollywood. The three "Transformers" movies were feature-length recruiting commercials; this year's "Act of Valor" featured active-duty SEAL operators; and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus himself went to see "Battleship" in Washington last week.
The Navy's Chief of Information, Rear Adm. Daniel Moynihan, explained why the service cooperated with "Battleship" in a message he sent earlier this month, before the movie opened, and as he writes, the Navy's interest couldn't be clearer:
Produced by Universal Pictures and directed by Peter Berg, "Battleship" was made with the support of the Department of Defense and the Navy. As you know, we ask ourselves some key questions before supporting a major motion picture. First, does the script accurately portray the Navy? Second, does it positively represent our service and our sailors? Third, can we support a film without impacting our operations? And finally, do we believe that it could have a positive impact on recruiting? In the case of "Battleship," we felt the answer was “Yes” to each of those questions.So each time junior high kids walk out of the theater with high-fives and resolutions to become destroyer sailors, the Navy recoups some of what it spent to help make the film. As for "Zero Dark Thirty," however, the movie isn't scheduled for release until Dec. 19, dashing whatever hopes the Obama administration put in its ability to influence November's election. But that definitely will not mean that this administration, or any that comes after it, will stop collaborating with movie-makers.
In addition, there are risks not to participating as well. Whether or not we supported Battleship, the film was going to be made -- it was going to carry our brand and represent who we are to the American people. We can’t take everyone out to our ships, but we can work with Hollywood and bring the Navy to life on the big screen. Consequently, it’s in our best interest to engage and make sure that movies like "Battleship" accurately portray who we are and what we do as a Navy.