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US Militarism in 2011 Hollywood Films

December 20, 2011

In the past week we have posted articles looking at both product placement in films for 2011 and the sexual objectification of women. This posting will focus on militarism, particularly US militarism.

Presenting the US military in a positive light is nothing new for Hollywood, which has been producing pro-US military movies since WWII. However, as Carl Boggs, author of the book The Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture states, since 9/11 the cooperation between the US military and Hollywood filmmakers has deepened.

Filmmakers since 9/11 have not only sought out the cooperation of the US military, they have given over screen rights to the most powerful military in the world. It is now common practice for the US military to have say in the scripts of films where the US military is involved, such as allowing the use of equipment, weapons, locations and actual personnel.

The US military as backdrop

There were several films where the US military was not central to the plot, but still made their presence known. One example is the film Warrior, a film about the Ultimate Fighting Competition (UFC). In this film one of the main fighters is a former US Marine who served in Iraq. At one point in the film US soldiers in Iraq recognize this UFC participant from video circulating on the Internet. Word gets out that this fighter had risked his life to save other Marines. As a tribute to the former soldier, dozens of Marines show up to the UFC match to show their support.

Now there have no doubt been examples of individual heroism by US troops in Iraq, but acknowledging such heroics outside of any context is extremely misleading. Warrior, like so many other films, did not communicate contextual facts such as, the US invasion of Iraq was based on a lie, that over a million Iraqis have been killed since 2003, that the US has set up dozens of military bases, which are not closing down and that the US drastically re-wrote the Iraqi constitution during the time that Paul Bremer was in charge of the country just after the initial invasion.

Other films that have US military representation in a secondary role are Contagion and the Green Lantern. Contagion is based on a world wide viral breakout and the US military plays a role in keeping the public misinformed and contained. In the Green Lantern, the US military doesn’t have a prominent role, but we do see the main character in a US fighter jet early on in a scene where the Pentagon is testing new drone planes. In films like this that use US weaponry, even in a minor role, it serves to normalize the idea that US weaponry is a necessary part of American life.

When films are commercials for the military

There were also films in 2011, where the US military plays a central role. The three films we want to look at are Captain America, Transformers and Battle Los Angels.

Captain America is set during WWII, after the US has entered the war in 1941. The enemy portrayed in this film is the Nazis, which is why the character who plays Captain America wants to enlist.  The film uses scenes from US military bases in the US and Europe, along with the use of military aircraft. Captain America promotes the US on USO tours and encourages audiences to buy bonds.

Once Captain America joins the soldiers at the front line he is presented as only killing bad guys, which of course it not what really happened during WWII. Plenty of civilians died in Europe and the Pacific at the hands of the Axis countries and the Allies, something overtly missing in the film. In Captain America we are led to believe that the US involved in Europe was for nothing more than a noble cause, even though Captain America doesn’t fight Nazis, he fights against a group called Hydra. Hydra has one maniacal leader and a legion of followers that are presented as very Nazi-like, thus making any and all US military actions seem just and pure.

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon continues the central role of the US military just like the first two films in the series. An elite group of US soldiers works with the robots to thwart evil around the world. There is one scene early on the film where the US soldiers & their robot friends attack an “illegal nuclear site” in the Middle East. There is no clear indication which country this scene takes place in, but one could easily conclude that they are referring to a country like Iran, despite Iran being a credible nuclear threat.

The other overt military theme in Transformers is the role of NASA. NASA is presented both in a historical role and contemporary role. The film uses in the early moon landings as a context for the robot wars and even includes former astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the film. In the present day of the film NASA plays a significant role as a place to store alien weapons and we even see a space shuttle liftoff as an opportunity for the robots allied with the US to deceive the Decepticons. Lastly, in order to destroy the enemy robots the US soldiers use Tomahawk missiles to blow them up near the end of the film.

Transformers not only uses US military locations and personnel, it portrays US weapons as playing a vital role in keeping humanity safe. This last point is what makes a film like Transformers so dangerous in terms of maintaining the propaganda that justifies the massive US military budget in the real world.

The last film we looked at was the movie Battle Los Angeles. This science-fiction movie is centered around an alien invasion on the west coast. The main characters are US soldiers who rescue US civilians and fight off the alien invaders who seem to have them outmatched in terms of weaponry. However, the US military has soldiers who are driven with the will to win and the film is filled with scenes of acts of courage.

After an intense battle with the aliens a small group of US soldiers finally figures out the weakness of the aliens. Exhausted and bloodied, the surviving soldiers return to base, where they are greeted with a heroes welcome. A commanding officer tells them to get some R&R and go have breakfast. However, the platoon Sgt. Decides to load up his gun and the other soldier follow, demonstrating that US soldiers won’t rest until the enemy is defeated. Battle Los Angeles not only utilizes US weaponry, US military locations and military personnel the film is essentially a 2-hour commercial for the US military.

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