So to stick with the military theme here for a moment, my friend and fellow grad student David just made me aware of a “novum“ in “militainment”: the movie Act of Valor, which opened in theaters last week, probably presents the ultimate merging of the military industrial complex with the film industry and is advertised as “a motion picture experience unlike any other before.” Act of Valor is the first film ever shot with active duty personnel, in this case no one else than the elite Navy Seals, whose public profile has dramatically risen through recent events, like the killing of Osama bin Laden and the January hostage rescue in Somalia.
Clearly, the relationship between Hollywood and the military is a long one. According to a New York Times’ article, the winner of the first Academy Award for best picture, “Wings,” was made with military assistance. Later much of the Pentagon’s interest in mainstream entertainment concerned children-focused television. “Lassie” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” were among early shows that had official input, especially when they dealt with emerging technology. But by the end of the 1970s with the Vietnam trauma, much public affection for military themes had cooled off.
It was only with the emergence of the New Right and the Reagan years in the 1980s as Susan Jeffords observes in her book “Hard Bodies. Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era” (1994), when there was a jump in requests for military cooperation in the making of movies, TV and home videos. This led to Pentagon-Hollywood collaborations like “Red Dawn” and “Top Gun” with the belief that action-adventure films of the 1980s accentuated qualities of a “hard body” to contrast directly to the “soft bodies” of the Carter years – forming a re-articulation of masculine strength and power through internal, personal, and family-oriented values. The “hard body” thereby functions not only as foreign policy method, but also as a domestic agenda, putting forward the American “hard body” as the solution to the nation’s foreign and domestic failings.
But back to the making of Act of Valor. Wikipedia states that in 2007 directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers Production filmed a video for the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen which led the United States Navy to allow them to use actual active duty SEALs. After spending so much time working closely with the SEALs, McCoy and Waugh conceived the idea for a modern day action movie about this covert and elite fighting force. As Act of Valor developed with the SEALs on board as advisors, the filmmakers realized that no actors could realistically portray or physically fill the roles they had written and the actual SEALs were drafted to star in the film. The SEALs remain anonymous, as none of their names appear in the film’s credits.
In 2012, it seems like the military is desperate again for Hollywood’s help to battle faltering recruiting rates. Anderson argues that “After a decade of war and with the economy shaky, the services are seeking to remold themselves into a leaner, less-expensive force made up of soldiers capable of special-operations missions involving cyberspace and intelligence. How better to attract those elite fighters than with a film about an elite force?” Hence, for the Navy, the film is an initiative to recruit SEALs.
Interestingly enough, if you click on the movie’s website, you can find a tap “Make a Salute – Real People Saluting Real Soldiers” which takes you to a YouTube channel full of clips of average American citizens saluting the U.S. troops. Further, after entering the website and watching the official trailer at the right bottom of the screen you find a tap for the “Navy Seal Foundation” asking you to donate money.
What really startles me (and I have not seen the movie yet) and what I think is important to keep in mind is that Act of Valor neatly fits into James DerDerian’s conceptualization of how new technologies and media of simulation create a fidelity between the representation and the reality of war:
When military forces and entertainment industries join in mimesis, when war games and language games become practically undistinguishable (“All but war is simulation”), when the imitative, repetitive, and regressive powers of simulation negate any sense of original meaning, more than just peace is at risk (DerDerian, 2009, p. 96)
Act of Valor currently is the number one movie at the box office, grossing over 35million in its first week … undoubtedly, America still seems to adore “militainment” at work.