On the Hollywood Industrial Complex

According to Chalmers Johnson in his book, Sorrows of Empire, one major pillar of the United States’ “Empire” is its ever-expanding network of military bases abroad. These bases are established in areas of political turmoil or instability under the pretext of American national security and the protection of the countries in question. By providing facts and statistics regarding our military bases in Asia and the Middle East, Johnson illuminates a cycle of U.S. foreign policy where our government establishes an enemy abroad (i.e. communist or, more recently, fundamental Islamists), forms military bases through that war, and maintains these “colonies”– as Johnson refers to them – well after the fighting has ended.

Andrew Bacevich’s book, Washington Rules, explores the implication of this fear mongering, coining the term “semi-war” to define “… a condition in which great dangers always threaten the United States and will continue doing so into the indefinite future” (Bacevich 28). This constant paranoia is imposed on U.S. government officials, or “semi-warriors,” who Bacevich claims manipulates American insecurities regarding their global leadership to sustain high levels of military spending and raise their personal ranking. By actively engaging in international hostilities, the U.S. government is thus left in a perpetual war, resulting in a permanent sense of fear looming in the American public.

Beyond the efforts listed by Johnson and Bacevich to perpetuate the fear necessary for “semi-war,” American semi-warriors have sought support from Hollywood, a pop-cultural, liberal entity, whose ambitions seemingly do not align with the conservative and overtly masculine tenants of militarism. As a means of justifying U.S. “colonies” abroad and the violence pursued to maintain these satellites, the Department of Defense and Hollywood filmmakers have waged a war of images, glorifying military might and alienating ‘the enemy’ on screen. In this light, the DOD and Hollywood have created a Hollywood Industrial Complex, or as Tanner Mirrlees defines it in Hearts and Mines: The US Empire's Culture Industry, “a symbiotic relationship between the security state and Hollywood, which encourages the production of entertainment that glorifies the US Empire’s coercion and discourages the flow of goods that criticize it” (Mirrlees 164).

In the years following 9/11, this symbiotic relationship adapted to reflect the post-attack climate and paranoia, aiming to manage public opinion in support of the U.S. war machine abroad. Hollywood blockbusters like Black Hawk Down (2001) and Transformers (2007) illuminates this partnership between the D.O.D. and Hollywood, seeking to justify the contemporary War on Terror by propagating pro-military messages in their plotlines of past or fictional wars. By taking a look at the guidelines established by White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove in 2001 for Hollywood blockbusters, we can see how these two films helped “align Hollywood’s money and talents with the Bush Administration’s need for films appropriate to this new era of ‘terror,’” marking them as successful in this symbiotic relationship. (Barker 4)


Though never explicitly identified, the Hollywood Industrial Complex can be traced back as early as 1915 – the year in which the first military-funded film, The Birth of a Nation, was released – and has remained through the present day. Each of these funded projects must gain approval from The Department of Defense Special Assistant for Entertainment Media (DODSAEM), which functions as a liaison between the D.O.D and filmmakers. This office grants filmmakers free or heavily subsidized usage of military equipment, bases, personnel, and necessary transportation of these assets, so long as the film aligns with the DOD Directive 5410.16, which indicates that cooperation between producers and the Government only occurs when the film is “ in the best national interest” (Mirrlees 182). “National interest,” however, is loosely defined and thus often subverted to promote the DOD’s image to the public, and to cast it in a positive light.

DOD-Hollywood relations were particularly vital in the years following the September 11th attacks. As Chalmers Johnson notes, the post-9/11 era perceives President Bush as “devoted to further enlarging America's military capabilities—a sign of militarism rather than of military preparedness.” (Johnson 11) In this heightened post-attack paranoia, the Bush Administration had to invent new threats in order to convince people that more military efforts were needed. By pinpointing and perpetuating this eminent threat to the American people and abroad, the Bush Administration built upon pre-existing ties within the Hollywood Industrial Complex and announced the creation of an ‘Art and Entertainment Task Force’ that would serve as an “intra-agency bridge between Washington and Hollywood.” (Mirlees 177) Between October 17 and December 6, 2001, there were a series of high-profile meetings in Los Angeles and Washington featuring Karl Rove, senior presidential advisor, and Jack Valenti, the long-time head of the Motion Picture Association of America, who discussed efforts to enhance the perception of the U.S. abroad and on the homefront. (Baker 5) Meetings included executives from notable networks such as HBO, CBS, Showtime, and Warner Brothers, as well as a handful of established writers, directors, and producers.

By the end of the Arts Entertainment Task Force meetings, Karl Rove urged Hollywood to consider a number of guidelines when creating films. These guidelines included:

1) Make films that communicated the country’s war on terrorism was not a war against Islam but rather terrorism

2) Rally US citizens around the flag and potentially aid military recruitment efforts

3) Emphasize the US troops and their families need support

4) Frame 9/11 attacks as an attack against civilization that required a global response

5) Emphasize that children need to be reassured of their safety and security in the wake of the attacks

6) Suggest that the global War on Terror is a good war against evil, not a war between friendly and civilize nation-states  (Mirrlees 178)

For six years following the 9/11 attacks, Hollywood maintained these tenets established by Rove with feature films that avoided the topics of the Global War on Terror, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Instead, Hollywood creators glorified U.S. military personnel and foreign policy objectives by turning back to past wars and exploring fictional realities that reflect the tensions of this post-attack world.

One of these films was Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), a film that aligns with Karl Rove’s objectives for the Arts Entertainment Task Force and demonstrates a desire to show American audiences that “US troops do good abroad.” (Mirrlees 185) Funded by a DOD liaison, filmmakers were charged $3 million for military helicopters, real-life Army Rangers, and transportation to the film location in Morocco, and the film ultimately grossed $100 million domestically and about $70 million overseas. (Tarabay 5) The film takes place in Somalia in 1993, when the country’s central government was destabilized with the start of a civil war and, according to the film’s IMDB page, “U.S. sent special forces into Somalia to destabilize the government and bring food and humanitarian aid to the starving population.” (IMDB, 1990-2016) The film has no scenes showing U.S. soldiers providing humanitarian aid; instead, it focuses on combat comradely, masculinity, and heroism leading to and during the Battle of Mogadishu. The climax of the film occurs when the Black Hawk helicopters, which were lowering the soldiers onto the ground, are unexpectedly attacked by Somali forces and two of the helicopters are brought down. The third act of the film depicts the U.S. soldiers struggling amidst repeated attacks from Somali militiamen.

Amidst the turmoil depicted in the first act, Scott includes scenes where the soldiers fly over scenic Somali beaches, share laughs at one soldier’s impersonation of their battalion commander, and even roast a wild boar that was shot for a military barbecue. These depictions, in addition to the combat cooperation that ensues in the following acts, convey the exciting opportunities of travel and brotherhood that await upon enlistment, maintaining Karl Rove’s objective to “rally US citizens around the flag and potentially aid military recruitment efforts.” (Mirrlees 187) With high-intensity action scenes that anesthetize violence and dialogue – including scenes such as “No man left behind” (Black Hawk Down) – the film conveys that soldiers only experience this close-knit brotherhood in a time of war. As one recruit from the film states: “They all looked so cool dying and getting shot at, how could you not want to join the Army after this film!” (Rico 1) The film ultimately glamorizes the war, suggesting that enlistment is a means to making connections with your fellow troops and fighting alongside them in “the good war.”

Through vilifying Somali military commander and faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his militia, Scott suggests “that the global War on Terror is a good war against evil not a war between friendly and civilize nation-states.” (Mirrlees 178) This is established in act one with the attack on Red Cross food trucks, as Aidid’s warriors ambush and attack a mass of unarmed civilians, claiming: “This food is the property of Mohammad Farah Aidid!” (Black Hawk Down) As noted by Martin Barker in A ‘Toxic Genre’ Iraq War Films, during the Black Hawk Down’s editing process with DOD officials, the film “was substantially revised in ways which, it has been argued, dehumanized the Somali ‘enemy’ whilst cleaning up the American soldiers.” (Barker 4) Thus, through the American soldiers flying overhead amidst the Red Cross shooting and communicating a desire to defend the Somali civilians, Scott communicates a staunch distinction between “good” and “evil, obscuring the details of U.S. military presence in Somalia.

As the film is shot entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, it conveys what Joe Roth, head of Revolution Films and maker of Black Hawk Down, insisted – that “the film's central villain… be unmistakably portrayed as a ‘Hitler-like figure’ responsible for thousands of killings.” (Orwall 4) In this light, Scott conveys that the attacks in Somalia, as well as the 9/11 attacks, are an assault against civilization that required a global response. (Mirrlees 178) This is communicated in act one when Osman Ali Atto, a warlord selling arms to the militia of Aidid, warns: “You shouldn’t have come here. This is a civil war” – to which General Garrison responds: “3,000 dead and counting. That’s not a civil war, that’s genocide” (Black Hawk Down). The exchange demonstrates how U.S. self-declaration of humanitarian intervention becomes an act of imperialism, “positing a new, unilateral ‘responsibility to protect’ that is to be the sole responsibility of the world's last great power…” (Johnson 72)  Black Hawk Down justifies the post-9/11 War on Terror as an American responsibility to the world, when in reality it remains an act of our ever-expanding Empire.


Aimed at younger audiences, Transformers (2007) is a hyper-tech fantasy film that conforms to Karl Rove’s Arts and Entertainment Task Force objectives. Directed by Michael Bay and produced by Stephen Spielberg, the film and its sequel grossed more than $700 million in the box office and utilized military service branches, countless bases, missile ranges, fighter squadrons, and an aircraft carrier via Warrior Inc., as the profit subsector of the military cultural intermediaries developed around the DOD’s liaison offices and studios to advise cultural workers on accuracy and authenticity. (Mirrlees 184) The plot follows the tale of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) as he navigates between the good Autobots and the villainous Decepticons and their war to Earth. The film presents a heroic narrative of the pentagon and the military when the Decepticons become a threat to homeland security.

From the first scene in the film, the filmmakers convey through the fictional plotline that “the global War on Terror is a good war against evil, not a war between friendly and civilize nation-states." (Mirrlees 178) Beginning in modern day Qatar, the film depicts Blackout – an evil Decepticon robot looking to hack the military network – attacking a U.S. military base. The heroic action sequence depicts Captain William Lennox and his team fighting Blackout with the help of a real bombardment, preserving the lives of Qatari women, children, and families in the process. By placing the film in the sandy landscape of Qatar, the filmmakers allow the audience to associate the fictional premise with the “War on Terror” in the Middle East. It can be argued that due to the military funding and support of the film, the Deceptacon is the embodiment of terror: an entity of pure evil that disrupts the lives of civilians and attacks American troops abroad. In the final combat scene where U.S. Army personnel defeat the Decepticons with the help of USAF F-22 aircrafts and Heckler & Koch UMP-45 weapons, the heroic triumph communicates U.S. military superiority in the face of terror. (IMDB)

Transformers serves to “rally US citizens around the flag and potentially aid military recruitment efforts” by means of the targeted audience, for in discussion of the film, a field manager for the Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mike Gaspabe says: “The special effects are definitely going to draw the younger crowd, and then they’ll be able to see just how the Air Force operates.” (Mirrlees 178, 187) As Transformers’ audience consisted primarily of adolescent males (MPAA), there was certainly a promotional motive towards potential recruiters for the Air Force. (MPAA) An Air Force recruiter bluntly stated: “I think [the movie] will be a great branding tool for the air force.” (Mirrlees 187)  

The Hollywood Industrial Complex produces deceptive cultural products that glorify war and lure the American public into supporting their government’s imperialist agenda. Films funded by the DOD not only anesthetize violence, but create a narrative that justifies it through plot lines, characters, and scenes that alienate American “enemies” and offer single-sided reasoning for military presence abroad. In order to contrast this cycle of propaganda in film and television, it’s imperative for the creative minds of our generation to look into the history of anti-war narratives and highlight them through innovate work.  



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