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Theaters of War

Year: 2022
Production Co: Chiasmus
Director: Roger Stahl

I was interested in this topic because, not long before, I'd had an article published in the press about much the same thing. Unlike this movie, I took a very biased and embedded view.

Where this movie talks about years-long FOI requests by crusading reporters, I sat in my cushy chair and got the official narrative about how the military and moviemakers work together from official Department of Defence sources, who painted it all as shiny people holding hands and forming a collaborative circle jerk.

The truth – as claimed by this film - is more of the military strong arming productions into making itself look better by threatening to withhold resources and shaping the stories on screens to serve its public image.

If you don't know how the system works, any movie that wants to portray military personnel or hardware can save truckloads of money by borrowing existing bases, hardware and soldiers, so they ask for help provisioning them from special media office in the branches of the military – it's mostly a US phenomenon, just like movies about wars and battle are.

And of course, because the US military has an interest in painting itself in the best possible light as much as any of us, it exerts its influence to do so in exchange for use of its resources.

If you're not sure how far that influence extends, you might be surprised. Military representatives meet with executives and producers in planning stages, review and comment on scripts and sit next to the director in video village where they (presumably) have the power to interrupt production given a hint of something they don't like.

But it's also about how nobody needs to carry a big stick because, in order to win their favour, filmmakers and scriptwriters across the industry self-censor in anticipation of the materiel their projects are going to need.

There's a great roster of interviewees from both sides of the 'military friendly' divide. As well as looking at blatant propaganda pieces like Lone Survivor and the Top Gun movies, both of which enjoyed unparalleled military access and support, director/narrator and media academic Roger Stahl also talks to Oliver Stone, a filmmaker only too happy to poke the powers that be in the eye.

One of the films foci is two British reporters, authors of a book called National Security Cinema who've spent decades on the trail of the military influence in cinema thanks to FOI requests and official obfuscation.

With their work as a basis, Stahl reveals the key players, the extent of how much say they've had over what we've watched on big screens and the extent to which the military brass would like to keep it all out of public view. Theaters of War has a standpoint, and that standpoint is that it's a social problem we should all be more aware of.

Watching it made me feel elated someone had done good work in this field as well as humbled and shamed by my own. My article was propaganda just as much as plenty of Hollywood movies are because of this phenomenon, but this film is urgent and vital investigative journalism.

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