Propaganda in film disrespects, disturbs

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Top Gun, which helped launch Tom Cruise into superstardom 25 years ago, has many memorable moments.

The shirtless, hypercompetitive volleyball game. The nicknames (Maverick, Goose, Iceman). The Righteous Brothers. The flybys. The Danger Zone. The list goes on.

It is also remembered because the U.S. military was heavily involved in the production. In exchange for "unparalleled support in the form of a carrier, aircraft, and technical advice," the military was allowed to mold the script to its liking, according to an episode of America's Defense Monitor , a PBS television series.

The result was an overwhelmingly generous portrayal of Navy pilots and American military might, so much so that it felt vaguely like a two-hour-long Navy infomercial.

The military certainly needed to improve its image after the Vietnam debacle. And there was no shortage of films with less than rosy portrayals of the military around that time, from the anti-war Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket , to Taxi Driver , featuring deranged former Marine Travis Bickle.

None of which changes the fact that Top Gun , no matter how enjoyable as ridiculous, macho fun, is plainly propaganda -- effective propaganda at that, shaping not only the public's perception of Navy pilots, but the pilots' perception of themselves.

All this brings me to Battle: Los Angeles , the aliens-invade-the-world movie that opened last week after seemingly endless promotion. The harsh reviews (Roger Ebert's was particularly invective) are correct: the film is loud, stunningly stupid and completely pointless.

A bad movie, though, is pretty harmless on its own. A bad movie made worse by eschewing nuance for propaganda, well, as they say in The Wizard of Oz , that's a horse of a different color.

There are several cringe-inducing scenes. One was particularly grating: A young boy, who has just watched his dad die, becomes distraught when Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) decides to head back into the battle. The boy has taken to Nantz because of his strong jaw line, presumably, or maybe he recognized him from The Dark Knight .

Either way, Nantz comforts the boy by telling him, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I need you to be a brave little Marine. You know why? Because Marines never quit."

No mention of his dad's memory, or the existential extraterrestrial threat, or anything apropos, really -- just a cheesy tagline as PR-friendly as "The Few, The Proud."

I'm all for having my patriotic bone tickled, but in service of a story, not in manufactured, irrelevant asides and clunky, hammy dialogue. Even the aliens were an afterthought, mostly there to make the Marines easier to root for by giving them underdog status.

I half expected to be handed a recruitment pamphlet on the way out of the theater. It was no surprise, then, to learn that the Defense Department, according to one report, made changes to the script early and often in the production process.

I realize we've long since passed the time a studio executive would think twice at charging $10 for glorified commercials for Coke and Dunkin' Donuts. And I know propaganda is a bit of a loaded term.

But I still find it disturbing -- not quite dangerous, but definitely disturbing -- that one of the most powerful institutions in the known universe still finds it necessary to hijack film scripts in exchange for the use of their taxpayer-funded machines.

The men and women of our armed forces deserve a tremendous amount of respect and admiration. They also deserve to be portrayed as human beings, not Defense Department-approved caricatures. They deserve better than this dreck.


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