The Strange Reversals of a Pentagon Blockbuster
by Nick Turse
"Liberal Hollywood" is a favorite whipping-boy of right-wingers who suppose the town and its signature industry are ever-at-work undermining the U.S. military. In reality, the military has been deeply involved with the film industry since the Silent Era. Today, however, the ad hoc arrangements of the past have been replaced by a full-scale one-stop shop, occupying a floor of a Los Angeles office building. There, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and the Department of Defense itself have established entertainment liaison offices to help ensure that Hollywood makes movies the military way.
What they have to trade, especially when it comes to blockbuster films, is access to high-tech, tax-payer funded, otherwise unavailable gear. What they get in return is usually the right to alter or shape scripts to suit their needs. If you want to see the fruits of this relationship in action, all you need to do is head down to your local multiplex. Chances are that Iron Man — the latest military-entertainment masterpiece — is playing on a couple of screens.
For the past three weeks, Iron Man –a film produced by its comic-book parent Marvel and distributed by Paramount Pictures — has cleaned up at the box office, taking in a staggering $222.5 million in the U.S. and $428.5 million worldwide. The movie, which opened with "the tenth biggest weekend box office performance of all time" and the second biggest for a non-sequel, has the added distinction of being the "best-reviewed movie of 2008 so far." For instance, in the New York Times, movie reviewer A.O. Scott called Iron Man "an unusually good superhero picture," while Roger Ebert wrote: "The world needs another comic book movie like it needs another Bush administration… [but] if we must have one more… ‘Iron Man’ is a swell one to have." There has even been nascent Oscar buzz.
Robert Downey Jr. has been nearly universally praised for a winning performance as playboy-billionaire-merchant-of-death-genius-inventor Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, a fictional version of Lockheed or Boeing. In the film, Stark travels to Afghanistan to showcase a new weapon of massive destruction to American military commanders occupying that country. On a Humvee journey through the Afghan backlands, his military convoy is caught up in a deadly ambush by al-Qaeda stand-ins, who capture him and promptly subject him to what Vice President Dick Cheney once dubbed "a dunk in the water," but used to be known as "the Water Torture." The object is to force him to build his Jericho weapons system, one of his "masterpieces of death," in their Tora Bora-like mountain cave complex.
As practically everyone in the world already knows, Stark instead builds a prototype metal super-suit and busts out of his cave of confinement, slaughtering his terrorist captors as he goes. Back in the U.S., a born-again Stark announces that his company needs to get out of the weapons game, claiming he has "more to offer the world than making things blow up." Yet, what he proceeds to build is, of course, a souped-up model of the suit he designed in the Afghan cave. Back inside it, as Iron Man, he then uses it to "blow up" bad guys in Afghanistan, taking on the role of a kind of (super-)human-rights vigilante. He even tangles with U.S. forces in the skies over that occupied land, but when the Air Force’s sleek, ultra high-tech, F-22A Raptors try to shoot him down, he refrains from using his awesome powers of invention to blow them away. This isn’t the only free pass doled out to the U.S. military in the film.
Just as America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to bring various Vietnam analogies to mind, Iron Man has its own Vietnam pedigree. Before Tony Stark landed in Afghanistan in 2008, he first lumbered forth in Vietnam in the 1960s. That was, of course, when he was still just the clunky hero of the comic book series on which the film is based. Marvel’s metal man then battled that era’s American enemies of choice: not al-Qaedan-style terrorists, but communists in Southeast Asia.
Versions of the stereotypical evil Asians of Iron Man’s comic book world would appear almost unaltered on the big screen in 1978 in another movie punctuated by gunfire and explosions that also garnered great reviews. The Deer Hunter, an epic of loss and horror in Vietnam, eventually took home four Academy Awards, including Best Picture honors. Then, and since, however, the movie has been excoriated by antiwar critics for the way it turned history on its head in its use of reversed iconic images that seemingly placed all guilt for death and destruction in Vietnam on America’s enemies.
Most famously, it appropriated a then-unforgettable Pulitzer prize-winning photo of Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, executing an unarmed, bound prisoner during the Tet Offensive with a point blank pistol shot to the head. In the film, however, it was the evil enemy which made American prisoners do the same to themselves as they were forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of their sadistic Vietnamese captors (something that had no basis in reality).
The film Iron Man is replete with such reversals, starting with the obvious fact that, in Afghanistan, it is Americans who have imprisoned captured members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban (as well as untold innocents) in exceedingly grim conditions, not vice-versa. It is they who, like Tony Stark, have been subjected to the Bush administration’s signature "harsh interrogation technique." While a few reviewers have offhandedly alluded to the eeriness of this screen choice, Iron Man has suffered no serious criticism for taking the imprisonment practices, and most infamous torture, of the Bush years and superimposing it onto America’s favorite evil-doers. Nor have critics generally thought to point out that, while, in the film, the nefarious Obadiah Stane, Stark’s right hand man, is a double-dealing arms dealer who is selling high-tech weapons systems to the terrorists in Afghanistan (and trying to kill Stark as well), two decades ago the U.S. government played just that role. For years, it sent advanced weapons systems — including Stinger missiles, one of the most high-tech weapons of that moment — to jihadis in Afghanistan so they could make war on one infidel superpower (the Soviet Union), before setting their sights on another (the United States). And while this took place way back in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be too hard for film critics to recall – since it was lionized in last year’s celebrated Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson’s War.
In the cinematic Marvel Universe, however, the U.S. military, which runs the notorious prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where so many have been imprisoned, abused, and, in some cases, have even died, receives a veritable get out of jail free card. And you don’t need to look very closely to understand why — or why the sleek U.S. aircraft in the film get a similar free pass from Iron Man, even when they attack him, or why terrorists and arms dealers take the fall for what the U.S. has done in the real world.
If they didn’t, you can be sure that Iron Man wouldn’t be involved in a blue-skies ballet with F-22A Raptors in the movie’s signature scene and that the filmmakers would never have been able to shoot at Edwards Air Force base — a prospect which could have all but grounded Iron Man, since, as director Jon Favreau put it, Edwards was "the best back lot you could ever have." Favreau, in fact, minced no words in his ardent praise for the way working with the Air Force gave him access to the "best stuff" and how filming on the base brought "a certain prestige to the film." Perhaps in exchange for the U.S. Air Force’s collaboration, there was an additional small return favor: Iron Man’s confidant, sidekick, and military liaison, Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes — another hero of the film — is now an Air Force man, not the Marine he was in the comic.
With the box office numbers still pouring in and the announcement of sequels to come, the arrangement has obviously worked out well for Favreau, Marvel, Paramount — and the U.S. Air Force. Before the movie was released, Master Sergeant Larry Belen, the superintendent of technical support for the Air Force Test Pilot School and one of many airmen who auditioned for a spot in the movie, outlined his motivation to aid the film: "I want people to walk away from this movie with a really good impression of the Air Force, like they got about the Navy seeing Top Gun."
Air Force captain Christian Hodge, the Defense Department’s project officer for Iron Man, may have put it best, however, when he predicted that, once the film appeared, the "Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars." Maybe the Air Force hasn’t hit the Top Gun-style jackpot with Iron Man, but there can be no question that, in an American world in which war-fighting doesn’t exactly have the glitz of yesteryear, Iron Man is certainly a military triumph. As Chuck Vinch noted in a review published in the Air Force Times, "The script… will surely have the flyboy brass back at the Pentagon trading high fives — especially the scene in which Iron Man dogfights in the high clouds with two F-22 Raptors."
Coming on the heels of last year’s military-aided mega-spectacular Transformers, the Pentagon is managing to keep a steady stream of pro-military blockbusters in front of young eyes during two dismally unsuccessful foreign occupations that grind on without end. In his Iron Man review, Roger Ebert called the pre-transformation Tony Stark, "the embodiment of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961 — a financial superhero for whom war is good business, and whose business interests guarantee there will always be a market for war."
Here’s the irony that Ebert missed: What the film Iron Man actually catches is the spirit of the successor "complex," which has leapt not only into the cinematic world of superheroes, but also into the civilian sphere of our world in a huge way. Today, almost everywhere you look, whether at the latest blockbuster on the big screen or what’s on much smaller screens in your own home — likely made by a defense contractor like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic or Toshiba — you’ll find the Pentagon or its corporate partners. In fact, from the companies that make your computer to those that produce your favorite soft drink, many of the products in your home are made by Defense Department contractors — and, if you look carefully, you don’t even need the glowing eyes of an advanced "cybernetic helmet," like Iron Man’s, to see them.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters, the Nation, and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published in the American Empire Project series by Metropolitan Books.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse