Documentary Review: Theaters of War

This article reviews a great new documentary about the influence wielded over Hollywood by the US military and Central Intelligence Agency.

People who write books and make documentaries about the militarization of Hollywood often go for cutesy title-puns: Reel Bad Arabs (Jack Shaheen, Olive Branch), Reel Power (Matthew Alford, Pluto Press), Operation Hollywood(David Robb, Prometheus)… “Projecting Power” hasn’t been done, yet—as far as I know.

In keeping with the play-on-words tradition: Theaters are, of course, zones of combat. Since the Second World War with the rise of airpower, theaters are typically civilian areas: villages, towns, cities, industrial areas, farms, etc. “Combat” now generally involves strafing these areas from thousands of feet in the air with flying fortresses, jets, and drones.


Dr. Roger Stahl, author of Militainment, Inc. (Routledge), directs and presents a documentary largely based on the works of British researchers Tom Secker and Matthew Alford about the shaping of modern movie content by the Pentagon.

The evidence, based on literally thousands of pages of declassified documents, most of them obtained via Freedom of Information requests, goes something like this: Film producers and directors are keen to get the best equipment for their war and action movies. The US military is keen to exploit Hollywood as a vehicle of propaganda to promote militarism.

Indeed, the US military describes certain movies as “infomercials” for the Pentagon. Captain Marvel (2019) was a quite open attempt to recruit females into to the US Air Force.

The result is that scripts are routinely vetted by the Pentagon’s liaison departments to remove any potential film content unfavorable to the US war machine. The sequel to Top Gun (1986), for instance, was delayed for years because a report into the sexual abuse of female staff at the Department of Defense (DoD) decried what it called the “Top Gun mentality” of male recruits.

For decades, the major academic books on the relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon were authored by a propagandist named Lawrence Suid, who framed his work as follows: the Pentagon helps directors to make their pictures more realistic. According to Theaters of War, Suid carefully sidestepped the issue of the military’s influence on movie-making.

Dr. Alford flew to the States to request access to Georgetown University’s Suid Collection, which turned him down, apparently at the behest of Suid himself. When Suid died, the estate made the collection public. Director Stahl looked through the archives and was astonished to find that not only had Suid been given his own military intranet account, he had on-demand access to Pentagon documents and had received “advice” on how to write the manuscript for his book, Guts and Glory (Kentucky UP).


The documentary notes that the turning point came in the 1980s, when new internal DoD guidelines expanded their criteria for what constitutes cooperation. Stahl interviews numerous academics, including PhDs Sebastian Kaempf, Tanner Mirrlees, Robin Andersen, and Tricia Jenkins, who specializes in how the CIA influences film and TV.

Through Dr. Alford, Stahl was able to get an interview with director Oliver Stone, who explained that his war movies were refused by the DoD on the basis of their portraying the Vietnam War in a bad light. The original script of Platoon(1986), for instance, was rejected because, among other objectionable things, it included scenes depicting the “murder and rape of innocent Vietnamese villagers.” The veteran Stone recalls his time fighting in ‘Nam: “I saw both.” In the end, Stone borrowed the hardware for the movie from the US-backed Filipino military: a point of hypocrisy presumably too ungracious for Stahl to raise with Stone. (This was actually reported in the Washington Post at the time.)

The documentary notes that dozens of movies were turned down by the Pentagon for similar reasons, including Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Broken Arrow (1996): an action film that focuses on one of the more touchy subjects for the DoD, namely nuclear weapons; in this case a rogue fighter-pilot stealing two bombs. Assistance for Jarhead (2005), based on the Gulf War-themed memoir, was rejected in part because of the characters’ overt anti-Arab racism. Hollywood has no problem with anti-Arab racism, but the Pentagon doesn’t want its employees to be portrayed as racist, unless the top-brass can be seen throwing a few bad apples from the cart.


Dr. Jenkins explains that the CIA is a tougher nut to crack. While the Pentagon refers in internal documents to researcher Secker as a “vexatious requester” on account of the voluminous FOIs he files, Dr. Alford had to wait eight years(!) for the Agency to reply to his requests about the CIA’s influence over the film, Argo (2012): the story of how the CIA manipulates Hollywood to ensure that the industry cooperates in the cause of national security.

Torture scenes are a big no-no for the Pentagon. Indeed, themes like drug-running and the killing of superior officers are known internally as “show-stoppers”: redlines guaranteed to get any movie contract canceled. Indeed, some movies never saw the light of day because the Pentagon withdrew support.

When the Bush administration was openly torturing alleged terror “suspects” as part of its fake “war on terror,” the agenda shifted to damage control.  On screen, torture was no longer taboo but a necessary plot device. Jenkins notes the influence of the CIA on films and shows like 24 (2001-14), Homeland (2011-20), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), in which torture is praised as a necessary way to catch the bad guys.

By now, over 2,500 Hollywood movies and television shows, including cookery programs like Cupcake Wars (2009-18), are influenced at one level or another by the DoD.


Criticisms of the documentary are as follows.

It would have been good to explore whether the influence of the DoD has contributed to the decline in quality of Hollywood cinema in recent decades, to the point where much of the industry’s output is puerile to the point of being unwatchable. The modern American economy is based on the hi-tech transfer from Pentagon-developed gadgets (like computers) to monopolies (like Microsoft), so it would have also been good to have had some deeper analysis of why the US Empire places so much emphasis on militarism, as opposed to so-called “soft power.”

Finally, it is a little tragic that the documentary does what it exposes Hollywood for doing: it dehumanizes victims of US imperial aggression. Dr. Stahl interviews US war veterans, but not Afghans or Iraqis. He denounces the “staggering legacy of human suffering” wrought on the Middle East and Central Asia over the last two decades, but presents death-tolls as literal numbers. No victims are identified or named.

In conclusion, Theaters of War is definitely worth a look for those not familiar with Secker and Alford’s works. For those familiar with their works, and the works of the other academics featured, it serves as a worthy companion piece.

T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).