In the mid-1980’s, it was safe to say America had a tentative relationship with the armed forces. The post-Vietnam climate left citizens quick to question the usefulness of the military, and the first whispers of the Reagan administration’s misadventures with Iran and the Contras were just beginning to fly. 

That all changed when the high-flying Top Gun hit theaters in 1986. Some reports indicated enrollment in the Navy jumped 400% after the film’s release. The US Navy even went so far as to place recruitment desks at theatres across the Nation. Top Gun went on to become the highest-grossing film of the year, due in no small part to its realistic usage of military equipment such as jets, helicopters, and aircraft carriers. But how did the relatively low-budget film gain the use of real-life military equipment? It came down to a deal with the Pentagon – the producers could have access to the equipment if the Pentagon was allowed to change their script to make the U.S military look more favorable. The film’s success kicked off a modern relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon that came to be known as the “military-entertainment complex”—the worrying fusion of entertainment and propaganda that has become ingrained into most of our modern American blockbusters. 

This relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon officially began in 1948, and the list of films produced with Pentagon approval number in the hundreds. One such film is Ang Lee’s Hulk, which the Department of Defense requested to change the script so that the U.S military was not responsible for the creation of the titular monster. They also requested the original script remove the mention of “Operation Ranch Hand”, the name of a real Vietnam-era chemical warfare operation that poisoned over 22,000 acres of Vietnamese forest. Many could argue the Pentagon’s decision to alter a film released around the beginning of the Iraq War that portrayed the military as misguided and brutal was a violation of the First Amendment, but these decisions are often kept secret until Freedom of Information requests are processed. 

Throughout the 2010’s, more and more ties between Hollywood and the Pentagon were revealed. In 2013, Katherine Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, partnered with the CIA and obtained classified information from them regarding their use of torture during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Even big budget films like the Iron Man franchise and the film Captain Marvel sought Pentagon approval and partnered to help portray the Army and Air Force in a positive light. 

Popular video games like the Call of Duty franchise have been clearly exploited by the military industry as well. New advertising for the Army and Marines features the tagline “What’s Your Warrior?” and portrays selecting a career in the Army like selecting a character in a video game. This clearly preys upon the new generation of kids raised on the ultra-violent games, but one must ask if these games are in fact designed as training. War games are a practice as old as the idea of armies, but modern exercises often take the form of simulations. Since the 1980’s, several games released for consumer systems like Full Spectrum Warrior were even explicitly developed by producers affiliated with the military- the coding lab that designed the game was established as an official US Army University Affiliated Research Center in 1999. 

It begs the question, why does the military seek to defend their reputation in the popular media so heavily? One answer could lie in the high numbers of military suicides. In 2020, more members of the Army died by suicide (114) than by active-duty combat (14), painting a grim picture of the lives of service members. The military seeks a positive portrayal of themselves to distance the image from the reality: that you are more likely to be mistreated to the point of suicide than you are to face real danger in combat.

 It also serves to glamorize the worst parts of the military itself. The film Black Panther heavily features scenes at what the characters call an “advanced CIA Black Site,” similar to Guantanamo Bay. Needless to say, placing the heroes of the film in direct contact with the advanced torture techniques the military is known for at these “Black Sites” is a harmful blend of entertainment with the reality of these locations, like the Abu Ghraib incidents during the Iraq War.

Perhaps the Pentagon doesn’t even need to influence the entertainment industry anymore. The seed it has planted over the past forty years has clearly taken root in the minds of Hollywood pundits and scriptwriters. As Mark Fisher points out in Capitalist Realism, the capitalist ideology will always defend itself, especially through the dissemination of media. Media that portrays the state in a favorable manner will clearly gain the approval of the state, and in turn, it provides incentive for filmmakers to continue to seek funding by producing pro-US scripts. 

The cycle of producing explicitly pro-US propaganda is something not relegated to the silver screen. The central antagonists of the third season of Stranger Things were Soviet scientists who had infiltrated a suburban American town. The third season also took a sharp departure from its predecessors by explicitly featuring scenes highlighting the glamor of 80’s capitalism amid the Reagan era: the glamorous new mall, the new and bright neon arcades; even the character’s homes feature campaign posters for Ronald Reagan’s1984 reelection campaign. More than simply pandering to nostalgia, the creators made the deliberate decision to portray the American capitalist utopia in direct conflict with the shadowy Soviet enemy. Season 3 of Stranger Things released in 2019, around the time leftism was beginning to see a major resurgence in American politics. 

It makes sense that post-2020, after the large growth in conversations about leftist ideologies and mass protests nationwide, that new films are being released which feature villains labelled as anarchists, like the new Disney film Cruella De Vil and the upcoming Marvel television show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, in which the villains are a group that call themselves the “Flag-Smashers.” More than pure coincidence, the portrayal of anarchist villains in popular media as violent extremists who go too far to accomplish their goals aims to discredit popular movements like Black Lives Matter, hypocritically criticized for acts of violence and often associated with the right-wing scare term “Antifa”, or even the movement of leftist groups in the defense of low-income Texans during recent winter storms.

The misunderstanding of leftist politics in film and TV is no mistake; rather, it should be seen as a deliberate misinformation campaign. As discussed in Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, the use of the mass media to demonize the enemies of the state is a trick as old as the media itself. In modern capitalism, it is extremely difficult to avoid the consumption of media, especially in recent years as our news itself has taken on an entertainment-like quality. But to be even more cautious is to be aware of the fact that state propaganda has been infused with popular culture for the better part of 70 years, and that the ideas the Pentagon has infused into the ethos of Hollywood drama will most likely perpetuate this cycle as long as political activism can be exploited for views.  

By Will Peters, Contributor