Art imitates life for Pentagon liaison
Philip M. Strub is a powerful man in Hollywood, even though he's neither a big-name director nor a slick producer. He doesn't even have an office in Southern California. But just try to get a U.S. fighter jet or aircraft carrier into your multi-million-dollar motion picture without him.
As special assistant for Entertainment Media at the U.S. Defense Department, Strub helps green-light movies, TV shows and music videos that showcase Pentagon-owned products, regardless of whether Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman manufactured them.
"What we say is the productions have to be reasonably authentic and reasonably feasible," said Strub, who's held his current role since 1989. But, he said, "We know they have to take artistic license."
So when you see combat helicopters in "Black Hawk Down" and military tribunals on the small screen's "JAG"—and even in video games that depict the U.S. military or its hardware—it's likely that Strub's had a hand in the approval.
Strub—along with Los Angeles-based representatives from each of the U.S. armed forces who serve as day-to-day liaisons with Tinseltown—reviews project proposals.
"We form a consensus, share ideas about the script," Strub said. He says his department sifts through "dozens" of assistance requests, primarily for motion pictures and TV shows, each year.
But ultimately, the Defense Department decides whether or not it will offer technical support, on-site consulting—or equipment that companies like Boeing produced.
Take the 2001 Columbia Pictures film "Black Hawk Down," based on the real-life firefight between elite American peacekeeping soldiers and Somalians on the streets of Mogadishu. Strub said the Pentagon transported eight combat helicopters—including four Boeing-built MH-6 Little Bird aircraft—to Morocco for several weeks of filming. In addition to members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment—the same unit that lost crewmen during the 1993 fight—the Pentagon deployed two technical advisors to the overseas movie set. (None of this costs U.S. taxpayers a dime, Strub insists—movie studios reimburse the Pentagon for all costs, as it's not a revenue-generating function for the Defense Department.)
"There is an obvious interest on the part of the military services to feature their latest hardware, regardless of manufacturer," Strub said. "When we approve military assistance—access to a base, access to an aircraft carrier—then we appoint a project manager who's on the set day in and day out."
And when a studio or production house contacts a Pentagon contractor directly, he said, "In my experience, the contracting world tends to come to us as a courtesy and apprise us of what's going on."
While it seems that entertainment and the Pentagon make for strange bedfellows—even in a hopping town like Hollywood—the public has linked the two for more than 50 years. Before Congress created the Defense Department in 1949, the U.S. War Department and Department of the Navy had their own film review offices. And during World War II, Strub said, the Office of War Information's function was to "work with Hollywood to try to foster patriotic messages and prevent unpatriotic messages from creeping in."
The times have changed, and so has Hollywood, shifting from pro-war pictures during World War II to the military-critical Vietnam films of the late '70s and '80s to romantic-themed World War II films in the '90s. But what hasn't changed is the military's desire to showcase itself—and the entertainment industry's wish to highlight this drama-filled world. It's one tailor-made for the big, and small, screens.
And lest civilians think the Pentagon only approves projects that depict it in positive terms, Strub said, witness Cuba Gooding Jr.'s "Men of Honor" motion picture and HBO's "The Tuskegee Airmen," both of which portrayed institutional racism within the armed forces.
If a project portrays "the U.S. military as unrelentingly evil, we're not going to work on it," he said. "And that's because we don't believe that's realistic."
But if, as in the case of CBS-TV's hit program "JAG," even negative military behavior is seen as "not commonplace, not tolerated, and that it's being dealt with," the Pentagon's Entertainment Media department may give its blessing.
To those who happen to glance into Strub's small Pentagon office, which is tucked away near the Pentagon press corps and the briefing studio where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld holds court with the media, their interest in his work is quickly piqued when they see the posters and photos of movies involving the military that adorn his walls.
Reporters frequently ask Strub what he's working on, but they rarely write about his interesting role, vying instead to cover the real-world action that can typify the beat. Interesting work, indeed.
A former U.S. Navy ship driver who also earned a master's degree in film from the University of Southern California's renowned program, Strub understands Hollywood's ins and outs. Besides serving in the Vietnam conflict, he's worked as a film editor, production assistant, location scout, and TV and radio commercial producer over the years.
"Even though my military operational experience is dated," Strub said, "I still had some." And it prepared him for a career he never imagined.
Certainly a case of life imitating art imitating life.
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