Hollywood's military complex

  @FortuneMagazine December 19, 2013: 7:19 AM ET
BRI13 movies

Films supported by the military (clockwise from top left): Captain Phillips, Man of Steel, Flags of Our Fathers, I Am Legend


In 2009, Somali pirates hijacked the cargo ship Maersk Alabama and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage in a lifeboat. Within days, the U.S. military stormed in, equipped with a guided missile destroyer, a Wasp amphibious assault ship, an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, several helicopters and members of Seal Team Six. In the movie, Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips, while a similar missile destroyer, the Wasp, the helicopters, and the Seals play themselves (though they are not on active duty) -- courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Even in an age of special effects, it's exponentially cheaper to film on actual military ships with real military advisers. Despite action sequences and an A-list lead, Captain Phillips cost about $55 million to make (compared with a visual effects fest like Gravity, which cost about $100 million). The fulcrum of Hollywood's unlikely partnership is Phil Strub, a former film school student and Navy videographer, now the entertainment liaison at the Department of Defense.

Scripts of movies helmed by Michael Bay, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg are regularly sent to an ascetic office at the Pentagon in hopes of procuring military cooperation. If he signs off, the filmmakers stand to access the most awesome arsenal in the world, and in turn, the image and message of the American armed forces get projected before a global audience.

Captain Russell Coons, Strub's colleague in the Navy, says that they participated in Captain Phillips because it was "an opportunity to highlight our capabilities and showcase Navy's anti-piracy and maritime security operations to a worldwide audience." The script required no changes for approval. But some do.

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