Audiences worldwide love action movies. When films feature uniformed personnel, planes, or ships—or, better yet, are military-themed, Hollywood routinely travels to the Pentagon. The Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy all share offices geared towards Hollywood in the same Los Angeles office building. Over in Washington, the Defense Department quietly maintains a Film Liaison Unit that closely collaborates with filmmakers. It’s one of the marketing world’s most interesting (or, depending on your views, unsettling) cross-promotional relationships. And odds are you wouldn’t be watching Battleship without it.
Battleship is an odd duck. Universal has big hopes for the blockbuster, and the film (mild spoiler alert) closes with a window for a potential franchise… but it’s still a film based on a board game. The film features the U.S. Navy fighting space aliens, a deliberate choice by director Peter Berg and the movie creative team which would give the military a "realistic" enemy.
When it’s time for filmmakers to include the American military in their films, they contact the Defense Department. According to Navy Chief of Information, Rear Adm. Denny Moynihan, the Navy demands that the script "accurately portray the Navy," and positively represent sailors and the Navy before cooperating. The Navy also requires that the film have a positive impact on recruiting and that the film can be supported without impacting military operations.
The Navy granted Berg and Universal extensive access to military facilities during the making of the film. Following formal military approval in 2010, principal photography took place during a U.S. Pacific Fleet training exercise and Navy advisors consulted on filming in Hawaii, San Diego, and Louisiana. Cast and crew members also spent time at sea in order to get a taste for their role and logistical demands.
In a bulletin sent to Navy recruiting offices nationwide, Moynihan notes that "whether or not we supported Battleship, the film was going to be made—it was going to carry our brand and represent who we are to the American people. We can’t take everyone out to our ships, but we can work with Hollywood and bring the Navy to life on the big screen. Consequently, it’s in our best interest to engage and make sure that movies like Battleship accurately portray who we are and what we do as a Navy."
Although the film puzzlingly transforms a beloved board game into an alien invasion epic, it also maintains a constant pro-military stance. Berg recently caused a minor uproar when he called an Israeli interviewer, who did not serve in his country’s mandatory military stint, a "draft dodger."
Both the Pentagon office and the various Los Angeles branch offices provide logistical support, advice, and factchecking for the film and television industries. The Air Force boasts that they’ve helped with projects as diverse as Iron Man 2, Army Wives, Top Chef, and Stargate Universe. However, filmmakers sometimes trade creative freedom for the chance to collaborate with the military. To give one mild example, the Navy demanded that Top Gun change Kelly McGillis’ character from an enlisted woman to someone outside the service. Although the military cannot dictate the content of a movie, they can withhold cooperation if they believe it does not portray the armed services in a positive light. Navy representatives also stressed to Co.Create that no taxpayer money is used to create the movie and that when military vehicles are shown in action, it is because real training exercises have been filmed.
Sometimes, cooperation can even be withheld because of comic book continuity. Wired's Danger Room blog recently told the story of how the military withheld cooperation from The Avengers because of disagreement on the relationship of Nick Fury’s superspy S.H.I.E.L.D. Agency to the government. The military, it seems, could not cooperate in the summer blockbuster’s filming because The Avengers is ambivalent on S.H.I.E.L.D’s relationship to the U.S. government.
Films with military themes, American troops, or warfare do not require Defense Department cooperation to be filmed, of course. A whole generation of disenchanted post-Vietnam military films avoided military liasons, as do many science-fiction films that feature the American military using unrealistic weaponry for the sake of a big box office take. However, military cooperation does make filmmaking much easier for those looking for "realism" (you know, like Battleship)—among others, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer have had a longstanding relationship with the DoD.
Prior to Battleship's U.S. release on Friday, the Navy is sponsoring a series of free screenings at military facilities across the United States.