Thinking Tech

How America's proudest technological achievements become movie props

How America's proudest technological achievements become movie props

Posting in Government

The real space shuttle Discovery may play a bit part in Michael Bay's next film, continuing a long tradition of government cooperation with filmmakers. But should it?

Director Michael Bay will begin filming scenes for the next installment of the Transformers franchise at Kennedy Space Center, and the space shuttle Discovery may even make a cameo. NASA's cooperation with the filmmaker is nothing new--he's filmed at KSC before, and regularly gets permission to use military equipment--but it's part of a tradition that rankles some.

The government has a long history of loaning military equipment and its operators to filmmakers, and it's something that tends to go unnoticed. This could be because the process is generally boring: A filmmaker contacts a liaison (each branch has an office in Hollywood), and requests to use certain equipment. (In the case of NASA, the request will generally go to the location itself.) The request is granted, or maybe not. The film either gets the extra degree of authenticity, or it doesn't.

Another reason we may not hear about this is because it's mutually unflattering. The military considers such requests as opportunities for imagemaking and recruitment, so it provides equipment at minimal cost--essentially the price of transport and fuel. In return, officials get to have a say in what goes into the final script, which could be construed as excessively cautious of controlling on the part of the government, and as a sign of a lack of integrity in participating filmmakers. According to a Variety piece on the subject, even the memorably crude 70s comedy Stripes was subject to government editing, as was the last Transformers movie, which Army Lt. Col. Greg Bishop, a Hollywood liaison for the military, says was probably "the largest joint-military movie ever made."

Such an arrangement is perfect for Bay, who has a reputation as a military-friendly director, and this week's stint at Kennedy Space Center is as mild as far as these things go. It's NASA, which counts out the military recruitment angle, and it's not likely to cost much, if anything, for taxpayers.

But it still hints at a larger question, about who should have access to this taxpayer-funded technology and who shouldn't. Says University of Wisconsin-Madison film professor David Bordwell:

Naturally the military doesn’t do all this for nothing. They want influence over the way the Armed Forces are depicted. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds had military assistance. The Pentagon’s film laiason [sic], Phil Strub, says, “The big battle scene at the end was going to be different. We just wanted the case made that the Marines understood that they were not going to prevail, but they were nobly sacrificing so the civilians in that valley could escape.”

Strub also decries “the enduring stereotype of the loner hero who must succeed by disobeying orders, going outside the rules by being stupid.”

The implication is that if Spielberg insisted on his original ending, the military could have denied their support, or if Bay wanted to write a lone, out-of-rank hero soldier into his script, he would have faced resistance. A further implication is that a filmmaker with ambitions to make a film critical of the military wouldn't have access to its resources at all, despite offering to pay the same fees, and having paid the same taxes, as everyone else.

I don't propose that that all government agencies should be required to do as citizens ask simply because they're publicly funded, but arrangement like this deserve close scrutiny, or at the very least public discussion. The exciting tech we write so much about here--from NASA's various craft to the next generation of military drone and surveillance technology--requires massive investments, which must be asked of and extracted from the citizenry year after year. All of us reap the benefits of these investments, in increased security or wide-reaching advances in important research areas. But should a select few, chosen for political reasons, reap even more?

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure