- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” cruised to just more than $200 million last weekend, the second-highest five-day total in box-office history. As the film cruises to $300 million during Independence Day weekend, it’s worth taking a look at the contribution of the military men and women who made the movie so compelling.

“You can’t just have robots fighting robots,” Mr. Bay said at a press conference in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center last week. Throwing humans into the mix “added a whole other layer of different types of threats to it. I called Phil at the Pentagon, and I said, ‘Phil, we’ve got this movie; you’ve read it,’ and he says, ‘Well, if we did have aliens here on Earth, this is how we’d fight ‘em.’ ”

“Phil” is Phil Strub, the longtime director of entertainment media for the Department of Defense. He liaises with filmmakers such as Mr. Bay — who also has worked with the military on “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Transformers” — to offer the assistance of the Pentagon and ensure that the film has the highest degree of authenticity possible.

“Filmmakers approach us, and we ask for a copy of the script, not just the pages that portray the military,” Mr. Strub says of the approval process. He and his team then check the script to ensure that the picture is concordant with the values of the armed services and that the various branches are in a position, logistically speaking, to offer support.

Mr. Strub points to the huge variety of gear in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” as an example of all the military can bring to the table when everything works out: Featured in that film are Army helicopters; Marine Corps tanks; Naval amphibious assault vehicles, destroyers and an aircraft carrier; and Air Force fighters and bomber jets.

The military doesn’t extract rent for the use of its equipment or charge for access to such things as the deck of an aircraft carrier. As a result, filmmakers work around missions that have been scheduled, and the military sometimes is limited in the assistance it can offer.

“There’s no point in spending months working with a company only to find out that they want something we can’t do,” Mr. Strub says. “There are times when we would be inclined to work on a picture but can’t because of the logistics.”

He points to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” as an example of a film that the military would have been happy to help with but couldn’t because of shooting locations. (Much of “Saving Private Ryan” was shot in Europe.)

Mr. Strub notes that Mr. Spielberg later used a squadron of soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division recently redeployed from Afghanistan in his remake of “War of the Worlds.” The soldiers served as extras during a tense battle against one of the menacing alien tripods. Originally, the squad was going to be led by an actor, but Mr. Spielberg was so impressed by the soldiers’ professionalism and realism that the role went to one of them.

The manpower the military can provide is even more important than the gear listed above, at least when it comes to adding authenticity to the pictures.

“What makes the biggest difference is using real soldiers,” Mr. Bay said. “There’s nothing that bugs me more than when you see actors trying to [perform military tasks].”

The Pentagon is happy to allow off-duty soldiers to appear as paid extras in these pictures. If, however, the soldiers are actually operating the equipment on-screen, they must be on duty, and filming then takes place around their schedules and missions.

Mr. Bay recalled one such instance, a key sequence filmed at the Air Force’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

“We actually had a squadron of F-16s on a mission: They literally diverted from their mission when they were finished, and they flew by us on three passes, low passes of about 125 feet, and we tied bombs on the ground so it looked like missile strikes,” he said.

Some in the industry complain about the cozy relationship certain filmmakers have with the military, worrying that the military’s script-approval process neuters the creative process. Looking at some of the scripts that have been approved (Ivan Reitman’s Army-ridiculing “Stripes,” for example) and some that have been rejected (the pro-military “Independence Day”), it’s hard to find a consistent pattern with the exception of the exclusion of pictures that are simply hostile to the military or the men and women it comprises.

The military can’t afford to be indifferent to the way it’s portrayed in movies, given the impact such films are believed to have on the viewing public — especially the military’s target enlistment demographic, young males.

“Anecdotally, we hear recruiters say there may be an uptick in the numbers,” Mr. Strub says, adding that “we don’t have any hard evidence that shows any causal relationship between recruiting and retention and these films.” Still, he says, “it’s widely assumed that it does contribute.”

It’s hard to think of a better recruitment commercial than Mr. Bay’s latest picture, and audiences are reacting to it: In addition to the amazing box-office success, Paramount’s exit polls show that 91 percent of the audience liked “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” as much as or more than its predecessor.

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