Opinion | Will Tensions With China Suck the Fun Out of American Movies?
Two summers ago, I rode in a combat rubber raiding craft — a Zodiac — with two fellow Navy SEALs and an Air Force pararescueman. We moved quietly through the water, our M4s in hand and our objective in sight.
This mission resembled my combat days — except this time, I wasn’t in a war zone. I was on a film set; crouched alongside us in the Zodiac was the actor John Krasinski. The mission ended not when the enemy was down but when the director yelled, “Cut.”
Since the end of my active-duty Navy service, I’ve performed in, executive produced and advised dozens of Hollywood depictions of military life. Congress, however, may soon complicate that work. Representative Mark Green’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would prohibit the Pentagon from supporting Hollywood studios — for up to 10 years — if they edit content headed to China.
Mr. Green, a Tennessee Republican, wants to push Hollywood to push back on Chinese censorship, amid controversies over the South China Sea map in “Barbie” or the Taiwanese flag in “Top Gun: Maverick,” among others. Yet the Green amendment misunderstands film distribution in China, and more important, it misses the U.S. military’s long and productive relationship with Hollywood.
The Pentagon regularly works with Hollywood directors, producers, writers and stunt performers, helping them bring military scenes to life. For years, the Department of Defense has aided my onscreen projects, whether documentaries on international piracy or fictionalized portrayals of combat. The Zodiac infiltration scene, for instance, was possible because a U.S. Navy destroyer had been lent to the production — precisely the kind of collaboration the Green amendment puts at risk.
Hollywood’s ties to the military stretch back decades. During World War II, Hollywood created movies to aid the war effort, and entire offices of the War Department were devoted to filmmaking. Amid the country’s panic after Pearl Harbor, feature films depicting American soldiers gave the nation confidence in the fight against fascism.
That cooperation continued in the postwar years. One of the best-known examples is the 1986 film “Top Gun.” The film had the Pentagon’s blessing and benefited from military resources. For the military, “Top Gun” was a tool to boost recruitment at a crucial point in the Cold War — a mission it accomplished with aplomb. After the release of “Top Gun,” the naval aviator program grew its ranks.
In fact, many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines can point to the films and television shows that kindled their military ambitions — myself included. I was inspired to apply to the Naval Academy after seeing “Top Gun” in a movie theater; 36 years later, my life came full circle when I appeared in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
That inspirational effect isn’t limited to the home front. Both of the “Top Gun” films grossed roughly half their revenue abroad, meaning that these films also advanced a vision of America’s military supremacy internationally. When foreign audiences see films depicting the heroism and skill of U.S. service members, it projects an uplifting idea of America’s bravery and technical prowess, which aids the roughly 170,000 U.S. troops deployed to more than 100 countries around the world. Military-themed films serve U.S. foreign policy interests, reminding both allies and adversaries of our values and our might.
Such films would face a tougher road under the Green amendment. Federal officials would be forbidden to check a television or film script for classified information; documentarians could be denied access to military vessels and outposts. Even basic government services — like a producer getting access to a nonmilitary national park — might be restricted. And to what end? The Department of Defense has already instituted a rule preventing Pentagon production assistance to any project that would “advance the national interest of the People’s Republic of China.”
Mr. Green must also know that movies headed for China are released before a general audience of all ages — the equivalent of the audience for a G-rated film in America — meaning that so-called censorship is commonplace and tends to focus on foul words and steamy love scenes more than hot-button political imagery. Studios frequently do this scrubbing for other countries, too, including for audiences in India, a democratic U.S. ally.
The Green amendment, however, would single out one geopolitical adversary — China — and give Hollywood an ultimatum: Edit for China and forfeit the U.S. government’s support or reject Chinese edits, no matter how benign, and remain in the U.S. government’s good graces. But this is a false choice that undermines America’s ability to operate in the information battle space, an arena in which, of course, China is among our primary foes.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the Green amendment does force American studios to stop editing for China and, as a result, American films are banished from Chinese theaters. How exactly does that advance Mr. Green’s crusade against China — or the cause of free speech? If Chinese audiences can no longer see American movies, the Communist censors have achieved their goal: Less Americana on their screens.
The bigger issue, from my perspective, is that the amendment could also limit Americana in America. At a time of waning patriotism and lower military recruitment, the Green amendment could leave Hollywood less capable of portraying the military accurately and arguably less willing to portray it at all. Fewer military-themed movies and shows would mean Americans would have less understanding of and appreciation for the U.S. armed forces — yet another gift to the Chinese Communist Party.
As a member of the SEALs, I fought to safeguard free speech, and I’ve buried friends who gave their lives for our freedoms — including fellow SEALs whose heroism was later portrayed by Hollywood films that depended on Pentagon support. While I share Mr. Green’s worries about Chinese censorship, I believe his amendment would be a step backward. Either Hollywood would be forced to abandon China entirely, eroding America’s cultural influence, or film studios would be forced to stop working with the Pentagon, which could undermine national security and public support for the military.
Either result would hurt America more than China — which is why the Green amendment should be rejected.
Kaj Larsen is a military technical adviser, documentary producer and stunt performer who served for 13 years as an officer in the Navy SEALs.
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