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Mediawatch: That’s Militainment!

4 minute read
James Poniewozik

There’s a new alliance in Hollywood: the military-entertainment complex. The networks need a new twist on reality TV, the genre that has cooled since 9/11–or perhaps, in part, because of it. The Pentagon has a p.r. issue: How do you maintain public interest in a war that could stay on simmer–an air strike here, a wiretap there–for years?

The symbiotic solution: send reality TV to war. Last week ABC announced Profiles from the Front Line, from producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down) and reality-TV wiz Bertram van Munster (Cops, The Amazing Race). The reality series, to air as soon as this summer, intends to tell the personal stories of soldiers in Afghanistan, the Philippines and beyond. On VH1’s tentatively-titled Military Diaries (also aimed for summer), more than 60 soldiers with cameras will record their days and talk about how music helps them cope. (As Apocalypse Now taught us, rockin’ tunes are integral to modern warfare.) And on March 29, CBS debuts AFP: American Fighter Pilot (produced by Top Gun director Tony Scott along with his brother Ridley), which follows three F-15 pilots through training. (The first season was shot before Sept. 11, but subjects were later reinterviewed about their war experience.)

This explosion of militainment comes after months in which the military has tightly controlled information and press movements in the war zones. But the Pentagon granted reality producers access with all the reluctance of a 5-year-old entertaining a proposal to have ice cream for breakfast. VH1’s video diarists were even allowed to bring cameras into cockpits on missions. After seeing early clips of AFP, says Tony Scott, the Air Force was so pleased, “they gave us carte blanche.” And Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld personally signed off on Profiles. Perhaps it helps that Van Munster has touted Profiles’ “strong patriotic message”; that Scott declares, “[AFP] is a great recruitment film for fighter pilots”; or that Bruckheimer has a track record of military-flattering blockbusters. “You have to have something behind you that says you’re not going to hurt them,” says Bruckheimer. “They don’t want you to come to their house and trash it.”

Do viewers feel the same way? A November study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that most Americans wanted journalists to “dig hard” for war news rather than “trust officials.” But most also favored military censorship. And as nearly every TV newscast was decking itself in electronic bunting, Pew’s respondents gave the press high marks for both objectivity and “stand[ing] up for America.” The apparent lesson: the public wants the media to dig hard–for good news. Still, Bruckheimer says Profiles won’t be a whitewash. “Black Hawk shows a lot of blemishes,” he notes. “It shows a lot of things going wrong, and I think that’s part of the drama.”

It is tempting, and condescending, to assume each series will be fluff. Good reality TV–humor me, there is such a thing–has different, usually more introspective objectives from reporting, but it can be independent-minded. Diaries producer R.J. Cutler, who made the acclaimed high school reality series American High, doesn’t promise flag waving: “Our goal is to go in and show what it’s really like. We go in with a question and not an answer.”

But each show also goes in, at least figuratively, with a military escort. The producers are “casting” their shows and say they have final cut, though they will screen episodes for the military to ensure they don’t give away secrets. But Washington can pull the plug anytime. And however well done the series are, they could become, for lack of comparable journalistic access, the most vivid, complete and lasting images of the conflict for many Americans while, say, misdirected military strikes vanish into the fog of war.

Of course, this assumes people watch (Diaries started taping in January; Profiles hasn’t begun yet). If the war flares up, the cameras may not get access to the front. But Jonathan Littman, president of Bruckheimer’s TV-production company, says it doesn’t matter: “Just because [soldiers] aren’t firing guns doesn’t mean what they’re doing isn’t interesting.” With luck, there will not be hostile fire in the troops’ future. But there will definitely be shooting.

–With reporting by Jess Cagle/Los Angeles

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