FOR FOUR DECADES, the Pentagon’s man in Hollywood was Donald Baruch, a former New York theater producer who looked the part. He wore sharply tailored suits and peppered conversation with allusions to Greek mythology. In exchange for final script approval, he would bestow films with the Pentagon’s support—the use of tanks and planes, servicemen to populate battle scenes, and the military’s expertise in blowing things up. Baruch’s imprint was sizable. He purged films of all profanity. He insisted troops appear trim and clean-cut. And, for the most part, Hollywood happily obliged, filling theaters with flag-waving films such as In Harm’s Way, Sands of Iwo Jima, and Top Gun. The military was wholesome, decent, brave.
Back then, the Pentagon had the firm upper hand. Even when the Vietnam years produced a rash of antiwar movies, there were no studios that could reconstruct a naval base or digitally generate an F-14. In the words of director Rod Lurie, Baruch was “a tough old guy”—“it was sort of one turn-down after another unless you were dealing with films that were actual recruiting posters.”
The partnership between Hollywood and the Pentagon is still active, built on what one military historian calls “mutual exploitation”—a dynamic that Phil Strub, the current liaison, cheerfully confirms. Strub greets uniformed colleagues with a bright “How ya doin?” There is something a bit showbiz about him, with his smooth radio-DJ voice and quick, contained smile. Wearing khakis and a big silver belt buckle with an embedded green stone, Strub hardly looks likes a latter-day Donald Baruch—which is perhaps fitting, since the job has changed considerably since Baruch held it.
Strub was thrust briefly into the spotlight last summer when Representative Peter King called for an inquiry into whether the team behind Zero Dark Thirty, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, had been given access to classified information. (Conservatives were concerned that the film would help Barack Obama at election time.) Strub says that the filmmakers had several preliminary meetings with government officials, but made their movie without formal Pentagon support. They bought and renovated their own helicopters; instead of military extras, they used CGI to fill out the crew. Mark Boal, the screenwriter, told me that he only wanted the Pentagon’s help with “basic reporting” questions; he never requested official support for his project, which would have meant ceding creative control. “This job,” Strub explained, “is like being a minor eunuch in the court of imperial China.”
“I’M INTERESTED in story and character a lot more than I’m interested in effects,” Strub said. In his windowless d-ring Pentagon office, a poster advertises Battleground, a 1949 World War II film with the tagline: “The guts, gags and glory of a lot of wonderful guys!” Strub’s passion was always film, which he studied at the University of Southern California before working as a loader and gofer on low-budget flicks. “I became disenchanted with the whole Hollywood thing,” he confessed. He later made films of open-heart surgeries and autopsies, and then moved to Washington to work for the Army’s medical research unit. He replaced Baruch in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.
When Strub decides that a script passes muster, he writes a memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed by the Pentagon’s press secretary, requesting whatever aircraft or weaponry is needed. A Pentagon spokesman, asked about Strub’s role, maintained that the office is “still incredibly important.” But within the Pentagon, Strub said he feels mostly marginal, like “a shadowy character trying to persuade and influence but having actually no authority whatsoever.”
Several years ago, the Pentagon considered phasing out Strub’s job and leaving the task of liaising with Hollywood to the individual military branches. But a group of studio executives wrote a letter asking that he be kept on. He was the only face of the Pentagon they’d ever known, and they trusted him. “We’re pals,” said Ian Bryce, a producer who worked with Strub on Transformers. He and Michael Bay send Strub signed posters after working on movies together.
If one film marked a turning point in the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship, it was Independence Day, which was released in 1996. Strub disapproved of the script—Will Smith’s love interest was an exotic dancer, to cite one of Strub’s quibbles—and he decided not to grant support. The movie went on to become one of the first films to use computer-generated graphics to recreate fighter jets and missile explosions. It was also the biggest hit of the year.
The popularity of CGI has continued to climb, but there are other reasons for the Pentagon’s weakened position in the film industry. “Big combat arms are being pared down, Special Forces are being beefed up,” said Geoffrey Wawro, a military historian. The movies that tend to infiltrate the cultural imagination today are films like The Hurt Locker—another Bigelow project, which did not receive official support—where the drama is not in elaborate battle scenes but in highly targeted missions.
Strub has learned to be creative in finding ways to showcase U.S. military might. And his influence is felt most strongly in projects that Baruch would likely never have touched. During the production of Jurassic Park III, Strub was told that the filmmakers wanted an Air Force jet to fight the dinosaurs. “We weren’t about to provide them something that would only generate sympathy for the dinosaurs,” Strub said. So the script was tweaked—in part to feature a military rescue mission that swooped in to save the protagonists—and Strub happily signed off. When he consulted on Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the script described Tom Cruise fleeing aliendriven tripods and encountering soldiers with “expressionless, gloomy, almost zombie-like despair.” Strub objected, so Spielberg’s team brought him a new storyboard in which the soldiers were “determined” but not “dead-eyed.”
Strub has particularly fond memories from the filming of Transformers,which was released in 2007. The crew was shooting a scene after American troops had been attacked by the evil Decepticon robots. Famed conservative Jon Voight, who played the secretary of defense, approached Michael Bay to tell him the scene needed an extra line—something that would express his concern for the troops’ safety. Voight, Bay, Strub, and others huddled to brainstorm. Then Strub said softly: “Bring ’em home.” Murmurs of agreement moved through the circle.
In the final version of the scene, Voight speaks Strub’s line into his radio and the camera cuts to an approaching helicopter with soldiers silhouetted against swirling red dust. But when a massive talking robot transfigures itself into a yellow Camaro in a whir of flashing machine parts, the spell is broken. The film’s last image is a close-up of the hulking, digitized frame of Optimus Prime. And yet that quiet “Bring ’em home” still feels like a nod to classic war movies as far back as Sands of Iwo Jima. It may be Strub’s proudest moment.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “War of the Worlds.”