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Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies    by David L. Robb order for
Operation Hollywood
by David L. Robb
Order:  USA  Can
Prometheus, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by David Pitt

Robb, a journalist thrice-nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, tackles an interesting subject here. To what extent, he asks, does the U.S. government, specifically the Pentagon, determine what we see on the big screen?

As you probably know, a filmmaker who's making a movie that involves the U.S. military usually needs its cooperation. Moviemakers use military hardware, bases, even personnel: it's cheaper than building (or casting) their own, and usually far more realistic. But the cooperation comes with a price: often, as Robb amply documents, the Pentagon expects the filmmaker to make changes to his movie.

Sometimes they're drastic changes. Independence Day, for example, might have turned out entirely different from the movie you've seen, if its producer had made all the alterations to his script that the government had required. But he didn't, and made the movie without military cooperation.

Sometimes they're more subtle changes, like the insertion of a single line into the script for Jurassic Park III. The producers stuck the line in, and got to use two helicopters (and their crews), four amphibious assault vehicles, and eighty Marines for seven days of shooting. All for a scene, mind you, that lasted barely a couple of minutes on-screen.

This is a fascinating, eye-opening, often troubling book. Robb covers a lot of ground (he discusses movies as varied as Forrest Gump, Star Trek IV, and Lassie), and the only thing that bothers me is that he seems to get a few of his small facts wrong. Here are three examples. You can make up your own mind how much, or how little, the errors affect the credibility of the book as a whole.

Discussing the writing of the script for Tomorrow Never Dies, Robb writes that the author had 'James Bond, to be played for the first time by Pierce Brosnan, getting ready to parachute into the waters off Vietnam.' But Brosnan had already played Bond, in Goldeneye, which had come out before Tomorrow Never Dies.

In his discussion of the difficulties in securing military approval for Crimson Tide, about a mutiny aboard a nuclear submarine, Robb writes that the Pentagon advisor 'had read Clancy's novel,' and that he 'liked the idea of another Clancy movie coming to the screen.' Only thing is, Crimson Tide wasn't based on a Clancy novel. Its story was co-written by Richard P. Henrick, who writes novels in the Clancy mode, but Clancy had nothing to do with the movie.

At one point Robb writes about 'CIA assistance to the long-running CBS series The Agency until it was cancelled in February 2004.' The Agency, a CBS drama, debuted in September, 2001. That does not make it a long-running series. I know that might seem foolishly nitpicky of me, but it bothers me, because it implies that Robb might not know how long the show was on the air.

You could also chalk up these errors, and the several others like them, to the editing process: perhaps he didn't mean to write that Brosnan was playing Bond for the first time, or to imply that Crimson Tide was based on a Clancy novel, or to call a show that ran from 2001 to 2004 'long-running.' Perhaps nobody caught the inadvertent mistakes and fixed them. But that would mean the book wasn't as rigorously edited as it should have been, and that's not a good thing, either.

Operation Hollywood is a good, thought-provoking book, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to know how movies get made. But read it with caution.

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