When entertainment producers want assistance from the Department of Defense in making films, TV shows and video games they submit their scripts to the military's entertainment liaison offices for approval. The Pentagon then reviews them line-by-line, changing or removing anything they don't like, affecting characters, dialogue, action and overall plots or storylines in the process.
A recent Freedom of Information Act request seeking copies of script notes the US Navy has provided to the producers of projects including NCIS, Top Gun 2 and Godzilla was met with a curious denial. The US Navy conducted a search of CHINFO — the Navy's Office of Information, the main point of contact between the Navy and the media — yet claimed to have found no documents, replying "their office does not keep script notes".
However, a search of the Navy's electronic reading room turned up documents previously released in response to an identical request regarding the film Lone Survivor, including script notes sent to writer and producer Peter Berg.
Less Than Top Secret
Lone Survivor, based on the book of the same name by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, tells the story of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 Joint Special Forces operation to find and capture local militia leader Ahmad Shah. Four SEALs were dropped by helicopter onto the slopes of Sawtalo Sar, a mountain in Afghanistan's Kunar province. The quartet were subsequently ambushed by militia fighters, who killed three of them and left Luttrell as the lone survivor. During the fighting, Shah's men also shot down a helicopter, killing eight Army Special Operations Aviators and eight Navy SEALs who had been sent in to respond to the ambush.
The Navy documents on the film adaptation of Luttrell's book are heavily redacted, but internal emails show it wasn't just the Navy's entertainment liaison office and Phil Strub, the head of the DOD's film office, who reviewed the script. Copies of Berg's screenplay were also sent to NAVSOC (Navy Special Operations Command) and NSWCEN (the Navy Special Warfare Center) for their feedback. Strub then consolidated their comments and provided script notes to Berg, who ‘used them as a kind of check-list' while rewriting the film in keeping with the military's demands.
According to Mohammad Gulab, the local villager who found and rescued Luttrell, Shah's men found the rope, and this alerted them to the SEALs' presence on the mountain. Ignoring this, Strub insisted Berg rewrite the scene to be in keeping with the version from the book, where there was no problem with the insertion.
In the next, the military dramatically departed from Luttrell's version of events. As the SEALs overlooked the village where they suspected Shah was based, they were discovered by three local goat herders. The SEALs captured them, and debated whether to kill them, leave them tied up on the mountainside, or let them go and risk being discovered by Shah's men. In Luttrell's book, a major obstacle to killing the three unarmed prisoners was being attacked by the ‘liberal media' back home once the story got out. Luttrell recorded how they discussed committing a war crime and then covering it up by simply lying about it after the fact, then took a vote on what they should do.
The military's script notes make clear they knew they were contradicting Luttrell's book by rewriting the scene.
"While maximizing historical authenticity is our mandate, we share responsibility for the reputations of the four SEALS and to their families' memories of them," the document states.
In the military's rewrite, the four never mention the liberal media, only briefly discuss the threat of prison if they get caught, and don't take a vote on what to do. Team Leader Mike Murphy makes the decision to let them go, leading to the SEALs being discovered and attacked by Shah's militia.
War Crime Whitewash
The Pentagon not only depoliticized this scene, by changing the Fast Rope scene they ensured the only reason for Shah's men to discover and ambush the SEALs was when one of the goatherders — a young boy — ran down to the village to tell them about the American soldiers on the mountainside. This placed all the blame onto the goatherders and Shah, making the decision to free the goatherders look like the wrong call. The military's changes to the film meant it implicitly endorsed a war crime.
Ultimately, the Navy and the DOD were delighted with the outcome, with one report from the Army's entertainment liaison office describing how "audiences going to see the film will voluntarily sit through a two-hour infomercial about the participation of Army Special Forces in one of our many joint missions."
In this light, the Navy's failure to release other script notes on recent DoD-sponsored films and TV shows prevents the movie-going public from knowing how many other movies were turned into "two-hour infomercials" for the military.
Sputnik has reached out to the US Navy press office for comment, but is yet to receive a response as of March 1.