Strategic film command, past and present

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James Stewart in Strategic Air Command
  • James Stewart in Strategic Air Command
In one ring of the media circus surrounding Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, journalists and politicians alike have taken issue with Bigelow and cowriter Mark Boal's relationship with the CIA in preparing the film. A few days ago Tina Daunt noted in the Hollywood Reporter that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has launched a probe into whether the CIA granted the filmmakers inappropriate access to information. Yet intimate relationships between Hollywood and government agencies are hardly new. In his 2011 history An Army of Phantoms, critic J. Hoberman describes how major films of the early cold-war era were made with the collaboration (and often the editorial say-so) of the agencies they depicted.

I finally caught up with Hoberman's excellent study over the holidays, and it made me want to watch dozens of American movies that previously held little interest for me. Namely, I'd like to check out Strategic Air Command (1955), an Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaboration that, according to Hoberman, may as well have given cowriting credits to the military officials who assisted with the production. In his Reader capsule review, Dave Kehr wrote that "too much of the footage is devoted to military muscle flexing." Given the production history (some of which had been declassified only recently), I'm surprised the movie devotes much footage to anything else. Mann, like Bigelow today, was a brilliant director of action and vast exteriors; I'm curious to see how much of his aesthetic shines through the sense of duty.

Hoberman doesn't mention whether Strategic Air Command was accused on first release of exposing military secrets, though I'm guessing it wasn't. I still haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, but the reviews I've read make it sound morally ambiguous where Mann's film sounds generally flattering in its portrait of government agencies. And yet both movies were subjected to scrutiny from Washington. It just so happens that Mann experienced that scrutiny before his movie went into production.

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