Love boats, Oedipus complexes, and pants suits on a desert island – a pair of new schmaltzy films, courtesy of the US Department of Defense, are the Christmas present we could all do without.
You know how it goes, you spend half your life waiting for the US military to help make a sentimental, Christmas-themed romantic comedy and then two come along at once: Hallmark’s ‘USS Christmas’ and Netflix’s ‘Operation Christmas Drop’.
Neither film could have been made without military support – nearly half of ‘USS Christmas’ takes place on board an aircraft carrier, and the scenes were filmed aboard the Battleship North Carolina and the USS Yorktown, courtesy of the US Navy. The plot of ‘Operation Christmas Drop’ revolves around Andersen Air Force Base in the Western Pacific island of Guam, with full access provided by the US Air Force.
Christmas rom-coms might seem an odd choice for the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison offices to support – neither film depicts war or violence of any kind, after all. But if we unwrap them, what we find beneath the enticing shiny paper and ribbons is not merely the disappointment of the same gift they got you three years ago, but the nagging anxiety and sense of betrayal that comes with an unwelcome present. However, we cannot simply re-gift ‘USS Christmas’ and ‘Operation Christmas Drop’ and wash our hands of responsibility for the bad choices of others.
Hallmark, the Pentagon, and a partridge in a pear tree
Why a giant of cinema such as Hallmark would want to work with the Department of Defense (DOD) is difficult to pin down, but the relationship goes back at least a decade. Hundreds of pages of reports from the US military’s Hollywood offices, especially those of the Army, detail numerous collaborations with Hallmark since 2010.
These range from manipulative, tearjerking Mother’s Day video messages from deployed sons and daughters to manipulative, heartwarming military-dog-themed reality shows. Another effort saw them commemorate 2015 Veterans’ Day with a special film featuring a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient receiving the accolade of having a highway interchange dedicated to him.
Supporting these sorts of productions helps the DOD expand both its fans and its market share – the lifeblood for any entertainment-media concern. As one Army report notes, regarding its support to the Second Annual Hero Dog Awards Show, “By airing on the Hallmark Channel, the demonstration of the Army serving as America’s Force of Decisive Action reached an audience that it might not typically reach.”
How a golden retriever could ever be a ‘Force of Decisive Action’, however, the report doesn’t clarify.
The point is that while ‘Man of Steel’ and the ‘Transformers’ franchise act as attention-grabbing recruitment commercials for teenage boys and young men, in order to reach young women and their mothers, the Pentagon has to try something other than blockbusters about good aliens fighting bad aliens with the help of F-35s and the National Guard.
Likewise, few films and TV shows aimed at women have the necessary story components for promoting the military as the solution to all problems. Enter ‘Pitch Perfect 3’, ‘Captain Marvel’, and some of the worst Christmas films you’ve ever seen.
USS Christmas: An exercise in cringe and condescension
Both of these films are based on real-life military traditions, with USS Christmas locking its sights on the US Navy’s Tiger Cruise program, which allows the families of service members to take cruises on Navy ships. In the past, it was aimed at civilians in general, but women could participate only if there were already other women on board. As an LA Times article from 1990 promoting the program put it, ‘How about a cruise ship without bartenders, bands, entertainment, waiters, gift shops, gourmet meals, and midnight buffets? And most of the time without women!’
Homosexual subtexts aside, the program has been adapted into a morale-boosting effort so that active-duty sailors can spend some time with their families, and to generate support from families alongside positive PR. Guidelines published by the Navy outline what to bring, and, more importantly, what not to bring on a Tiger Cruise. Among the forbidden items are “weapons of any sort,” as well as alcohol, illegal drugs and “obscene clothing.”
In ‘USS Christmas’, a young female journalist is working for a local newspaper on a story about a banking scandal, but she’s bored and looking for something less substantial. She asks her editor for permission to go on a Tiger Cruise so she can spend some of the festive season with her Navy pilot sister, but also because she’s looking for a romance story to write about, and hopes to find on board. During the voyage, the ship’s captain makes every effort to force his son – who’s also a pilot – to fall in love with the journalist, and the two bond while investigating a Vietnam-era love story between yet another Navy pilot and a dancer he met during a Tiger Cruise. Oh, and our protagonist’s deceased father was – you’ve guessed it – a Navy pilot.
Despite the journalist’s personal rule not to date military guys, originating from her childhood when her father was frequently away from home, by the end of the film, she has fallen for the captain’s son, as well as finished her story about that time, 50 years ago, when two people you’ve never heard of fell in love and got married.
For his part, the captain’s son (who is at least six inches too tall to be a pilot) overcomes his obsession with duty, learns to love Christmas, and submits to his father’s desire that he begin a relationship with a woman he has just met. Along the way, he recruits a five-year-old black kid and teaches our protagonist how to walk down a flight of stairs.
‘90210’ actor Trevor Donovan, who plays the son, tweeted his thanks to the Marines from North Carolina’s Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, who agreed to play background extras in the movie.
Big thanks to the service members from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune who participated in the Navy Ball scene in Wilmington for #USSChristmas. “USS Christmas” premieres on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries on Saturday, Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. pic.twitter.com/OeMa0f4aL6
— Trevor Donovan (@TrevDon) October 15, 2020
As this tweet implies, there is more to this film than meets the eye. Beneath the insipid, saccharine exterior of ‘USS Christmas’ lies a string of militaristic messages, aimed primarily at turning women into recruits or advocates for the Pentagon. Just as in ‘Pitch Perfect 3’, the plot involves a woman falling in love with a guy who’s in the military, hammering home the message that the services are a good place to meet a nice young man. If you like guys who look like a supernumerary from ‘Triumph of the Will’, that is.
However, the film is extremely condescending towards women, suggesting that female journalists want to write only shallow articles about romance. The problems faced by military spouses, who are primarily women, are also trivialized throughout, and, in a woefully misjudged bit of screenwriting, the journalist’s Navy pilot sister has the call-sign ‘Daddy’s Girl’. All aboard the good ship Oedipus!
At the end of the film, our protagonist asks her editor if she can cover the military full-time, because “They’re so important in our community.” In short, this film encourages the women watching to join the military, fall in love with a man in the military (but not to complain when he’s sent halfway round the world and never gets to see the kids), or to devote their careers to becoming cheerleaders for the military.
Operation Christmas Drop: An exercise in incredulity
The remarkably similar ‘Operation Christmas Drop’ is, in part, the result of the Pentagon recognizing the importance of streaming services such as Netflix in increasing the range of its Hollywood office’s efforts. In an interview earlier this year, the Pentagon’s Branch Chief for Entertainment Media, Lieutenant Colonel Glen Roberts, paid tribute to his predecessor’s work in expanding the scope of the office, saying, “Dave Evans did a fantastic job coming in after Phil [Strub] and cracking the code on working with many different studios and kind of bringing us up to date on social media and the new venues for entertainment media.”
Just like ‘USS Christmas’, Netflix’s seasonal offering is a story about a young woman who falls in love with a military officer who wouldn’t look out of place on a Nazi propaganda poster, against a backdrop of Yuletide activity that makes the military look as cuddly as an open fire.
The title comes from a real military operation to provide Micronesian islanders with basic foods, tools, equipment, and medical supplies, using air drops out of the aforementioned Andersen Air Force Base. The Christmas Drop has taken place every year since the 1950s, and is the longest-running DOD operation, and the oldest humanitarian aid drop in the world. So far, so Santa Claus.
While the PR value of a film honing in on this operation is obvious, the air drops alone do not make for an engaging story. But don’t worry – a congresswoman in a Clintonesque blue pants suit wants to close the base, because they’re wasting all this money on colonized indigenous types, so she sends her legislative aide out to Guam to conduct a full audit. The general in charge of the base gets wind of this, so he orders his most silver-tongued, two-faced captain to give the aide a full tour. The captain sets about convincing the aide that they aren’t wasting taxpayers’ money on humanitarianism, and are solely there to maintain the American empire. Along the way, the dialogue is peppered with lines that were likely inserted by the Air Force’s Hollywood office, including a reference to Space Operations – a PR priority for the US military.
The entire premise of ‘Operation Christmas Drop’ is absurd – the Pentagon would never close a base on the westernmost border of US territory. Guam was colonized by the Spanish empire in the 1660s, and was seized by the US during the Spanish-American war. The base’s geostrategic value on the fringes of East Asia makes it a vital square on the chessboard, especially in any potential confrontation with China.
As the film wears on, it emerges that the congresswoman only wants to close the base because the alternative is closing one in her own district. The dual messages are clear: first, any notion of scaling back the DOD’s presence across the world is just a cynical political move, and has nothing to do with excessive expenditure or neo-colonialism. Second, if only the DOD could operate unencumbered by the machinations of elected politicians – indeed, if we could just get rid of democracy – everything would be fine.
The only perspectives offered by the characters in this film are either that helping some of the poorest people in the world is a bad use of public resources, or that thinking about closing US military bases overseas is a moronic consequence of representative democracy.
Weaponizing the spirit of Christmas
It’s difficult to say which of these films is worse, either as a piece of entertainment or as a propaganda exercise. ‘Operation Christmas Drop’ equates generosity with keeping military bases open and weaponizing the spirit of Christmas for militaristic ends, while simultaneously reassuring the audience that no taxpayers’ money is going to help these indigenous people, thus maintaining colonial prejudices.
Meanwhile, in ‘USS Christmas’, the moral of the story is that, if you’re a young lady looking for love, then sign up to the US Navy – though you will have to put up with men suggesting you want to have sex with your own father.
Hollywood, with considerable help from the Pentagon, has given us a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.