When it comes to seeing veterans on the big screen, Tom Cruise leading a protest from his wheelchair in “Born on the Fourth of July” or Christopher Walken and Robert DeNiro playing a final game of Russian roulette in “The Deer Hunter” probably come to mind. But Hollywood’s usual portrayal of service members being physically and psychologically wounded is too narrow, says Charlie Ebersol, a Los Angeles-based TV and film producer. “It’s so staid and boring.”
Having on-screen veterans look like ordinary Americans, however, causes our views and politics will change, Ebersol believes. So along with Got Your 6 and support from the White House, he developed a certification system for films and television shows that “contain a representative and balanced depiction of veterans.” (Think: Chris Pratt playing a Navy veteran in the blockbuster Jurassic World, or the latest season of Dancing with the Stars, which featured an Army vet and double amputee doing the Tango.)
NationSwell recently spoke to Ebersol by phone from Southern California about the role Hollywood should be playing in bridging the civilian-military divide.
What misconceptions does traditional media perpetuate about veterans?
That they’re either heroes or they’re victims; they either need our help or they don’t need any help at all. It’s not binary, and the real story is so much more complex and interesting, in that, you have great opportunity in all these veterans coming home, but we don’t take advantage of it because we think they all have PTSD or hero syndrome.
How are you personally changing that narrative?
In keeping with Hollywood tradition, I operate from a philosophy that if you offer some sort of shiny prize or award to producers, they will do what they need to do to get said prize. So we’ve been certifying movies and television shows that do a good job telling veterans’ stories. Lo and behold, people started telling better veterans’ stories when they got a gold star at the end of their show or movie.
Should filmmakers be meeting with veterans to turn their stories into films?
It’s literally that simple. The problem is that, for so long, we were trying to drum up support for the veterans coming home. To do that, people have always [done something similar] to those ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) commercials where the dogs look really pathetic and what’s her name — [Sarah] McLachlan — is playing her sad song. You may donate money, but what they found was the best way to get people to actually adopt dogs was to show how much fun and how fabulous these dogs were.
After Word War II, veterans came back and people wanted to hire them because they were highly trained. They knew they did well under pressure, and some people started really reaching out. We don’t do that [today]. So when you look for a story, all you really have to do is talk to a veteran, say, “Thank you for your service. Can you tell me about interesting people that are in your lives or unique stories?” And the majority of the stories you’re going to hear are not going to be stories of, “oh, my buddy who’s got a massive drinking problem and is living on the street,” because that’s such a fraction of the population. A lot of the stories are going to be about guys who served two or three tours and now they run a hardware shop or now they’re working in a corporation or are in the tech business. Those stories make for interesting characters.
In telling these stories, what have you learned about what defines an American soldier?
Loyalty, duty and commitment. As an employer, when I’m interviewing somebody, if I could know inherently those were a person’s three strongest traits, that would be the ultimate cheat sheet. That’s the beauty of hiring a veteran. You know going in that that person is loyal, feels a sense of duty and is all about commitment because the guy or girl put themselves in harm’s way for their country and for their fellow soldier or sailor or airman. That’s what you’re looking for in a company, in a family, in a friend. You want people that you know are going to show up, and nobody shows up like the military.
What can the rest of us do to support veterans?
The platitude needs to stop being, “Thank you for your service,” and actualize that into something meaningful. The yellow ribbon and the stickers, that’s all well and good, but that’s not actually translating into anything. We have to look past that and ask, “How are we creating job opportunities? How are we creating community support where we’re embracing these people?” A lot of people want to do it under the guise of “They served our country, so we owe them.” That’s not what I’m saying. Don’t get me wrong: You do have to take into account that we enjoy our freedoms because of them. But I think the other side of it is significantly more important; they have show their true character and their true colors, and in showing us that and in being trained, at the absolute worst, they are certainly the best qualified people for almost any job.
It’s rare that the person I hire into my company is the most suited because they went to the right types of schools; it’s always about how they act under pressure and how they understand teamwork and the mission being bigger than the man or woman. Veterans are always significantly better at that than anyone else.
MORE: Why Is It So Hard to Understand What It’s Like to Be a Veteran?