Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher And Jersey Films
Meet Colonel James G. Burton. Assigned by Congress to oversee the testing of weapons being developed by the Pentagon, he ran head-on into the Bradley Fighting Vehicle -- a simple troop transport that ended up consuming a colossal 17 years and $14 billion in taxpayer money -- pitting him against an intractable military bureaucracy determined to stop him.
An outrageous story of government spending gone mad, THE PENTAGON WARS debuts SATURDAY, FEB. 28 at 8:00 p.m. (ET)/10:00 p.m. (MT)/9:00 p.m. (PT). The HBO NYC presentation is based on the nonfiction book "The Pentagon Wars," by retired Air Force Colonel James G. Burton. The film stars Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier") and Cary Elwes ("Liar, Liar"), with a featured performance by Olympia Dukakis (Academy Award(r) winner for "Moonstruck"). The film is directed by Richard Benjamin ("My Favorite Year"), who also makes a cameo appearance as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Other playdates: March 3 (8:00 p.m.), 8 (10:30 p.m.), 12 (11:55 p.m.), 16 (2:30 a.m.) and 18 (11:35 p.m.).
A Howard Meltzer/The Entertainment Group Production in association with Jersey Films. Executive producers, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Martyn Burke; co-executive producer, Gail Lyon; producer, Howard Meltzer; co-producer, Gary Daigler; teleplay by Jamie Malanowski and Martyn Burke.
Colonel James Burton (Cary Elwes) of the U.S. Air Force is assigned to the Joint Testing Program, part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to test weapons systems for the armed services. He decides to personally supervise the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV), a project those in high office, particularly his superior, General Partridge (Kelsey Grammer), want hurried through above all others.
Observing his first test of the BFV, supervised by project manager Colonel Bock (John C. McGinley) and chief tester Major Sayers (Tom Wright), all appears well, but Burton receives a mysterious telephone call suggesting he look further into the test. He discovers the ammunition used on the BFV is considerably inferior to anything the Bradley would deal with in battle and is part of a plan to ensure the BFV will enjoy speedy passage through approval and into production, despite a history of incomplete testing.
When word on the Bradley's troubles leaks to the press, Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger (Richard Benjamin) seeks assurance from military advisors that the Bradley and other high priority items are proceeding without problems.
Burton requests information on past tests. To cover themselves and hopefully confuse Burton, Partridge supplies him with every document on the BFV, producing a veritable mountain of paperwork. As Burton and his team wade through the massive files they find the vehicle they are currently testing proves the old adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Nowhere is there any indication of actual tests showing what will happen if the Bradley is hit by enemy fire.
Burton constantly asks for tests while unraveling reams of evidence indicating mistakes, cover-ups and life-threatening decisions. His observations about the Bradley's development suggest there has been total disregard for the well-being of troops who will travel inside this mobile death trap.
Subsequent testing leads Burton to discover rigged Bradleys -- fuel tanks filled with water, instead of gasoline, and ammunition filled with sand -- that will not explode if hit. He then discovers the BFV has been approved for full-up production, even though his test results and reports have yet to be written and delivered.
Aware of what has happened, the mysterious caller contacts Burton and suggests he fly to California and visit the factory where BFVs are rolling off the production line -- but reconfigured for the Israeli Army.
Burton, determined to produce a better, safer vehicle, orders vaporifics tests to ascertain what fumes are given off inside the aluminum BFV once it is hit and materials burn. Not daring to subject humans to the tests, he uses sheep, which are killed by the toxic fumes. The animal carcasses are spirited away before Burton can examine them, and he is detained by military police in the ensuing chase.
After being dismissed and reassigned to Alaska, Burton is abruptly reinstated, due to Congressional pressure, and told he must deliver a classified report on the BFV to Partridge by the next morning. After the report is leaked to the press, Partridge, Bock and Sayers are summoned to a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. Under intense questioning from a panel led by the committee's chairwoman (Olympia Dukakis), Partridge reluctantly reveals that $14 billion in taxpayer money has been spent over the Bradley's 17-year life. The committee orders a live-fire test on the Bradley, just as Burton originally requested.
Partridge and his subordinates secretly order the Bradley rigged to produce positive results in the test. However, the rigged test fails to go off as planned, and Burton's assessments of the vehicle's weaknesses are borne out in explosive fashion.
Disillusioned by his David-and-Goliath battle to tell the truth, Burton eventually accepts forced retirement from the military, and a retooled BFV makes its combat debut in the Persian Gulf War. It is estimated that Burton's tireless efforts helped save the lives of hundreds of servicemen in battle.
THE PENTAGON WARS originated with producer Howard Meltzer, who had read how Burton's involvement in the Bradley project changed the way weapons are tested before going into production and, more important, into service. "We've all heard about the vast sums of money spent by the Pentagon, from thousand-dollar hammers to entire weapon systems that don't work," notes Meltzer. "The question I always wanted answered was, 'How could this happen?' Burton's book provided a clear window into the sometimes absurd ways the Pentagon works."
Director Richard Benjamin says the film is "the story of how one good man wanted to provide a safe vehicle for soldiers going into battle. Burton's job was to sign off on the BFV, provided they did the testing correctly. Well, they purposely never did any of the testing correctly because all they wanted to do was build it and get it out." Burton uncovered the synergistic relationship between high-ranking military officers and government defense contractors. "There's a real handshake between the military and industrial complexes," Benjamin adds.
In researching his role, Cary Elwes consulted the real-life Burton, who was extremely supportive. "He welcomed me with open arms," comments Elwes. "He gave me access to his papers and even arranged for me to tour the Pentagon.
"The first thing that struck me was his modesty. Essentially, he was asked by Congress to do his job and by the Army not to do his job. He told me that from day one he knew the path he chose would include the Army trying to remove him from service. He's a hero in my book."
Burton also told Elwes that he was offered a nice easy job working for a defense contractor after he retired from the military, if he gave in to the Army's wishes, "but he chose to stick to his guns, so to speak."
With the exceptions of Burton and Caspar Weinberger, the characters in THE PENTAGON WARS are composites of actual people, including the staunch General Partridge, portrayed by Kelsey Grammer. Grammer took on the role of Burton's adversary at the same time he was filming his weekly series "Frasier," as well as guest-starring in the series "Fired Up," which he produces. "I did this because it's military, and I love the military," he says. "I thought it would be fun to play the bad guy, a departure from what people are used to seeing me do."
The Congressional hearings that provide the framework for the story are led by the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, portrayed by Olympia Dukakis. "My character is after the truth," she says. "It's gratifying to be part of something like this because it will bring some measure of enlightenment to people. I think that these efforts do make a difference."
THE PENTAGON WARS was filmed over a 30-day period in and around Los Angeles last September and October. Though there was no official involvement from the military, the production offices and sound stages were located next to the Armed Forces Radio & Television Service Broadcast Center.
Seeking authenticity, director Benjamin turned to Captain Dieter Trippel, a current Army Reserve officer, to train actors and provide authentic extras; Trippel's résum´e; includes work on such productions as "Clear and Present Danger," "Most Wanted," "Executive Decision" and, most recently, "Wag the Dog." Besides recruiting part-time and full-time personnel from all branches of the service, he coached actors in military etiquette, language, appearance and signaling, as well as designing the live-fire test range used in exterior scenes.
Also consulting on THE PENTAGON WARS was the Hon. Russell Murray 2nd, an authority on national security matters who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1977 to 1981, and was a defense advisor to Vice President Walter Mondale.
Unable to procure any Bradleys from the Army or elsewhere, the production had to design and build its own. The designers dressed up an old Abrams tank to look like a BFV. For other Bradley scenes, prop maker Martin Atwell built a one-third scale model. Lacking blueprints of the Bradley's turret, the crew designed and built its own version from photographs.
The special effects team of David Simmons and Gary Kennedy rigged the production "Bradley" for the explosive scene in which Partridge proudly shows off the vehicle to high-ranking military and government figures. Because they had to create a spectacular explosion without damaging the vehicle, which was needed for subsequent scenes, they reinforced the driver's side of the vehicle with steel, built fake panels, and created a mock turret with a piston inside. Live explosives and 500 feet of wiring were rigged inside the vehicle to set off a fireball effect that blasted the panels and turret 50 feet into the air. The one-time take was captured by five cameras, including two high-speed cameras positioned only a few feet away from the explosion.
Three-time Emmy(r) winner Kelsey Grammer (General Partridge) is in his fifth season in the title role of Paramount Television's hit comedy series "Frasier," the character he introduced on the long-running series "Cheers." Grammer made his feature film debut in "Down Periscope" and will be seen in the upcoming "Writer's Block." He provides the voice of Vladimir in the current animated feature "Anastasia."
Cary Elwes (Colonel James Burton) will be seen as astronaut Mike Collins in HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon," set to debut in April 1998. His feature films include "Kiss the Girls," "Liar, Liar," "Twister," "Glory" and "The Princess Bride."
Olympia Dukakis (House Committee Chair) was a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award(r) and Golden Globe winner for her performance in 1987's "Moonstruck." Her numerous films include "Picture Perfect," "Mighty Aphrodite," "Jeffrey," "Mr. Holland's Opus," the "Look Who's Talking" trilogy and "Steel Magnolias." Her TV credits include the miniseries "Tales of the City" and the upcoming "More Tales of the City."
Richard Benjamin began his directing career with the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," starring Peter O'Toole. His other films include "Mermaids," "Racing with the Moon," "Made in America," "The Money Pit" and "Mrs. Winterbourne." As an actor, his feature film credits include "Catch-22," "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus," as well as the current Woody Allen movie "Deconstructing Harry."
Producer Howard Meltzer is a 24-year veteran of the commercial, network and feature film industries whose TV films have garnered six Emmy(r) and six CableACE Awards. He is currently producing a new cable comedy series entitled "Paramour." THE PENTAGON WARS is one of two projects he is developing with HBO.
James G. Burton graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1959, earned an M.B.A. at Auburn University in 1969, and flew tankers for the Strategic Air Command. Burton later specialized in the acquisition and testing of weapons systems for the Pentagon. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel in 1986.
HBO NYC films were nominated for an unprecedented 21 Emmys(r) last year, with "Miss Evers' Boys" winning five awards, including the President's Award, making it the most honored television film of 1997. HBO NYC also captured seven CableACE Awards.
HBO NYC Productions, a movie division launched by HBO in 1996, draws on the energy and excitement of its New York base while tapping into the best of the talent pools in both Los Angeles and New York. It provides a forum for projects that others might consider too risky, giving a voice to filmmakers whose different views of the world might otherwise go unheard. Its first major production, "If These Walls Could Talk," which debuted in October 1996, was the most-watched original movie in HBO's history.
HBO NYC productions include:"Miss Evers' Boys," starring Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburne, which debuted in February 1997. In addition to the 12 Emmy(r) nominations and five wins, which also included honors for Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special (Woodard), "Miss Evers' Boys" tied for the most Emmys(r) among all programs. The film also received two CableACE Awards, in the categories of Movie and Actress in a Movie or Miniseries (Woodard).
"In the Gloaming," starring Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Sean Leonard and David Strathairn in Christopher Reeve's directorial debut, which aired in April 1997 and received five Emmy(r) nominations. The film also received four 1997 CableACE Awards, the most of any show, including Dramatic or Theatrical Special and Guest Actress in a Dramatic Special or Series (Close).
"If These Walls Could Talk," starring Demi Moore (who also executive produced), Sissy Spacek, Cher (who also made her directorial debut with one part of the trilogy) and Anne Heche. Nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and four Emmys,(r) as well as winner of a CableACE Award, it debuted on HBO in October 1996.
Other previous HBO NYC productions include: "First Time Felon," starring Omar Epps, Delroy Lindo, Rachel Ticotin, Treach and William Forsythe in Charles S. Dutton's directorial debut; "Subway Stories," executive produced by Jonathan Demme, Rosie Perez and Edward Saxon; "Hostile Waters," starring Rutger Hauer, Martin Sheen and Max von Sydow; "Mistrial," starring Bill Pullman, Robert Loggia and Blair Underwood, and "Deadly Voyage," executive produced by Danny Glover.
Also upcoming in 1998 are "Always Outnumbered" (formerly "Socrates"), starring Laurence Fishburne in a modern urban fable based on a book by Walter Mosley, debuting March 21, and "When Trumpets Fade," starring Ron Eldard, Frank Whaley and Zak Orth in a story set in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.