Whether you’re new to defense contracting or an experienced professional in the field, there’s a lot to learn (and laugh about) in two vintage movies showing the intricacies of how (not) to sell to governments. I’m sure there are other films in this category that come to mind, but these are my favorites and very popular with my business colleagues. Some remark they’ve even lived out the scenarios, though not quite in such comic detail.
1. Pentagon Wars (1998)
This is the perfect film for someone who has trouble understanding how a defense contract can start simple enough, stretch out for years and morph into a budget buster. It’s based on the 1993 book of the same title by James Burton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former Pentagon acquisition official. The HBO comedy film, directed by Richard Benjamin, won a Primetime Emmy award. It follows the 17-year, $14 billion development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle replacing the Vietnam War-era M113 armored personnel carrier. Cary Elwes plays Colonel Burton and Kelsey Grammer plays his boss, General Partridge, who disagrees with Burton’s style and methods. Richard Schiff gives a memorable performance as the beleaguered weapon system developer Lieutenant Colonel Robert Smith.
There are parts of this film, of course, which will delight people skeptical of anything the Pentagon does. But those of us who’ve been involved with defense acquisition will find laugh-out-loud moments as we recognize personalities and situations we’ve seen before. In my opinion, it’s worth investing time in this film if only to watch Scene 12 “Evolve” over and over again. In only fifteen minutes, the arc of the Bradley development is hilariously portrayed from troop carrier, to scout vehicle, and to anti-tank platform through different administrations. The big messages for all the great people who work as contractors and acquisition officials are to be as honest and as patient as you can to get programs to maturity. Don’t get distracted from what needs to be done and don’t be afraid to speak up when it’s called for.
2. Deal of the Century (1983)
While the previous film deals with domestic defense programs, this covers international defense sales. When I first entered international business development, one of my mentors told me tongue-in-cheek that all I needed to know was in this film. Wally said he experienced what one of the characters went through – sitting in a remote country hotel room for months waiting for a phone call from the Minister of Defense. Directed by William Friedkin, this dark comedy didn’t have financial success at the box office, but over the years it’s become an International BD fan favorite. It stars Chevy Chase as a small-time arms dealer who becomes key to a major defense sale, Sigourney Weaver who helps him close the deal, and Gregory Hines as a former military pilot and technical expert.
The deal involves negotiations for the sale of a fleet of armed drones (unmanned combat aerial vehicles, more precisely) to a South American dictator. There are some memorable scenes where the “Peacemaker” literally blows up a showcase demonstration, plus sleazy consultants illustrating violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. If you want to hear a great sales pitch, see Scene 17 “Linking in the Links.” Defense companies, of course, come in for some drubbing, but the outcome of the not-quite-happy ending does eventually lead to the moral redemption of the lead characters. Perhaps that’s why the critics gave it low marks. Anyway, international business developers can laugh and learn a lot while watching three great actors struggle with the “Deal of the Century.”