By Bill Dedman, Investigative Reporter, NBC News
A unit of the U.S. Department of Defense, already under fire for faked public ceremonies and delays in identifying the remains of American service men and women, found time earlier this month to hand over part of its lab to Hollywood. The lab where human remains are usually examined was used to shoot a romantic adventure starring film heartthrobs Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams.
The movie company used Building 45 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, shooting for one day in a secure lab where the remains of possible Americans killed in action are usually analyzed by the Central Identification Lab, a unit of the Pentagon's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, known as JPAC. The lab stores about 1,000 cardboard boxes of remains awaiting identification.
Although the glass-walled room usually has skeletons and partial remains laid out on the tables, a Pentagon spokeswoman said that no human remains were shown on camera, and prop bones used as training aids will be shown in the movie.
The movie shoot "had no negative impact in execution of the lab's primary mission," said the spokeswoman, Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost. "One small area of the facility was used for the one-day shoot. JPAC scientists were fully capable of continuing their very important mission of identifying unaccounted-for service members from our nation's past conflicts."
'Mystical island forces'
In the movie — still unnamed but earlier known as "Deep Tiki" — Canadian actress McAdams ("Mean Girls," "The Notebook," "Wedding Crashers") plays an anthropologist working in the JPAC lab. Her co-star is Cooper (People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 2011 and actor in the "Hangover" comedy trilogy, "Limitless," and "Silver Linings Playbook"). The cast also includes Emma Stone, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, John Krasinski and Danny McBride. The writer/director is Cameron Crowe, known for films including "Jerry Maguire" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
The plot, according to the casting call for extras, involves a celebrated military contractor, played by Cooper, who is in Hawaii overseeing a weapons satellite launch. He reconnects with a long lost love, played by McAdams. But the contractor falls for his military overseer, played by Emma Stone. Then Cooper and Stone's characters team up to scuttle the launch of the satellite, "while dealing with mystical island forces."
Agency 'acutely dysfunctional'
Several investigations of JPAC are under way in Congress and inside the Pentagon. An internal report called the agency "acutely dysfunctional," and a Government Accountability Office report said the effort to identify missing and unknown service men and women has been undermined by squabbling between agencies.
With more than 83,000 service men and women missing from America's wars from World War II forward, JPAC's three laboratories are identifying only about 60 bodies a year, at a cost of more than $1 million per identification, according to a GAO report. The pace is so slow that the typical identification takes 11 years, according to an internal report by JPAC.
Most employees who work outside this secure lab, such as historians and other researchers, are not allowed entry to confer with lab personnel, under the theory that the presence of untrained personnel could imperil the lab's accreditation, according to JPAC emails reviewed by NBC News. But the lab was made available to the Hollywood cast and crew.
Although two lab technicians appear in the movie with speaking roles, these government employees were off duty or on leave, the Pentagon spokeswoman said. The agency did not announce the use of the lab for the movie, but the Pentagon acknowledged it when questioned by NBC News. The Pentagon did not answer several questions: Did the movie company pay for use of the facilities? Who authorized the filming? And even what date did the filming occur, though employees said it was a Friday, Nov. 8.
Several agency employees told NBC News that lab work was indeed disrupted as forensic anthropologists, making more than $90 an hour, waited to be in the movie as extras or watched the crew and actors. Moving the human remains out of camera view would have taken more man hours, the employees said.
NBC News reported in October that JPAC staged "arrival ceremonies" for the remains of American service men and women, with caskets that had not just arrived. The American Legion criticized the Pentagon for its deception. The Pentagon acknowledged that no remains were arriving and that the ceremonies used "static aircraft" that could not fly. Earlier, in August, NBC reported that requests by JPAC investigators, to disinter bodies of war dead for identification, had been denied even when staff had been able to narrow the possible identities to only a few, or even just one, possible match among soldiers believed killed in action. The Department of Defense has declined to make available for interviews the JPAC scientific director, anthropologist Thomas D. Holland, or JPAC's commander, Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague.
The JPAC lab was used as a set at least once previously. An episode of "Hawaii Five-0," the remake of the original TV series, was shot there in 2011.
The Department of Defense spokeswoman said the movie's portrayal will be respectful of the mission: "DoD and JPAC representatives worked diligently with the production company representatives to ensure the proper respect was paid to JPAC's sensitive mission, as well as ensuring all personnel conducted themselves in a dignified manner within the lab space. The lab was not a prop for the movie. The lab is integral to the film's story line, and the production company paid close and proper attention in highlighting the care and emotion JPAC specialists devote to their mission."
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