An elite Hollywood unit is helping the U.S. Army play war games.

By Daniel Fierman and Allison Hope Weiner
Updated October 19, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

As they watched planes slam into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans said it over and over: It looked like a movie. Nobody could have envisioned the tragedy happening in real life — except perhaps the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).

Since 1999, the ICT has been operating as a brain trust for the U.S. Army, working in conjunction with academics and unpaid volunteers from the entertainment industry, including directors David Fincher and Spike Jonze as well as special-effects gurus like Ron Cobb (The 6th Day). The institute, headed by Richard Lindheim, a former executive at Universal and Paramount, helps create virtual-reality training experiences for soldiers. (The ICT is operated by USC under a five-year, $45 million contract with the Army.) While terrorism has long been on the ICT’s agenda, industryites have met since Sept. 11 to intensify their brainstorming about possible attack scenarios.

Why would the military turn to Hollywood? While most details about the ICT remain hush-hush, Brig. Gen. Stephen Seay, commander of the Army’s Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command, believes the program has real merit. ”In the current world situation, we get called upon to execute a wider set of training challenges than ever before,” he says. The chief lure of showbiz types is simple: ”They’ve got creative, inquisitive intelligence,” says Seay, also crediting the industry’s high-tech expertise. ”We would like to be able to create what in Star Trek is called the holodeck — and we’re not that far away.” In fact, the ICT is developing a computer game with Sony that will be used as a military training tool, with a commercial version to be sold to the public.

The Army is already well equipped with flight simulators and weaponry, notes an ICT source. ”We’re creating these environments that put soldiers into places where they have to react. Who knows better how to get you emotionally involved than creative people from the entertainment industry?”

Not everyone agrees. Dale Dye, a military consultant for HBO’s Band of Brothers, dismisses the effort. ”The creative community doesn’t know s — – from Shinola about the technicality of how these things work. That’s why they come to me,” says Dye, who also advised Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan. Author Donald M. Goldstein (At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor) believes the Army’s money could be better spent. ”We need dollars for so many other things,” he says. ”One problem with the military is they farm stuff out that they could do themselves.”

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Oliver Stone thinks the military could learn a lot from Hollywood. (Stone himself is not involved in the ICT; those who are had no comment.) ”In the past, directors like [Frank] Capra and [John] Ford made films for the military, and actors were prominent bond raisers,” Stone says. ”It makes sense that Hollywood people would come up with very insane scenarios, but that’s what you need when you deal with people who are very smart. The government should be open.” Now more than ever.