’Tis the season for a tropical love story about a Hill staffer and the agonizing and politically fraught process of closing military bases, and it all kicks off with a clear violation of House ethics rules.
Netflix’s “Operation Christmas Drop” is eliciting eye rolls from Hill staffers, defense reporters and other Washington insiders who’ve watched the feature film and delighted in critiquing its accuracy. But it’s a cheesy Christmas flick that’s also probably warming hearts of less cynical, outside-the-Beltway types.
The premise, a holiday romance for a hard-charging Hill staffer working to evaluate and close down a military base, was enough to draw early groans from the Washington set when the trailer was released earlier this year.
How could Netflix turn a bureaucratic cost-saving process into a magical and tropical Christmas romp? Closing big military bases has always been politically difficult, given the economic benefits of their payrolls and purchases to surrounding areas.
Nearly 20 reporters, Hill staffers, Christmas movie enthusiasts and even a service member once stationed at the Guam airbase gathered online this week to watch the movie and share quibbles and cringes.
The movie starts, in the very first scene, with a textbook House Ethics violation in which an icy and ambitious legislative aide, Erica, is doing Christmas shopping for her scrooge-like congresswoman boss.
“I feel less and less like a legislative aide and more like a personal shopper,” Erica complains, a quote made for a transcript of a House Ethics Committee inquiry.
Lawmakers are not allowed to use their staff for nonofficial or personal tasks or errands.
PopVox CEO and former Hill staffer Marci Harris turned the scene into a family learning opportunity, pausing the movie to “passionately explain to the teens” what the boss was doing wrong.
But the congresswoman’s grinchy qualities don’t end with misuse of House resources. She is also set on closing down Andersen Air Force Base in Guam as part of a Base Realignment and Closure Commission, inspired by an article about the annual Operation Christmas Drop featuring a smiling blond Air Force captain in a Santa hat.
In real life, the BRAC process is a lengthy one. The commission, working from Defense Department recommendations, draws up a list of military facilities to be consolidated or closed and presents the list to the president for his approval or denial.
The BRAC recommendations would then go before Congress, which would have to either accept or reject the list in its entirety, with no adjustments. That way, no state would gain an advantage because of its influence in Congress or its superior lobbying.
The plot of movie plays fast and loose with these political realities.
“I don’t get it,” tweeted Defense News reporter Jen Judson during a virtual watch party Tuesday night. “The reason we haven’t had a real BRAC in forever is because Congress blocks it every time the DOD tries it.”
Defying Pentagon requests, Congress has not authorized a BRAC since the 2005 round. Lawmakers have cited the cost of that round as well as the likely upfront expenses of a new one as reason to deny more base closure authority. The process remains an unpopular issue on both sides of the aisle, with lawmakers unlikely to put bases, and consequently jobs, in their home states and districts at risk.
Adding to the confusion at the heart of the plot is the decision to target Andersen, a forward operating base in the Pacific, at a time when Asia and the Pacific are of rising importance to U.S security. BRAC typically focuses on military assets in areas that were once strategic but are no longer deemed essential by the Pentagon.
“But sir, we’re the most strategically important location in the South Pacific,” pleads a character in the movie, which isn’t quite true but gets close enough.
Also, at no point does the congresswoman (who hails from Washington state) reach out to Guam’s delegate in the House to discuss the base or mission she’s hell-bent on shuttering.
Despite all this rocky political and geographic logic, the congresswoman decides to send junior House staffer Erica on a solo fact-finding mission to Guam to find out if the humanitarian “Christmas Drop” is a drain on taxpayer funds. So off goes Erica to the tropics, leaving behind her much-too-nice-for-a-Hill-staffer apartment.
When the Netflix trailer dropped back in October, plenty of former Hill staffers chimed in saying that Erica’s trip — full of sun, sand and surf as she frolics with her new Air Force captain love interest — was too good to be true.
“This is markedly different than my BRAC experience sitting in a basement sifting through databases & prepping for commission hearings,” tweeted ThirdWay’s Mieke Eoyang when the trailer was released in October.
Eoyang had a long career as a staffer on Capitol Hill, including as a defense policy adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and stints with the House Armed Services Committee and House Intelligence Committee.
Jeremiah “J.J.” Gertler, who was a senior analyst for the 1995 BRAC round, said Erica’s playful Santa hat toward the end of the film doesn’t look familiar.
“I was a senior analyst on BRAC 95. We didn’t get the cute hats,” he tweeted.
Early in the film we learn that Erica is gunning for a promotion, and canceling holiday plans with her widowed father so she can go on this last-minute work trip instead might be just the ticket to catapult her from LA to chief of staff. (What the legislative director or deputy chief could have done to be so brutally passed over, we’ll never know.)
Erica is greeted on the island by a dorky, shirtless and still-wet-from-surfing captain named Andrew, who is tasked with showing her the value that Andersen brings taxpayers and islanders around the Pacific.
Christmas movie expert Joanna Wilson, who tuned in to watch Operation Christmas Drop on Tuesday night, noted that Erica and Andrew’s tense meeting on the beach checks a key holiday romance box.
“#OpUSSXmasDrop meet-cute is antagonistic. hahahaha that’s always a sure sign they are destined for a Christmas TV romance!” she tweeted.
Filmed on location in Guam, the movie’s beach backdrops are genuine, as is the namesake mission.
Operation Christmas Drop is the Defense Department’s longest-running humanitarian airlift training operation. It began during the Christmas season in 1952 and today includes airdrop operations to more than 50 islands throughout the Pacific.
The Air Force calls the mission low-cost, low-altitude training for those stationed in Guam, Hawaii and Japan, and the movie serves as a 90-minute infomercial for the program, including Andrew dropping the Air Force’s core values at least once.
Andrew slowly convinces the uptight, beancounting Erica that the mission is truly funded by donations, not with taxpayer dollars. He woos her with a visit to one of the islands that’s part of the mission and a transformative snorkeling experience.
When a typhoon bears down on the island, threatening to cancel the Christmas Drop, Erica is pulled into a closed door briefing on the dangerous weather and the base’s operations, which didn’t ring true for Judson.
“How would a random congressional staffer be allowed in a briefing room to discuss an operation and get to voice the loudest opinion?” she tweeted.
Soon enough, our heroine is all-in on Operation Christmas Drop and avoiding calls from Washington. And when the anti-humanitarian, anti-Air Force, anti-Christmas congresswoman descends to quash the holiday cheer, a devastating storm cloaked as a Christmas miracle arrives.
Are the Guam base and the Christmas Drop casualties of BRAC? Does the cold-hearted congresswoman warm to the idea of humanitarian aid? Does Erica get the promotion? The man?
We won’t spoil the ending, but just know that the most romantic line of the movie is music to any Washington insider’s ears: “You’re not the only one who can cut through red tape.”