Tom Clancy was one of the most popular spy authors of all time, but was he a spy himself? What are the nature of his government connections? How were the film adaptations of his novels supported by the Pentagon and the CIA? What script changes were made by the DOD in exchange for their support? In Part I of this two-part podcast we examine five Tom Clancy films – The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. I outline the government involvement in each adaptation and the censorship involved in their production.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, Tom Clancy is one of the best known and highest selling authors of the last century. He is perhaps the highest selling American spy author of all time. This is important, because spy fiction is not a strong point of American literature. I read a lot of books, I always have, I find books more interesting than people most of the time though of course without people there could be no books. I mean that in the sense that books are some of the best things humans can make, not that humans are all boring idiots. Tom Clancy certainly wasn’t a boring idiot.
What American literature does best, perhaps better than any other nation’s literature, is crime. Perhaps it’s something to do with how violence is so openly at the core of the existence of the US as a country. A nation born out of war that became powerful through slavery and genocide and is now the first truly global military empire in human history. Violence is at the heart of any state, but I don’t think this is more obvious in any current state than in the US. Perhaps Saudi Arabia, where they still behead people for being gay while selling us oil so we sell them missiles and government bonds.
In any case, US crime fiction is, in my opinion, the best in the world. The best spy fiction, at least that written in the English language, is British. And that’s no surprise, really, given factors such as the British being one of the first nations to develop intelligence agencies in the formal sense. Also being the most successful of the European empire nations, thus having the most prominent need for intelligence agents and agencies. It is no coincidence that the world’s biggest spy book and film franchise is of British origin.
Another massive factor in this is just how many of the great British spy authors are or were ex-intelligence (or in some cases were agents alongside their writing careers). Ian Fleming worked in Naval Intelligence during the war and it is evident from biographies about him that he never truly left that world. Frederick Forsyth recently admitted to being a part-time agent for MI6. John Le Carre was both MI5 and MI6. Len Deighton worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the British military. Graham Greene was MI6. Somerset Maugham was MI6. Stella Rimington was the head of MI5.
Was Tom Clancy a Spook?
Likewise, a reasonably high number of American spy authors, at least some of the more prominent ones have been CIA or ex-CIA. E Howard Hunt, William F Buckley Jr. and Charles McCarry spring to mind. But the most successful authors like Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Tom Clancy do not appear to have been spooks. And I should say – I am a fan of several of these authors, I even like Ian Fleming despite the misogynistic and colonialist overtones to pretty much everything he ever wrote.
Essentially, there is no evidence that Tom Clancy was a spy, he never actually worked for intelligence or military intelligence or even private intelligence, at least as far as we know. But he was something. He moved in that world to some extent, he was certainly much closer to being a state propagandist than other authors are or were. We can break this down two parts:
1) Tom Clancy himself, his life, his government connections, his books and their curious ability to predict the future.
2) The film adaptations of Clancy’s books.
I want to start at the outside and work in from there so in part one of this two part podcast we will begin with the films, which are probably the easier case to make and which I hope will tee up and provide context for the second episode. In short, all of the major films adaptations of Clancy’s novels have been state-sponsored at the highest level, with the possible exception of the most recent film but even there we find strongly suggestive evidence. So let’s break it down:
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
This film was strongly supported by the Department of Defense, most prominently the Navy. The movie had some trouble getting made, mostly because of the Cold War setting which studios believed was no longer interesting to audiences because the Cold War was coming to an end. Producer Mace Neufeld, who has worked a lot with government agencies and has produced all four Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan films, said that another problem was that studios executives won’t read the book itself before making a decision, they just read summaries. He actually had to convince an executive to read the whole book in order to get a green light.
Nonetheless, the Navy went all in on this production, thinking that it could be another Top Gun. And in some ways they were right, the submarines themselves are the big visually exciting elements of what is otherwise a lengthy spy drama about a Russian sub commander defecting. The Navy loaned the USS Houston to the producers, in the film it is named the USS Dallas so clearly they picked the one with the most similar name. The submarine did over 40 emergency surface ‘blows’ to help produce the very dramatic and impressive submarine-dodging-the-torpedo climax sequence at the end of the film.
Indeed, three people in the film had military experience. Sean Connery – who plays the Soviet defector with a conspicuously Scottish accent – was in the Royal Navy, Scott Glenn was in the US Marines and James Earl Jones was in the ROTC and did US Ranger training during the Korean war. Most bizarrely, the film of The Hunt for Red October (and thus the book several years earlier) revealed classified technology. The Red October, the prototype Russian sub that is stolen by the Americans, can navigate without sonar, i.e. more or less silently. Some US submarine could actually do this, though Clancy denied being given this classified information so presumably he just made it up out of thin air.
Also, the film is one of several reviewed by the CIA‘s in house journal Studies in Intelligence and Tom Clancy was invited to Langley after the book was published. The CIA’s review primarily focuses on the Navy’s support for the film, noting that they ‘provided unprecedented access to their submarines and training in submarine steering for Connery, Baldwin, and Scott Glenn.’ So, this is not only the book that got Tom Clancy in with the CIA, it is the film that got Clancy’s books in with Hollywood.
Patriot Games (1992)
This is the first (post Cold War – ed) movie to be allowed to film at the CIA’s headquarters at Langley. Other films have since been allowed, such as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, though the sequence in The Recruit where Colin Farrell does the usual ‘walk in, over the CIA seal and through the security barriers’ shot was done on a reconstructed set after they had visited Langley.
Colin Farrell in The Recruit, at a fake Langley
I obtained a few documents from the CIA on their support to the film of Patriot Games which redact all sorts of information, such as who actually went to Langley but we know it included Harrison Ford and likely the director Phillip Noyce, who went on to make Salt some years later, also with CIA assistance. The CIA ultimately granted multiple tours to the producers and major talent for Patriot Games, gave permission for filming at Langley and for use of the CIA logo and seal. Though they also say that the logo and seal are public domain and thus, anyone can use them, they don’t have to ask the CIA’s permission. Patriot Games also appears on the DOD’s film list and the Department of Defence, the US Navy and the US Naval Academy are all credited at the end of the film.
It should be noted that Clancy himself was not happy with the film version, he felt that the film-makers had bastardised his book and only begrudgingly allowed his name to be associated with the movie.
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Though the CIA did read the script of this film and offer some feedback, they refused to co-operate with the production because the CIA leadership is portrayed so very realistically, I mean badly, portrayed badly. Covert wars with drug cartels, assassination, high level corruption – it’s all in the book so no surprise that the CIA did not want to help this become a popular movie. People had just about forgotten about Iran Contra and the CIA drug smuggling scandals so the last thing they wanted was to remind anyone of some of their dirtiest and largest-scale crimes.
The DOD saw things a bit different and did help to make Clear and Present Danger. However, this was only after they consulted with several departments of the Pentagon and after a lot of changes were made to the script. The fullest account of this comes in the 2011 thesis Strange Bedfellows by Olga Zhakova at Lehigh University. She writes, ‘to make a decision on Clear and Present Danger (1994), the DoD contacted several additional offices to find out if DoD support to the film could be appropriate and beneficial. Since the film tells the story of a CIA analyst getting involved in an illegal war fought by the U.S. government against a Colombian drug cartel, offices such as the Department of Defense Coordinator for Drug Enforcement Policy and Support and the United States Special Operations Command were requested to review the script and provide their comments, in addition to the Department of the Air Force and Department of the Navy.’
She goes on, ‘The process of negotiating on Clear and Present Danger consisted of several stages. In the first stage the armed services involved in the project were given the script for review. All of them recommended disapproving the project for some similar and some varied reasons. However, some people in the DoD thought that the film would be beneficial to the military and insisted on finding a compromise for support. All objections were discussed between the DoD and the filmmakers. The script was rewritten several times to meet all the objections, and then the final script was given to all the services involved for the second and final review. This entire expedited review process took five months. As a result, all services approved the project, and it got full DoD support.’
The thesis notes that some objections were that the story could damage the relations between the US and Latin American countries, with one officer writing that the viewer might have ‘a difficult time separating fact from fiction’. There were pages and pages of problems that different branches of the Pentagon had with the original script, even though it closely mirrored real events of Iran-Contra. It wasn’t that the events were necessarily unrealistic so much as they portrayed the military doing illegal things, and just callous and reckless things.
Nonetheless, the DOD wanted to support the film, so DOD entertainment liaison chief Phil Strub wrote to Mace Neufeld refusing the request for production assistance but outlining the changes that would secure the Pentagon’s help. The changes were, broadly, ‘very negative portrayals of the U.S. President and his national security advisor; U.S. armed forces carrying out illegal, covert operations; very negative portrayal of Columbia; Army forces “conducting ambushes in which the objective seems to be killing lightly-armed, ill trained peasants instead of destroying drug production facilities”; the Navy launching a covert air strike and the subsequent “trivializing” of collateral damage; an Air Force fighter attacking an unarmed civilian aircraft; and a Marine helicopter gunship attacking “a lightly-defended drug overlord’s residence, with very modest effect.”
Phil Strub (right) – The Pentagon’s Entertainment Censor
You can read the full details in Olga Zhakova’s thesis but essentially the film-makers caved and the changes were made to the Clear and Present Danger script and the film secured full DOD co-operation. The Pentagon’s on set advisor Major David Georgi wrote a memo saying that, ‘In short, military depictions have become more of a ‘commercial’ for us more than damage control and the production offers good public informational value’. However, he is quoted in David Robb’s book Operation Hollywood as saying ‘ Always, somewhere in the mind of the producers, they’d try and turn the picture in the direction that they had originally presented to us… It would be my job as a technical advisor to make sure that the movie did not stray substantially from the original approved version’.
Sum of All Fears (2002)
This film enjoyed full co-operation not just from the DOD but also from the CIA. This is one of very few films that CIA entertainment liaison officer Chase Brandon was officially credited on, and it is listed on his IMDB page. The story of a massive nuclear terrorist attack on the US, at a sports game no less, was perfect for the post-9/11 era. Of course, the film was in development before 9/11 but you can see why the CIA and the Pentagon wanted this story up on the screen.
This is also where Ben Affleck first formally gets involved with the CIA, as he plays the main CIA character in the film – Jack Ryan. Ryan was previously played by Alec Baldwin and then Harrison Ford so this was a big step up for Affleck and his first big move into that world. He had previously been in DOD supported movies like Armageddon, which also had NASA on board, and Pearl Harbor. Presumably this is where he got to meet Chase Brandon, who already knew his wife-to-be Jennifer Garner from working on Alias.
However, the DOD did change elements of the story in exchange for their production assistance. A scene where an aircraft carrier is attacked and even sunk by terrorists was seen to be portraying the US military/security institutions as weak and vulnerable. It was changed so the attack only caused damage to the ship, and doesn’t sink it. Bearing in mind this is all going on in the wake of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and you do wonder why they didn’t want the scene scrapped entirely.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
However, that is where the film adaptations of Tom Clancy’s work stopped for over a decade. Then, in 2014 we got a full reboot with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit which is not really based on any Clancy novel but does have a similar feel to The Recruit, which was essentially written by Chase Brandon. The new Jack Ryan, Christopher Pine, is quite a lot like Colin Farrell and the story has similar elements including the inevitable involvement of those pesky Russians.
There is no credited involvement of the DOD or CIA in Shadow Recruit. The only technical advisor listed is Paul Hornsby, a guy who has appeared on the scene only quite recently and has been accused of fabricating a history in the British special forces. However, the film was produced by Mace Neufeld who has been in charge of the Jack Ryan/Tom Clancy franchise since the beginning. It was also produced by Di Bonventura Pictures, a mini-studio within Paramount run by Lorenzo Di Bonventura. Among their productions all the Transformers franchise, made with the DOD and NASA, the Salt franchise, made with the CIA’s help, the Red series produced with ex-CIA agent Bob Baer, and now Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Di Bonventura Pictures’ other CIA connection is Chase Brandon, the former CIA entertainment liaison. As I noted in my recent article Decoding Chase Brandon, he co-wrote a script for them called The Rub, alongside Wag the Dog screenwriter Hilary Henkin. This was never made into a film, but given given that another of Brandon’s partners was Roger Towne, who let Brandon use him as a front for ghost-writing The Recruit, and given what Di Bonaventura Pictures have done since then, one has to wonder what role Brandon and the CIA have in Lorenzo Di Bonventura’s studio. So the likelihood is that the Agency were involved in the Jack Ryan reboot, though at this point we have no solid evidence.
Tom Clancy’s Films
To sum all this up – since the beginning all of the movie adaptations of Tom Clancy’s books have been supported by the Pentagon and/or the CIA. This often came at a price, and occasionally the script changes brought to bear by the government had the effect of pissing off Clancy himself. This does raise the question of the extent to which Clancy was on board with the DOD and CIA’s overall propaganda missions. However, even the one film – Clear and Present Danger – that the DOD heavily altered and the CIA refused to properly support still had some CIA consultancy and the DOD worked for months to get the script into a shape they were happy with.
What this proves is that there are differences between what is tolerated in book format and what is tolerated in film format. The usual assumption is that people who read books are more intelligent, which is often true. As such they can be subjected to more controversial information without the state being too bothered about it. By contrast, for the plebs who go to the cinema and mindlessly munch popcorn, the DOD and CIA only wants good images of themselves.
In the second part of this podcast we will take a closer look at Clancy himself, the secrets revealed by his FBI files and a very strange and sad incident when a teenage boy flew a small plane into a skyscraper shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In particular I’ll outline Clancy’s more prominent government connections and ask whether he was some kind of asset for US intelligence. We will also get into the curious predictive ability that Clancy had and what that might mean, both in terms of intelligence operations but also philosophically.