Phil Strub has been the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison since 1989, in which time the entertainment liaison offices have helped produce over 100 films. In this episode we take a closer look at Phil Strub, his background, how he came to be the DOD’s Hollywood liaison and his curious habit of downplaying or minimising the role of the Pentagon in the entertainment industry. We examine his statements in an interview on The Kojo Nnamdi Show and his claims that the DOD weren’t involved in Tomorrow Never Dies and withdrew co-operation from The Avengers. We finish up with a brief look at the recurring themes and worldviews in the films with which Strub and the Pentagon have collaborated.
Phil Strub is the DOD’s main man in Hollywood. Long term listeners and readers and anyone familiar with this topic will know his name, and whether you know it or not all of you will have seen a film that in some way involved Strub and the Entertainment Liaison Offices that he oversees. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is not easy to find out biographical information about him, I am not suggesting there is anything untoward, I think Strub is who he says he is, but it is difficult to find out who he says he is. I know more about the biographies of some spies, and I mean people who are still alive and possibly still active, than I do about Phil Strub. Nonetheless he is the main man, he’s been there a long time and under his watch the Entertainment Liaison Offices have expanded.
Background: The History of the Entertainment Liaison Offices
But we should start with some background, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. The Department of Defense have had some kind of relationship with Hollywood since the 1910s, for literally a century at this point. This was done on a reactive basis, as best as I can tell, until WW2 when the number of films increased and the nature of the Pentagon’s involvement developed significantly. The most overt example was the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces, who actually had a studio in Hollywood and recruited numerous relatively big names including Ronald Reagan. This was one of several units – the Navy and the OSS had their own film crews producing training videos and just documenting the war.
In the immediate post-war period, in between the end of the war and the formal establishment of the Department of Defence in 1947, the Pentagon’s involvement drops down to pre-war levels. In ’47 they appointed Donald Baruch their first entertainment liaison officer. He had served in the Army Air Force’s office of public information in Washington and continued as a consultant to them after the war. Baruch was appointed a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, and remained in the job for 40 years.
Think about that. In theory, Baruch and now Strub are civil servants, of a sort. They work or worked under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and are, at least on paper, subject to their authority. However, Baruch worked with and outlasted over 20 such men, so he must have had a much more powerful influence on the entertainment industry than they ever did. People are often focused too much on the political appointees, and not on the people who will be there long after any of this current nonsense has been forgotten. Baruch is such a man.
Phil Strub Takes Over
Strub is turning into such a man. Baruch lasted 40 years before retiring in 1987. In 1989 Strub was appointed his long-term successor, and has seen at least 15 Assistant Secretaries of Defence come and go. He and his team have worked on around 100 movies since then. For a little more on why Strub got chosen, the history of the DOD in helping to create blockbusters, and how this process works we’ll turn to an interview with Strub on the Kojo Nnamdi show. I played a clip from this radio show about the Science and Entertainment Exchange on a recent episode but this is from 2012 and this time it was actually Kojo himself who is presenting:
I love this interview because it’s very revealing. Strub served in Vietnam and then, some years later after a not particularly successful attempt to get into the film business and being educated at USC, he was appointed Baruch’s replacement. Though he doesn’t mention this, at the same time that Strub was appointed, the DOD updated their instruction 5410.16 DoD Assistance to Non-Government, Entertainment-Oriented Motion Picture, Television, and Video Productions. That helped formalise the process Strub is talking about here.
Notice that Strub is always downplaying the scale of this, saying that they just have a small satellite office in Los Angeles and that they try to make only minimal changes to scripts. Well, the offices at 10880 Wilshere Boulevard might not be enormous in terms of physical space, but it’s enough for them to be working on several major movies and dozens of TV shows at once. That’s a lot more than any corporate sponsor, or any other government agency. When the intrepid investigative duo from Themes and Memes actually went down there and had a poke around they said it was not easy to find these offices within the building.
As to the scale of script changes – this can be minor, this can be major. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing the name of a character because in real life they were a child-raping bastard. Other times it’s about removing shots and scenes entirely, such as the soldiers using their bayonets to prise gold teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. Dialogue has been changed, characters have been more prominent for propaganda purposes, and as we saw with Clear and Present Danger the film was rewritten over several months to help it qualify for DOD approval and production assistance.
During the production of the first Iron Man there was a bit of a falling out. At one point in the script a military character tells another that ‘people would kill themselves for the opportunities he has’. Phil Strub did not like this line – presumably even a flippant, exaggerating reference to suicide is not considered appropriate. Strub wanted this changed, the director Jon Favreau wanted to keep it in, and this argument went on for a while.
According to an interview with Strub, ‘It never got resolved until we were in the middle of filming… Now we’re on the flight lines at Edwards Air Force Base (California), and there’s 200 people, and [the director] and I are having an argument about this. He’s getting redder and redder in the face and I’m getting just as annoyed. It was pretty awkward and then he said, angrily, “Well how about they’d walk over hot coals?” I said “fine.” He was so surprised it was that easy.’ One might say he was surprised it was that easy, I’m wondering why Strub was so insistent that it led to an argument on set in front of 200 people.
Along similar lines, if these script changes are so irrelevant then why are the pre-2002 documents kept in a private archive at Georgetown, controlled by a friendly academic, and why are the newer ones all but impossible to get hold of? Why do the reports from the Entertainment Liaison Offices make it clear that script changes are still requested and made, but never describe what these changes were in any detail or depth? Indeed, they hardly ever describe them at all. Slightly later on in the Kojo Nnamdi interview Phil Strub continues to downplay the importance of what he does, specifically with regard to script changes:
Phil Strub covering up Tomorrow Never Dies
There are two specific examples that illustrate this minimising tactic of Strub’s very well. In an email to Matt Alford he denied that the DOD had any involvement in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. This is absurd, since there is documentation cited in David Robb’s book saying that the DOD had a joke about the US losing the Vietnam war removed from the script. This would not have happened if the film-makers didn’t want something from the DOD in return.
In fact, if we dig just a little we find a whole load of evidence of full DOD co-operation in the movie. If we look at the credits for the film we see that the Department of Defense are listed, as is Phil Strub himself along with a DOD project officer Charles E Davis – the specific person who goes along to make sure the agreed script is the one used when shooting the film. The credits also list an Air Force Technical Advisor Col Bruce L Gillman.
A little further down and the credits also thank US Dept of Def and US Air Force, Ministry of Defence, London, Directorate of Public Relations, Royal Navy, HMS Westminster, HMS Dryad, US Air Forces in Europe, US Air Force Special Operations Command, 48th Fighter Wing RAF Lakenheath, 100th Air Refuelling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, 352nd Special Operations Group, RAF Mildenhall
The Air Force Hollywood website, which has only been working intermittently in recent months, includes Tomorrow Never Dies among their credits, saying they provided:
– Location filming at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, UK
– MC-130s and HH-53s aircraft
– Air Force personnel were utilized as extras
– Security Forces
I really can’t see how there is any doubt that Strub is either lying or being outrageously absent minded in denying that the Pentagon fully co-operated with Tomorrow Never Dies, but there you go. His attempts to downplay what the Entertainment Liaison Offices do seem to extend to lying to an academic.
Phil Strub covering up The Avengers
A similar thing happened with The Avengers, which Strub has repeatedly and widely stated the DOD either withdrew from or denied some co-operation to because of the storyline. I’ll let Phil explain in his own words, before proving how those words are a load of bollocks.
Once more, Strub is minimising the role of the Pentagon, saying that because SHIELD is an international organisation above and beyond the Pentagon they couldn’t find a way to support the film apart from a few soldiers at the end. But the Army’s Liaison Office reports show that they also gave permission for filming at White Sands Missile Range. They also contain no suggestion of any such falling out with the film-makers.
Furthermore, the film features both F-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters on SHIELD’s massive heli-carrier/Nazi airship. The F-35 at this point were not actually being used in live missions, they were still in the testing phase. But sure enough, those planes do appear in the film, so we have three different kinds of support – providing a filming location, vehicles and soldiers as extras. There isn’t that much more that the Pentagon could have provided. Which begs the question, was it the other way round? Did the Pentagon sense that The Avengers was going to be a huge movie, which it was, and wanted to be more involved but they couldn’t come up with a way to gain a more prominent role in the film? It is curious that Marvel have basically said nothing about this supposed falling-out, and the Pentagon are credited on the second Captain America film two years after The Avengers.
Indeed, the question of the F-35s is quite amusing, because the Pentagon made a bit of a splash about debuting them in Man of Steel, which came out the year after The Avengers. They keep trying to pretend like that didn’t really happen, that those aircraft didn’t appear in that movie. In a Wired article they say that ‘The fighters were “digitally inserted” by the studio, Strub explains, not actual planes provided by the U.S. military.’
This is not just a ridiculous equivocation, it shows that Strub is suffering from hyperreality. After all, in most films most of the time that sort of vehicle are created digitally. The floating airship is CGI, so obviously the planes on the deck of the airship are CGI. The planes being digital still requires the film-makers to have had access to real planes, or at least detailed photographs or video of real planes, in order to replicate them accurately. Just like in Transformers, a film Strub wholly admits DOD co-operation on, the planes fighting the Decepticons are not real planes. There’s no meaningful distinction, except that Strub is clearly trying to distance the Pentagon from The Avengers. Distinguishing between digital planes in one film and digital planes in another, as though one is more real and thus evidence of Pentagon involvement, is downright bizarre.
Recurring Themes in Phil Strub’s movies
Moving on, it would take too long to list the 100+ movies the DOD has worked on since Phil Strub took the job as Hollywood liaison so I’ll direct you to the fullest list we have. One thing that leaps out is that there are very few films based on real life events. Aside from Black Hawk Down, United 93, Flags of Our Fathers and Captain Phillips I’m struggling to spot any, by comparison to the WW2 movies that dominated Don Baruch’s time as DOD Hollywood liaison.
The reason for this is probably that the Vietnam war doesn’t really lend itself to propaganda. It is hard to convince people that Vietnam was a noble war fought by brave American heroes, because it wasn’t and most people already realise that. The sensitivity over one little joke about the US losing Vietnam shows that it is something of a sore spot in the DOD. Ditto Iraq.
Instead we get a fair number of fictional battles, like in True Lies, Clear and Present Danger and Rules of Engagement, and a lot of disaster movies. Films like Armageddon and Twister and The Day after Tomorrow still present the image of a threatening world that we need protecting from, so they fulfil the psychological requirements of the Pentagon without actually featuring the DOD on screen. Similarly, monster movies like King Kong and Jurassic Park III and post-apocalyptic movies like I Am Legend.
There are quite a lot of UFO and extraterrestrial films – the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sphere, Contact, Battle Los Angeles and Battle of Los Angeles, the Transformers films, Battleship, Pacific Rim. These days the DOD are full on with UFO movies, whereas in the past they largely avoided them. For example, Spielberg approached them about Close Encounters of the Third Kind but the Pentagon did not want to be involved. As we discussed in the previous episode on Disney, the Air Force helped to make Moon Pilot, which features an alien character, but were unhappy with the film.
Of course, we have the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the DOD worked on Iron Man 1 and 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, and an ex-Navy SEAL worked on Thor. So that’s almost the entire first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then there was some sort of falling out on The Avengers, which I think was when the producers of the MCU realised that they didn’t need the Pentagon as much as the Pentagon needed them. So the Pentagon put it out like they rejected the producers, like when someone gets dumped and feels heartbroken and so goes around telling everyone that they dumped the other person. The DOD has even denied that they had any involvement in The Avengers in a recent letter to me, which is total bullshit.
Noticeably, phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has involved the Pentagon in a very limited way on Iron Man 3 and they are credited on Captain America: Winter Soldier, but I don’t know the details. Indeed, NASA are now the most prominent name, they are credited on Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. Likewise Ant-Man was supported by the Science and Entertainment Exchange. So the world’s biggest film franchise continues to be state-sponsored and state-supported, but much less by the Pentagon than in the first phase.
In going through the reports from the Entertainment Liaison Offices the other major theme is transhumanism, which permeates lots of films and TV shows that the Pentagon support. Phil Strub clearly has no problem with transhuman philosophy, his bosses (whoever they are) have no problem with it either. If anything, one could make the argument that the Pentagon is doing more than anyone else to promote these sorts of ideas, and with the documents now in our possession I think you could make that argument quite successfully. Everything from Transformers to Terminators, everything from robots to aliens to superheroes to robot alien superheroes feature heavily and prominently in these films and TV series.
So, while Phil Strub says they don’t have hard, written rules for how they go about working with the entertainment industry (and that may be true) there is a worldview that consistently appears in Pentagon-assisted productions. That worldview is fundamentally one of a threatening world, a world that is somehow not enough on its own, and likewise where the humans in it are not enough on their own. Whether it’s tidal waves, plagues, or giant alien robots, the world is threatening and you on your own are going to get trampled. So thank fuck for the US military, who whether by implication or actually on the screen are going to protect us from all of these threats.
That’s it, at the core. There is some other stuff about how technological advancement is the major means for the Pentagon to protect us from the threatening world and so on. But that worldview is the most identifiable consequence of Phil Strub’s involvement, and the Pentagon’s involvement, in the entertainment industry.