ClandesTime 167 – Phil Strub’s Greatest Hits
I recently found out that Strub retired from his job as the DOD’s Hollywood liaison last July, though this wasn’t covered by any news outlets and the DOD didn’t bother to tell anyone. In this episode I go through some of Strub’s greatest hits – the good, the bad and the ugly, looking at script changes enforced by his office and reflecting on the consequences of his three decades as the military’s chief propagandist.
We will start with The Good – genuinely good films that nonetheless went through the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison office and had to be altered to meet their demands. One such film is Goldeneye, the James Bond reboot from 1995. Goldeneye – named after Ian Fleming’s home in Jamaica where he wrote the Bond novels – is probably the best Bond film made in my lifetime. The opening sequence is almost perfect, it features Robbie Coltrane as a Russian mafioso, and culminates in the most ludicrous hidden satellite dish scene you will ever see. It’s everything a Bond movie should be.
However, in order to have the nice military rescue at the end where the Marines are hiding in the long grass and the helicopters appear out of nowhere, the script had to be reviewed by Strub. As you might expect, there wasn’t too much that was problematic but one specific script change stands out. There’s a scene where Xenia Onatopp seduces and murders an admiral so she can steal his ID and use it to help steal a futuristic helicopter that is resistant to EMP attacks. In the original script he was American, but Strub’s office insist it be changed to a foreign character. He became French, but then the French Navy, who were loaning the production a frigate parked in Monaco, didn’t like that so the poor admiral became Canadian.
Goldeneye also received support from the Russian government, as did the sequel Tomorrow Never Dies. This was during the reign of Boris Yeltsin, who was both incompetent and pro-Western, so they presumably had no problem with some of the negative stereotyping in both of these films. However, the French Ministry of Defence had issues with Brosnan because of his opposition to French nuclear testing and his involvement with Greenpeace, which actually led to the French premiere of the film being cancelled.
Nonetheless, the film is great and because it’s all real stunts, there’s little if any CGI, it stands up well over 20 years later. It also produced the greatest movie-to-video-game spin-off of all time, which isn’t easy given how so many have failed.
Another great 1990s movie that was DOD-supported was Apollo 13. While some of Richie Cunningham’s more recent films have been hack-fodder, such as the Katy Perry documentary Part of Me and the truly dreadful Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle, he has done some good work too. And I like hard, realistic space stories because space is absolutely terrifying. The feeling that at any moment you might be sucked out into the cold, empty nothing intrigues and disturbs me a lot more than most of the threats in horror movies.
And in terms of genre, I think Apollo 13 is a classic American horror movie. It starts out in white picket fence suburbia, there is a bunch of foreshadowing and warnings of what’s to come. The rocket’s ascent to the heavens is much like when you see the heroine in a horror movie run up the stairs and you’re shouting at the screen because it’s so obviously a bad idea. Then things start to go wrong with the rocket, they have to shut down the command module and siphen the power into the LEM, there’s a lot of Bill Paxton and then everything is fine in the end and there’s a nice military rescue. It’s basically I Know What You Did Last Summer but with a rocket and Tom Hanks.
As with Goldeneye the DOD didn’t have too much of a problem with the script. The Air Force men are shown to be brave and competent, the Navy gets to rescue them at the end, it’s one of those movies where the military element is there but it isn’t central to the plot. However, they did have an issue with some of the language, which in the original script was considerably more sweary than in the final version. This is something that comes up time and again, more so when Don Baruch was head of the DOD’s Hollywood office but also quite a bit since then.
One memo to the producers of the 1983 movie The Right Stuff explains that one of the issues they have with swearing is that it guarantees a higher classification from the MPAA. This can prevent teenagers from seeing the film, and therefore damages its recruitment potential. So the DOD has consistently cut swearing out of supported films – again making them less interesting and damaging creative freedom in the process – in order to maximise audiences and therefore maximise recruits. While this didn’t fundamentally affect Apollo 13, it does make it a little unrealistic at times.
We’ve all been in shocking or frightening situations in life and one thing that almost all adults do is swear, particularly people in the military. Indeed, I shared a memo about the swearing being removed from Apollo 13 with Martin, the co-host of History by Hollywood who did a very informative episode on Apollo 13, and he thought it was ridiculous. But then Martin did say that the most realistic depiction he’s seen of the British Army was in Dog Soldiers, which is laden with expletives. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen Dog Soldiers then you really should because it’s hugely entertaining.
One final movie I’d like to draw your attention to is Contact, which is also from the 1990s. It tells the story of the discovery of an extra-terrestrial signal which includes engineering schematics for the construction of a wormhole machine. This enables one scientist – played by Jodie Foster – to take a trip across the galaxy to Vega, where she makes contact with extraterrestrial life forms.
It’s a genuinely interesting, unusual film about how the conflict between science and religion is largely one of language and politics, and how both involve a certain amount of faith and belief in order to function, and have relevance to people. This is much more profound and philosophical territory than most movies explore, though it also works as a fun sci-fi adventure. The DOD were involved in the film, providing a few uniformed extras and vehicles for a small handful of scenes, but in exchange they neutered some of the most important aspects of the script.
The DOD’s database has a small entry which says they ‘civilianized’ most of the military parts in the film, so as to avoid military characters saying things they felt were inappropriate. While doing the research for National Security Cinema I found a copy of the screenplay from just before they submitted it to the DOD, and I compared that to the finished film. One scene that was changed describes a helicopter approaching the construction site for the wormhole machine, which is surrounded by rusting military equipment and detritus from the military-industrial age. The symbolism is fairly obvious – we should leave behind the era of the military dominating high technology, and focus our efforts on peaceful exploration and discovery. In the final film this sequence doesn’t contain any military elements at all, and shows a crowd of religious people, UFOlogists and so on.
Another scene that was butchered by Strub’s office is where the Jodie Foster character figures out how to put together the schematics, and presents her findings at the White House.
In the original script this scene played out quite differently, with the National Security Advisor suggesting, ‘It could just as easily be some kind of Trojan Horse. We build it and out pours the entire Vegan army.’ The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff responds, ‘Why even bother to risk personnel? Why not send some kind of doomsday machine? Every time an emerging technological civilization announces itself by broadcasting radio waves into space they reply with a message. The civilization builds it and blows itself up. No expeditionary force needed.’ Ellie responds by telling the President, ‘[T]his is communist paranoia right out of War of the Worlds.’
In the finished film all the fear about what the machine might be comes from the National Security Adviser, while the military appear quite controlled and sensible. Also, Ellie’s rebuttal about Cold War paranoia was cut, because like the helicopter approach sequence it criticised the military-industrial age and the mentality that goes with it.
Taken together, these three movies are a good illustration of the different kinds of changes the Pentagon makes before agreeing to support movies – political, social and philosophical.
Political changes, such as avoiding blame when things go wrong, are often fairly crude. But you’d rarely detect them if you didn’t know about them before watching the movie – no one would have figured out why the admiral in Goldeneye is Canadian if it wasn’t for investigative journalist David Robb. The film-makers never spoke about this in public, and in the film it seems to be a small detail of little relevance. But without the admiral being seduced by Xenia Onatopp, the rogue Russian faction wouldn’t be able to steal the helicopter and take over the Goldeneye satellite, so in terms of the plot it does matter who the admiral is.
Social changes, such as removing scenes of military characters swearing or gambling or drinking alcohol or having romantic relationships with each other, are perhaps the most common. This usually doesn’t affect the non-military characters, and therefore one could argue it has little impact on wider society aside from perceptions of military employees. The counter-argument is that, given how the military are held up as heroes in these films that this helps propagate conservative social values, and implicitly supports the conservative political agenda. Or at least politicians who espouse conservative values.
Philosophical changes are somewhat less common, but potentially have the most impact. While Contact was praised by critics for setting the intellectual bar in a mainstream blockbuster fairly high, all criticisms of the military were removed from the script following negotiations with Strub’s office. So while politics, science and religion are all subject to scepticism, one major aspect of our societies remained free from criticism – the military. Inasmuch as films dictate to the public who and what should be subject to doubt and critique, the systematic removal of significant criticisms of the military from these products helps define the outer limits of our critical conversations.
While the DOD has supported some great films, it has also sponsored some bloody awful ones as well. I recently discussed the Transformers films so there’s no need to revisit them, though they are great examples of terrible movies that for some reason proved very popular. Along similar lines, and with the same director, is Armageddon, one of two asteroid disaster movies that came out in 1998.
Now, I know that a lot of people like Armageddon and it does have half of a great cast – Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi. And all are quite well written and entertaining characters, albeit in a really dumb story about NASA sending a team of oil drillers up to the asteroid to dig a hole and nuke it. Indeed, I’m not sure why, given this story, Jerry Bruckheimer wanted military assistance. The film had already secured support from NASA and the oil industry, but for some reason the producer wanted to militarise the thing and film on Air Force bases.
So they went to the Air Force, who made changes that ‘led to the inclusion of a much greater Air Force presence in the film’. However, Bruckheimer refused to write in an Air Force backstory for the Bruce Willis character. Indeed, it doesn’t make much sense for a former Air Force officer to become the roughest of roughnecks. There also appears to have been concerns about the portrayal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who approve the mission, but I don’t know what those concerns were.
Another truly abysmal film that earned military support was Jurassic Park III. The producers initially approached the military about using aircraft to mock up a scene where the Air Force fight against flying dinosaurs. But Strub didn’t like this, he said that the planes would make mincemeat of the creatures, leading to people feeling sorry for the dinosaurs. This appears to be a hangover from 1998’s Godzilla, which culminates in Marine Corps jets shooting down the giant monster, a scene that didn’t go down too well with audiences.
Depending on which version you read, either Strub offered the idea of a nice military rescue at the end, or the producers requested it. One memo says, ‘Even though it is a short scene, the producers will ‘punch it up’ in any manner we dictate to make sure the audience knows that we are saving the people threatened by the big lizard.’
In exchange for a bit of dialogue identifying the Marines and a couple of shots identifying the helicopters as Navy aircraft, Strub’s office agreed to loan them two SH-60 Seahawks, four Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles along with eighty real life Marines. In the original script Ellie Sattler turns up in a helicopter she borrowed from the State Department, but in the finished film it’s an entirely military rescue.
Indeed, one of the new developments during Strub’s time is the emergence of a policy concerning giant creatures. A recent Army entertainment liaison office says that they rejected the film Rampage – one of my favourite films of 2018 – because, ‘The decision to decline support was based on the failure to incorporate script notes provided by OCPA-LA into the revised draft of the script. The notes provided dealt with creating a more accurate depiction of the U.S. Army and the Army National Guard in the production. In the scripts provided to OCPA-LA, nearly all Army and Army National Guard personnel and equipment were killed or destroyed by the genetically altered animals with no chance of success in their missions.’
This probably explains why in the 2014 Godzilla the military and Godzilla don’t fight each other. There are a few small scenes where people are pointlessly firing their rifles at this giant lizard, but Godzilla doesn’t turn around and flatten them with one flick of her foot. Whereas in Rampage a giant gorilla, a giant flying wolf and a supergiant crocodile smash up military vehicles and squish soldiers left, right and centre. So it seems the rule is that the monster had to be a threat, but not an overwhelming one, and the military’s response is a threat, but not an overwhelming one.
Indeed, this seems to be the rule for all cinematic enemies, not just giant monsters and dinosaurs. In Clear and Present Danger two changes were made which reflect this. First, in the ambush scene they wanted it to appear more of a fair fight. Later, when a US helicopter attacks a drug cartel compound, they wanted the helicopter to be more lethal. This notion of a fair fight also appears in the production assistance agreement for Hunter Killer, one of Strub’s last movies and by all accounts a pretty terrible film. It talks about the US facing off against a ‘competent military adversary’, again so it doesn’t look like they’re just an overwhelming force.
One more atrocious film that Strub’s office sponsored was Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Despite a strong cast it is really poor. For those of you who haven’t seen it, which is probably all of you, it’s based on a book called The Taliban Shuffle, by Kim Barker, about her time as a reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 2000s. I’m sure it was sold to the studio as ‘providing the female perspective on these wars’. You know, in that way that is sexist towards men because it says they can’t understand things like a woman can, is sexist towards women because it says they all have the one, same ‘female’ perspective, and patronises everybody by being really fucking stupid.
I haven’t read the book, but if the film is anything to go by then Kim Barker didn’t do an awful lot during her years in the war in Afghanistan. There is very little to the story, it seems months go by without anything happening, and there’s nothing uniquely feminine or female about any of it. Oh, except for one moment when the military convoy has to stop so she can take a piss behind a bush. That’s literally one of the most memorable moments in the entire story.
Yet bizarrely the film got OK reviews. Not massively positive, but certainly not negative. I don’t know whether these reviewers were paid off by Paramount or just felt obliged to give it a decent review so they didn’t get accused of being sexist, or whether they actually liked this tedious, pointless story that says nothing of any interest to anyone. As to the Pentagon’s changes – one we know about is that when a truck crashes in Kabul in the original script it is a US Army vehicle, so this was changed to an NGO vehicle.
This was based on a real event, where a US Army truck suffered some kind of brake failure and plowed into a bunch of parked cars and then across an intersection, killing several Afghans. Large scale rioting followed, which killed several more.
Thus, this one symbolic moment representing how the US invaded Afghanistan and smashed it to pieces, this one moment that might elevate this movie above utter mediocrity, was diluted by the Pentagon for political reasons.
We’ve looked at the good and the bad, which leaves us with the ugly. We have examined some of these in recent episodes – Rules of Engagement, for example, is probably the most racist, hateful film made in recent decades. We also looked at mental illness, and just how callous the DOD have become towards their own employees. The request to rewrite Markinson’s suicide note in A Few Good Men to have a positive message is especially vile.
There are a few other things I’d like to highlight. I’ve recently been looking into how sexual assault and rape in the military is subject to the machinations of the entertainment liaison offices. My preliminary research shows a similar pattern to how they treat mental illness – you can discuss these things, but only if you show how the Pentagon is dealing with the problem. For example, the Army helped write an episode of Army Wives that deals with a female pilot who is sexually assaulted while deployed, and how the SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator) deals with the crime. Likewise, the Navy helped write an episode of NCIS with a similar storyline and focus.
Meanwhile, the proposed film Women at War – being produced by Sundance Productions, the company run by Robert Redford’s son – was denied support because ‘angle of the production deals with sexual harassment & PTSD.’ The film was never made. Other products looking at sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape in the military were also rejected. Meanwhile, all branches of the military have supported products aimed primarily at women, and at boosting female recruitment.
As a result, the overriding message to women is to sign up, and if they do face sexual harassment or worse then it’s OK, the military will deal with it properly and professionally. The reality is, of course, quite different. I’ve only spoken to a handful of women who’ve been in the US armed forces but they all say the same thing – sexual harassment and manipulation is rife, and the system does not handle complaints and investigations anywhere near as well as they should. The same is true here in Britain, from what I know.
So just as with mental illness, homelessness, suicide, alcoholism, drug problems and all the other consequences that current and former military members face on a large scale, the truth cannot be told if you want the Pentagon’s support. This makes a total mockery of their claims to be concerned with accuracy and with informing people about what the military is really like. Like any PR office, they say ‘here, look at this 5% of stuff that is positive, ignore the other 95% of stuff, that doesn’t matter, only care about the 5%’. When this is a company selling a product, a product that can cause health problems or addiction or bankruptcy, that’s one thing. You could argue that people shouldn’t be so gullible, or that plenty of people know, for example, the health risks resulting from smoking but do it anyway. For the most part that is their decision.
But when it’s a massive, powerful, violent entity like the DOD the stakes are so much higher, not just for the people signing up but even more so for the people on the receiving end. The consequences of entertainment that systemically avoids the negative results of Western militarism, and systemically finds excuses or rationalisations for its worst excesses, are consequences for the entire world. We all suffer, to some extent, because of this.
One final example I’d like to draw your attention to is from a film I actually quite like – Tropic Thunder. It’s a pastiche of Vietnam war films starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Steve Coogan and others. It’s about the making of a Vietnam war film where everything goes wrong – basically the story of Apocalypse Now, but funnier. The first half hour of the film is consistently amusing, but then it loses its way. By far my favourite character is Robert Downey Jr who is blacked up for the whole movie, and was nominated for best supporting actor as a result. Basically, if you like Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller-style comedy then you’ll enjoy the film, if you don’t then you won’t.
The DOD ran some promotional screenings for the film, which they usually refuse to do for movies that weren’t supported, but they aren’t credited anywhere so I’m not 100% sure they did support Tropic Thunder. Nonetheless I looked at a draft script to see if I could spot any changes of the kind we’ve seen elsewhere and came across one that I’d like to highlight for you. Early on in the film there’s an Access Hollywood piece on how badly the movie is going.
In the original script there was a line ‘At a reported budget north of $200 million, Tropic Thunder could end up costing almost as much as the real war!’ This does not appear in the finished film, and this is precisely the sort of small but significant change the Pentagon frequently makes. Bear in mind two things: 1) The entertainment liaison offices are very sensitive about criticism of the Vietnam War and 2) Tropic Thunder was being produced at the same time as Iron Man, when Strub had the argument on set with Jon Favreau about one line where a military character jokingly refers to killing himself.
So this is the kind of seemingly innocuous line that would cause serious objections from the DOD. I’ve included this in the ‘ugly’ section because it illustrates just how closely the Pentagon reviews these scripts, and how even a light-hearted criticism can cause problems. It’s also a sign of just how crazy these people are, because it is the only line in the film that references the real Vietnam war. Because the soldiers in the film are, in the story, actors portraying soldiers, they can be stupid and addicted to drugs and all sorts. But the one moment of reality, the one moment referring to the real war, was removed.
There are, of course, a great many other productions and script changes I could talk about, but there are too many to list or even to summarise. The simple point is this: under Strub’s stewardship there has been a massive expansion of the activities of the entertainment liaison offices, into reality TV, game shows, the NFL, video games. All of these are subject to the same political and social censorship as movies and scripted TV. Given that Strub was in the job for nearly 30 years it’s difficult to see who has had more influence over what we have watched in that time.
Maybe some senior executives at the big studios, but even they only have real influence on the films and TV shows made by that studio. Maybe some of the corporate chiefs at the big conglomerates who own multiple studios and TV networks have the ability to influence as wide a range of productions as Strub. But do they? There is little sign in, for example, the Sony hack emails that corporate chiefs involve themselves at script level. Whereas we know Strub has coordinated the military’s direct influence, at script level, on many hundreds if not thousands of productions.
And yet, most of the entertainment industry doesn’t even know he exists, let alone what he has done to the industry. Perhaps more importantly, the overwhelming majority of consumers don’t know he exists, or what he has done. But we do. And that has to be an important step towards rolling back the influence of these entertainment liaison offices, and redressing the balance of power in the industry. The idea that knowledge is power is somewhat simplistic, but knowledge can be deployed in service of power, by anyone and everyone. I have to hope that recent events are signs that things are changing, and that the many thousands of hours I’ve devoted to tracking the activities of the Phil Strubs of this world are making it more difficult for them.
And with that, I’ll call it a day. I hope you enjoyed this reflection on the work of Uncle Phil, that if nothing else it is a reminder that people whose names hardly anyone knows can have a massive, covert influence on things that affect millions of people. In a truly democratic society that wouldn’t happen, so the very existence of Phil Strub (and now, his replacement David Evans) is a great illustration of how our societies really work.
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