Skip to main content

1994’s Clear and Present Danger is one of the most important movies in the cinema of the war on drugs, depicting black operations by the CIA and US military against a Colombian drug cartel. In this episode I do a deep dive on Clear and Present Danger, and how it set the standards for much of the war on drugs-themed entertainment since then. I analyse the film in light of documents from the DOD’s film office, showing how they profoundly rewrote the script to fit with their new, post-Cold War propaganda ambitions. I also discuss how it functions as an antidote to the Iran-Contra cinema of the late 1980s.


The book of Clear and Present Danger

The original book came out in 1989 and is markedly different from the film, though the basic story is quite similar. In the book the US president is facing an election, with his opponent making hay out of the administration’s failed war on drugs policies. The President’s National Security Advisor teams up with senior CIA officials to run black operations against a Colombian drug cartel to try to disrupt the flow of narcotics into the US.

They send in a small light infantry team who conduct surveillance on airstrips being used by the cartel, and the planes used to smuggle the drugs are then shot down by Navy fighter jets.

Meanwhile the Coast Guard find a ship whose crew have been slaughtered, and through a mock trial and execution they force the men on board to confess to murdering the crew so they can use the ship to transport drugs. It later turns out that the owner of the ship laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money, which is then seized by the FBI.

The cartel responds by murdering the director of the FBI, the head of the DEA and the US ambassador to Colombia. This causes the president to give orders augmenting the black operations. After a period of increased violence, the National Security Advisor strikes a deal with a senior cartel member to shut down the black ops in exchange for the cartel reducing the flow of drugs into the US. The National Security Advisor even provides the cartel with the positions of the men inside Colombia, who are hunted down and mudered.

Jack Ryan finds out about most of this, having been promoted to acting deputy director of intelligence at the CIA, and mounts a rescue operation to try to get the remaining men out of Colombia. They are successful, and later capture the head of the cartel and his intelligence chief. They hand the head of the cartel over to his rivals, and send the intelligence guy back to Cuba, where he is branded a traitor.

When Ryan confronts the National Security Advisor about his illegal actions, he commits suicide. Ryan then confronts the President, who deliberately loses the election in order to keep the black operations quiet.

Some critics have argued – and I agree – that the book is a piece of dystopian fiction about the war on drugs, showing how this failed policy corrupts and corrodes everything it touches. Death follows this policy everywhere, while the drugs continue to flow. So while it doesn’t depict US government involvement in the drug trade (or, not as such) it is deeply critical of the war on drugs and its consequences. It is also quite realistic, as far as Clancy’s books go, because to some extent pretty much everything in the book has actually happened.

The film of Clear and Present Danger

The film is quite different, despite telling basically the same story. Largely because of the Pentagon and other government agencies’ objections, the script was rewritten to remove the most critical aspects, resulting in quite a bland movie. This pissed off Tom Clancy because he felt that John Milius’ original script was very good, and represented the themes and perspectives of his book. Milius is known for not pulling any punches, and writing in a blunt and vivid way. Somewhat ironically, Milius wrote the story for Extreme Prejudice, one of the movies we looked at in the last episode on Iran-Contra.

I’m not going to outline every change the producers made in exchange for military support because, quite honestly, there are too many. The negotiations went on for six months, and the draft scripts were reviewed multiple times, with the DOD requesting more changes after each review. So we’ll focus on the most important stuff.

The story begins in 1991, when Paramount first approached the military about the project. Even though they were making Patriot Games at the time, the success of Hunt for Red October meant they were planning to make more Jack Ryan movies. A memo for the Army Chief of the Policy and Plans Division in December ‘91 says that the script had been reviewed and some changes were needed. It goes on:

My real difficulty is the way our soldiers are “shanghaied” into a black – superblack operation. On a larger scale, I do not see how we can support unless DOD – with the concurrence of State, CIA, Justice and the White House – agrees to support.

This is significant because the Army’s entertainment liaison staff are supposed to only be concerned with an accurate and realistic depiction of the Army. It is not their responsibility to concern themselves with the public image of the White House, the State Department or the CIA. This isn’t the only example of the military using their weight in Hollywood to protect other government agencies, but it is one of the clearest-cut examples.

It appears there was a stall in the discussions, because the next document in the DOD’s film office file is in May 1993, when John Horton wrote to Phil Strub to formally submit the script for consideration. Horton’s letter says that the script ‘captures the threat of the drug lords of Colombia’ and how the National Security Advisor ‘walks a tenuous and questionable legal line’ and that the film would ‘provide an action filled intriguing story related to this criminal activity which offends our nation’.

In response the DOD arranged for an ‘orientation visit’ at a naval base in Puerto Rico, saying that they extended this support prior to the script review because of such a good working relationship with the producers on Red October, Patriot Games and Flight of the Intruder. Again, clear evidence that they don’t consider each film individually, and that having a good prior relationship with the DOD can win you favours.

The DOD sent the script around to all the military branches – Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and even the Coast Guard, as they are depicted in the opening scenes. But the script review process didn’t stop there, they also sent it to the Pentagon’s Office of Drug Enforcement Policy and Support and the office of the Joint Chiefs. Later memos confirm they also sought input from the White House, the State Department, the Department of Justice/FBI and the CIA.

The initial responses to the script were very negative, saying they should reject the request for production assistance. An Air Force memo refers to ‘obvious objections to portraying the highest level of US government engaging in illegal, covert activities,’ and in particular a scene where the Air Force shoot down an unidentified, unarmed plane in foreign airspace. Likewise the Marine Corps said they had no desire to work on a project ‘with a plot that centers around a Presidential conspiracy to launch an unauthorized covert operation against the Columbian drug lords.’

Indeed, an internal fax from the Marine Corps describes numerous objections to the Marine Corps portrait in the draft script. They complain that there’s no sense (like in True Lies) that ‘the Marines have landed’ and are making a critical difference to the action. In their view the script made them participating ‘in an already busy scene’ as ‘bells and whistles’ rather than a distinct presence in the film.

They also felt that the script was guilty of overkill in showing the Marines using excessive firepower on a ‘not-so-formidable enemy’, saying ‘We probably had a more formidable enemy during the LA riots’. The fax goes on to say that ‘at a time when relations between the military and The President are strained’ they could see no reason to support a film showing the President running black ops ‘in defiance of Congress’.

Interestingly, the fax also mentions how the producers could easily rent commercial helicopters and paint them black to look like an ‘unidentified Special Ops force’. It says that ‘in reality, I’m told by my Coast Guard counterparts that it’s not uncommon to take markings off their own birds in certain operations’. This is totally illegal – the Geneva Convention makes clear that all military craft and personnel must carry identifiable markings. As you may remember from the Executive Decision episode, this was an issue that nearly scuppered military support for the film, yet here is a Marine Corps document admitting they do this sort of thing all the time.

The Army’s objections ranged from the ‘harsh language’ throughout the script through to the Colombian government being totally unaware of the covert operation being run in their country by the US. The Drug Enforcement Policy office objected to the operation being ‘contrary to the law and DOD policy’. The Joint Chiefs felt that the operation violated Colombia’s sovereignty and expressed how Latin American countries are ‘extremely sensitive’ to such violations.

All of which is deeply ironic given the numerous violations of Latin American sovereignty that have been perpetrated by the US in the real world. They have assassinated heads of state, overthrown governments, imprisoned and tortured people on a massive scale, supported death squads and on and on. There probably isn’t a region of the world that has been subject to more violations than Latin America. If only the Joint Chiefs had shown the same respect for the real Latin American countries that they do for their cinematic counterparts.

They also took issue with the depiction of the Colombian government as colluding with, or ignoring, the ‘illegal activity of the drug cartel’, saying they ‘will be offended at the movie’s portrayal of their character’. The fourth problem in their list of concerns is when the President says at the end of the film that he’d like to ‘level Colombia, Ecuador and Peru’. In the Joint Chiefs’ assessment, ‘this statement will not win friends in Latin America’.

Everyone from Special Operations Command to the Office of Drug Policy Enforcement to the individual branches of the military had major issues with the script, and they all concluded that the DOD should not support the film. But clearly someone thought otherwise, because by July ‘93 the Army were sending feedback on what changes would have to be made in order to qualify the movie for military support. This included rewriting the enemy forces targeted in the black operation, with the Army saying they needed to be ‘professionalized’ in order to remove the sense that semi-trained, poorly armed peasants were being slaughtered by special forces. They demanded that the peasants be ‘pictured as more heavily armed and more aggressive’, to make the black op seem more justified.

I have mentioned this logic of the ‘fair fight’ before, because it comes up quite a few times in military documents. While in reality the Pentagon has repeatedly targeted and killed large numbers of semi-trained or even untrained peasants, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, they change or remove scenes depicting this from movies and TV shows. Again, if only they applied this logic to the real world, not just to entertainment products.

The Politics of Clear and Present Danger

The script was rewritten in the summer and autumn of ‘93 to try to accommodate the various concerns. An undated memo summarises the issues raised by the White House, the CIA, State Department and others, again showing how they were consulted during the DOD’s script negotiations. This is important because the CIA refused to support the film, leading to the producers using the same aerial footage of Langley that they shot for Patriot Games. Nonetheless they appeared to have had some influence on the script, thanks to the DOD’s willingness to break their own rules and enforce script changes far beyond the portrayal of the military.

For example, the original script had the CIA as the originators of the black operation, but this was changed so that it was the National Security Advisor who gives the order. Indeed, the main villain in the film is the National Security Advisor, while the White House and CIA are largely innocent pawns in his scheme.

This is reflected in an October document when the draft script was re-submitted for a second round of reviews and comments. The document records a teleconference between Strub and the producers where Strub told them that the revamped script ‘did nothing’ for the DOD and still wasn’t supportable. It lists some of their ongoing concerns, including the ‘negative portrayals of both the National Security Advisor and the President’, noting that the DOD were willing to tolerate a negative National Security Advisor ‘but not the President’.

One paragraph describes how the rewritten script shows ‘Spec Ops people are inserted and do nothing except to shoot two peasant guards by sniper, big deal, and then get killed or captured themselves. Makes them look useless.’ It then adds in brackets, ‘Rangers in Somalia just went through a real world fiasco that made the military look ridiculous. DOD not about to cooperate on a movie that does the same thing.’

So while in the first script they were concerned with the Special Forces killing poorly armed peasants, just slaughtering them, the writers attempts to tone this down went too far the other way, making the Special Forces look ineffective. Both of these were problems for the DOD, who wanted their men to appeal lethal, but not too lethal, concerned about collateral damage, but not too concerned. A fascinating balancing act.

So the film-makers rewrote the script again and in November producer Mace Neufeld wrote to Strub to outline some of the changes. His letter says, ‘in the new screenplay, while the President indicates to Cutter [the National Security Advisor] that something must be done about the drug problem, he is kept in the dark with respect to the details, thus preserving his deniability.’ They also changed the scene where a Navy plane shoots down a civilian plane carrying drugs so now the Special Forces blow up the plane on the ground.

This made some headway, but there were still problems with the latest version of the script. In particular the DOD demanded that the military be involved in the rescue sequence at the end of the story, but the scenario written in by the screenwriters was branded ‘particularly fanciful’ in a letter from Strub to Neufeld. So the writers sat down for a face-to-face meeting with the special forces representatives to try to find a solution. In the finished film it is just Jack Ryan, the one surviving special forces sniper and the CIA/military character played by Willem Dafoe who carry out the raid, which is changed from a rescue to Ryan confronting Cortez, the intelligence chief for the cartel.

There were other little problems too, as annotations on the draft screenplay show. Just one more – the black ops team are at one point referred to as ‘Hispanics’, but the military changed this to ‘Spanish speaking’. A bizarre example of the Pentagon trying to be more politically correct in the post-Cold War world.

Finally, towards the end of December ‘93 the DOD accepted the latest draft of the script and agreed to provide military support. A production assistance agreement was drawn up and signed and the project moved forward. A Defense Intelligence Agency document records how they even had to reach out to the Mexican government to get permission to send two Blackhawk helicopters into Mexico to film the scene where the black ops team are dropped in Colombia. How ironic, given that Mexico has now overtaken Colombia as the locus for drugs cartels.

Interestingly, the costs for these negotiations with the Mexican government do not appear in the documents detailing reimbursement to the DOD, it seemed they provided this service for free. Indeed the total costs for filming at military locations, use of vehicles, research support, technical advice and so on was just $150,000 dollars. Again, it seems when you conform to the DOD’s propaganda objectives you can get quite a lot of help without paying a dime.

But that’s enough of the documents for now, let’s get into the film itself. It opens with the Coast Guard finding the ship with the slaughtered crew, being used for transporting drugs. There is no election going on, no political opponent to the president who is making the war on drugs an election issue. Instead it turns out that the ship belonged to an old friend of the President, so he discusses how to respond with his National Security Advisor.

As a result of the Pentagon’s demands, on behalf of the White House, the President only implies that they should begin covert ops against the Cali cartel. As the documents say, this gives him deniability. So the National Security Advisor Cutter teams up with the CIA deputy director for operations Ritter, and they launch the black op themselves, with Cutter faking a memo from the president authorising it.

With the operations underway it emerges that the President’s friend was laundering huge amounts of money for the cartel, and had stolen around $650 million from them, which is why they killed him.

In this scene Jack Ryan gives the President PR advice on how to answer press questions about his friendship with the money launderer. This is a little odd because he’s supposed to be the deputy director of the CIA, basically the country’s top intelligence analyst, not a spin doctor.

Amusingly, the President orders the FBI to seize the $650 million, claiming ‘it’s ours’ despite it being laundered drug cartel money. The dialogue goes out of its way to say the Colombian government will get a slice of the money, but it never explains why. After all, this is money paid by Americans for drugs brought in by the Colombian cartel, who the Colombian government is totally failing to deal with.

Why should Colombia get any of the money? To avoid the Pentagon’s concern about this story showing unilateral action by the US government without any consultation with host country governments, in this case the Colombian government. So this clunky dialogue was inserted in order to dispel that impression, despite it being a very accurate one when it comes to the real world. So much for the DOD making films more realistic.

After the money is seized by the US authorities the President sends the director of the FBI down to Colombia to help the US ambassador negotiate with the Colombian government. They are ambushed by cartel hitmen in the streets of Bogota, killing everyone except Jack Ryan. In response the black ops team carry out an airstrike on a mansion where the cartel are meeting, using a bomb that leaves no trace in the hope the cartel will assume the strike was carried out by one of their rivals.

Cortez, the cartel’s intelligence chief, figures out the plot and makes a deal with National Security Advisor Cutter to reduce shipments of drugs into the US, and allow the US authorities to make regular arrests to make it seem like they’re winning the war on drugs. In exchange Cutter has to call off the black op. The President and the military know nothing of this, exonerating them completely from this shabby deception.

Eventually Ryan figures out what’s going on and goes back to Colombia to find the remnants of the black op and put a hurt on the cartel. With this achieved he confronts the President at the end of the film – who says nothing about levelling Peru, Ecuador and Colombia because that line was removed by the Pentagon.

While it is somewhat ambiguous, we never find out what the President really knew about what his National Security Advisor was doing. The film ends with Jack Ryan going to the Senate to testify about what he knows of the black operation, but we never see his testimony or the political impact of it.

Clear and Present Danger an Antidote to the Cinema of Iran-Contra

So what does this all have to do with the cinema of Iran-Contra? I said in the last episode that I consider Clear and Present Danger an antidote to the cluster of late ‘80s movies about Iran-Contra, and both the book and the film were clearly inspired by real events.

Let’s break it down.

First, the narrative of those late 80s movies – whereby government officials collude in large scale drug smuggling to fund covert wars – is inverted. In Clear and Present Danger the black op isn’t in support of the drug cartel, it is fighting against it. Instead of the US government being so damn sure they need to fight covert wars that they got involved in drug smuggling, the basic narrative is that the US government is so desperate to fight the drug smugglers that they engage in illegal black ops.

So while there is some limited criticism of certain government officials for their role in the black op, the resounding narrative is an inversion of what happened with Iran-Contra, and makes the government look like they have noble intentions, even if their actions sometimes cross the line.

Second, this is essentially a conspiracy of two men – the CIA deputy director for operations and the National Security Advisor. There is no wider conspiracy, no Presidential knowledge, no massive cover-up. This appears to be a reference to Oliver North, who served on the National Security Council while he was involved in Iran-Contra, as well as an inversion of Reagan’s knowledge of the Iran-Contra operations. While the original script had the President playing a much more integral role, the DOD ensured that the finished film has him on the fringes of the plot.

And third, fairly early in the film Jack Ryan testifies before a Senate committee on why they should increase funding to help the Colombians fight the cartels, and he denies the money will be spent on CIA black ops.

This scene echoes many appearances by senior CIA officials before Senate committees, and of course echoes the situation with the Senate refusing to fund the CIA’s Contra war. But unlike so many officials who lied to committees, Jack Ryan is telling the truth – as far as he knows the additional funding isn’t for covert military action. He only finds that out later.

So this too inverts a key aspect of the Iran-Contra conspiracy, namely that Oliver North and senior CIA officials lied to the Senate to cover-up what they were doing and to try to get away with it once it came out. It portrays our CIA protagonist as an honourable and honest man who only deceives the committee unwittingly, because he himself doesn’t know the truth.

As such, Clear and Present Danger twists all the key components of the Iran-Contra scandal, muddying the waters and ensuring that the mass audience for the film would be led away from the truth. This is the exact opposite of what films like Above the Law and The Last of the Finest were doing just a few years earlier and so that is why I think Clear and Present Danger is a knowing, deliberate antidote to the cinema of Iran-Contra.