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The original TV series of Mission: Impossible was inspired by the life and work of CIA contract agent Robert Maheu, so what about the film franchise? In this episode we examine the Agency’s relationship with the first movie, looking at draft scripts to see how the project evolved and identify deep-lying references to real life people and operations. We discuss the themes of killing covert operatives and the question of accountability as it pertains to the relationship between the CIA and Mission: Impossible. I also ask whether CIA Hollywood liaison Chase Brandon ripped off draft scripts for Mission: Impossible when writing The Recruit, or if he was involved in Hollywood earlier than anyone previously realised.

Right off the bat I’ll say I am a big fan of this film, largely for all the reasons people disliked or criticised it when it came out. The excessively convoluted plot, the requirement to just stay in the moment and not try to second guess the film or figure it out – in sum, the fact it’s a Eurothriller disguised as an action blockbuster. The choice to hire Brian De Palma and writers with more of a history in thrillers than in action spy movies made for a very compelling mixture, though one that didn’t go down easily for a lot of reviewers. Nonetheless, it grossed over $450 million on a $70 million budget – and they only spent about $62 million producing it – so it landed with audiences in a big way. With inflation, that’s like taking a billion dollars today.

It’s also a crucial film in the development of the CIA and Hollywood, in that it’s the first of a string of very successful movies the Agency helped to make. It’s not the first they had a hand in, of course. We have examined their somewhat tangential relationship with the early James Bond films and other Cold War efforts like Scorpio and Animal Farm in past podcasts. In the 80s they essentially withdrew from Hollywood, a reaction to the exposure they’d experienced in the 70s with the Church Committee and other efforts to find out what the hell they were up to.

But after Bill Casey died, and Robert Gates took over the interim job he was nominated for the permanent role as Director. His candidacy was withdrawn due to his role in the then-unfolding Iran-Contra scandal and they got William Webster, former director of the FBI instead, before Gates took the role later. Both Webster and Gates saw the need for greater outreach, less obvious secrecy around the Agency, Webster being from the Bureau, who’d been working with the entertainment media business almost since their inception in the 1930s.

So we got Company Business in 1991, Patriot Games in 1992, Tough and Deadly in 1995 (though that was probably a mistake), and Mission: Impossible in 1996. There was also an effort to make a CIA version of The F.B.I., the long running TV procedural co-produced by J Edgar Hoover and other high-ups at the Bureau. Note: this was not the first attempt to do this – other efforts in the 70s and 80s, including one by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, also failed due to a lack of CIA cooperation. However, the 90s attempt, which is detailed in Tricia Jenkins’ book, was endorsed by the CIA and went into active development. Arguments over exactly how much control the Agency could have over the content saw the project stall, and then it died due to a lack of momentum.

Simultaneously, Mission: Impossible was being developed. Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner formed a company in 1992 and decided that a film version of Mission: Impossible was the way forward. The original story and script were written by the husband-wife partnership William Huyck and Gloria Katz, best known for working with George Lucas, conceiving the stories behind American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck. While the story for Mission: Impossible was solid, the pair couldn’t produce an actual screenplay that anyone liked so other writers including David Koepp and Robert Towne came on board to help improve it.

Robert Towne is an interesting choice because he wrote Chinatown, and did script doctor work on The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde and also wrote The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown. He’d also written Days of Thunder and The Firm, two previous Tom Cruise films, but my point is that he is a thriller writer and not an obvious choice for a big budget action blockbuster. Also, his brother is Roger Towne, the ghostwriter of The Recruit, the film actually written (at least originally) by the CIA’s Chase Brandon.

The question is: when did Chase get involved on Mission: Impossible? I ask because he clearly was involved, the movie credits the CIA, there’s a custom aerial shot of the fire trucks pulling up towards Langley, and Brandon appears in a DVD special feature praising the movie. And, in typical Chase fashion saying he can neither confirm nor deny that the CIA has firms like IMF who carry out deniable contract operations for them, and then confirming they have several such firms.

However, officially Chase didn’t start his job as the CIA’s first Hollywood liaison until 1996, when the film came out. Mission: Impossible was written between 1992 and 1995, principal photography ran from March to August 1995, mostly in Prague and in Pinewood Studios on the 007 lot. A ‘final shooting script’ from David Koepp’s website is dated August 16th 1995, but changes were evidently made in post-production. I’ll get into those later, but Koepp’s site also includes two earlier drafts he worked on, going back to November 1994. Even at that point they planned to include an aerial of CIA headquarters, with the draft reading:

Seen from the air, CIA headquarters is a sprawling complex, two huge buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots hacked out of a thick forest.

Now, the first aerial Langley shot that I know of was in the movie Telefon, a Cold War spy story from the 70s, but Patriot Games also did its own helicopter shot rising over the woods and towards the front of the Original Headquarters Building. This is presumably where they got the idea, but my point is that they couldn’t take for granted that they would get permission to include this in Mission: Impossible.

Therefore I wonder – at what point did the Agency get involved? FOIA requests for records on the film have come up blank. There’s no indication of Cruise having a prior relationship with the Agency, nor De Palma, Koepp or Towne. While the original 60s series was a fictionalisation of the work of CIA contract agent Robert Maheu, and I have speculated about possible involvement in that series, exactly how and why the Agency got involved in the 1996 film remains unclear. Frustratingly unclear, since it was the biggest movie they’d worked on at the time.

Company Business is in some ways quite similar, in that a lot of it is set in Europe, the only bits in America are at CIA headquarters, it’s about the Agency hunting one of their own who they think is a mole or has gone rogue, but it wasn’t a high budget action flick that captured a big audience. Patriot Games did well at the box office but was a more obvious choice, given Tom Clancy’s history with the Agency. The idea of taking a relatively goofy 60s TV show, that was rebooted in the 80s and lasted a whole two seasons, and sticking the CIA’s branding all over it was a new move for the Agency and their Office of Public Affairs.

It undoubtedly worked for them, and helped give fuel to their formal moves to embrace Hollywood. In the years that followed they worked on Enemy of the State, The Bourne Identity, Sum of All Fears, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, all box office smashes. They also worked on In the Company of Spies, a TV movie, and Bad Company, both of which flopped. Then we got the other Bourne films, The Interpreter and Charlie Wilson’s War, which had mixed success. Mission: Impossible is, in my opinion, the one that opened the floodgates.

Despite the CIA’s involvement I will defend Mission: Impossible as a very good movie. I enjoy the way it takes a John Le Carré style plot where everyone is double crossing and triple crossing and suspecting the wrong people, but instead of letting that soak in and settle with the audience, it just keeps moving forward. You’re not supposed to follow the storyline blow for blow, you’re supposed to just let the twists and turns wash over you and enjoy the intensity of the experience. It’s more of a psychological thriller than a spy film, in keeping with De Palma’s previous filmography. There are a lot of narrow shots from Dutch angles which throw the audience off-balance, and this is so obviously intentional that I assume the convolutions of the plot are similarly designed to prevent you sitting there in comfort, sure of who is who and what is what. It isn’t so much a storyline as an experiment in unsettling the audience.

On top of that, it has one of the iconic action-suspense sequences, when Cruise and the team break into the vault at CIA headquarters, Cruise suspended spider-like on a rope in a room where he can’t touch the floor or walls, can’t make noise, and can’t even raise the ambient temperature. While the finale, with the helicopter chasing a high speed train through a tunnel, is fairly ridiculous everything else in the film fits together like a highly confusing jigsaw.

De Palma was never a fan of the helicopter and train sequence, and Cruise had to talk him into it because he wanted the first film he produced to have a big, splashy ending. It seems this led to some kind of falling out between the two, with De Palma dropping out of doing media interviews in the run-up to the movie’s release. This may explain why, for the second entry in the franchise, Cruise hired John Woo, a very simple director who doesn’t like characters or stories anywhere near as much as he likes speedboats and motorbikes. The third film, also supported by the CIA and Chase Brandon, is slightly more cerebral and the fifth one, also supported by the CIA, has quite a good plot, but for my money it’s been downhill since 1996. The most recent Mission: Impossible, ‘Dead Reckoning: Part One’ had the working title Scorpio, though it seems this was later changed to Libra, and had support from the US Navy. While some people whose opinions I respect did like it, I found it overly long and too dependent on CGI. Give me a deliberately confusing thriller set in Prague and filmed in Prague over trains that don’t exist flying over cliffs that do exist but not in the country they’re being depicted as being in.

Draft Scripts, Primary Sources and Lateral Thinking

In the years I’ve been doing Spy Culture we’ve looked at a lot of draft scripts, and the evolution of films throughout the development and pre-production stages. Now, I’ve been reading screenplays for much longer, but typically they were published copies of the shooting script, the one they had when they actually started production, or even the polished version that is submitted for awards once the film is completed, so they correct the script to match the final cut.

Sometime in the later 2000s I started flicking through draft scripts for films I was interested in, and realising just how much they can change from the original conception to what they actually use to shoot the film. Come 2015 or so when I started getting large quantities of documents via FOIA requests, a lot of those documents were frustrating. They often described script input and changes in vague terms, and I wanted to know more of the specifics. However, we did find out exactly when a lot of these scripts were submitted and reviewed by the government entertainment liaison offices. Thus, I started looking for drafts dated from those periods, or just before, so we could see what the movie looked like before the DOD or CIA or whoever got involved.

In many cases we don’t have the script notes from the government departments and offices, but we do have the script before they reviewed it, some idea of what they changed from their internal reports, and the ability to compare to the finished episode or documentary or movie. This is the sort of lateral thinking that few researchers do because it’s never really taught – you’re told to follow the same sources as everyone else, just endlessly recycle and reinterpret and republish the same information. I’ve never done that, which is why academics and journalists keep stealing from me – because I can do things, find stuff out and figure stuff out that they simply cannot.

How does this apply to Mission: Impossible? Well, none of the books on the CIA and Hollywood include this movie as a case study, or even make clear that it was supported by the Agency. In the first edition of The CIA in Hollywood, Jenkins wrote:

[Chase] Brandon’s film credits include The Recruit, The Sum of All Fears, Enemy of the State, Bad Company, and In the Company of Spies. But Brandon has also consulted with the makers of Alias, Jag, The Agency, the Mission: Impossible
film series, and 24, but he is never acknowledged as a consultant in their credits, and almost no one outside the projects’ creative teams knows the real extent of his influence. For instance, Australian newspapers reported that Tom Cruise had met with CIA officials to discuss ways to present the Agency “in as positive a light as possible” for Mission: Impossible III, and Michael Sands says that Brandon worked closely with Robert Towne, who wrote the earlier Mission: Impossible films, but nothing more than this has come to light.

In reality, even when she wrote that book quite a lot more information was out there. Brandon’s own website confirms he worked on both Mission: Impossible and Mission: Impossible III, he appears on the DVD bonus feature for the first film, and at least some of these draft scripts have been knocking around the internet for ages. What Jenkins means is that if you limit yourself to talking to a few people and reading newspaper articles, that’s all you can find out, because that’s how academics in the humanities work. To be fair, even interviewing people in a position to know is quite rare for an academic, especially after they complete their PhD. They much, much prefer to just take crap published by the Guardian, who rarely if ever publish their source documentation, and assume it’s true.

This is how Jenkins and Tony Shaw ended up writing the journal paper An Act of War? The Interview Affair, the Sony Hack, and the Hollywood-Washington Nexus Today, which appeared in the Journal of American Studies in 2019. Fortunately, it was available online in Spring 2017, so we included some criticisms of it in National Security Cinema. Jenkins and Shaw never bothered to actually read the hacked emails and other documents from Sony that detailed the government involvement in The Interview, the 2014 comedy where Seth Rogen tries to kill Kim Jong-Un. They relied almost entirely on news media reporting of the fiasco around the film, the hack, The Interview being withdrawn from release and then released anyway, and in particular Rogen’s statement that someone who he’s ‘convinced is in the CIA’ was on set for much of the filming.

Hence, they came to the conclusion that the CIA were not involved in The Interview, after all it depicts them trying to assassinate a foreign head of state, which makes the CIA look bad, and the CIA never want to look bad on camera. This coming from Tricia, who continued to deny that The Good Shepherd, which depicts all kinds of CIA crimes including throwing a woman out of a helicopter, was supported by the CIA even after I showed her an Agency document proving it was. Because the academics rely on the mainstream journalists to provide them with information about this phenomenon, and those journalists consistently downplay or trivialise government propaganda in Hollywood, the academics end up doing the same.

However, when you look at the hacked emails, as I did in National Security Cinema and in ClandesTime 229: Black Operations and the Entertainment Liaison Offices, we find that the CIA almost certainly were involved in The Interview. The State Department were shown cuts of the movie and gave feedback on how to edit it to not piss off audiences in South East Asia. This not only proves that some branches of the US government worked on the movie, but also that they were quite happy to be depicted assassinating a foreign leader. There was even an effort by ‘South Korean activists’ i.e. paid CIA shills to ship thousands of copies into North Korea by balloon, in an echo of what the Agency did to the Soviet Union during the Cold War with novels like Dr Zhivago. This was predicted in an op-ed by none other than Rich Klein, the former State Department official turned lawyer turned Hollywood liaison, who the CIA call a ‘longtime contact’ of their Office of Public Affairs.

Just this one example proves that the CIA and parts of the US government beyond them are pushing this dark, dangerous, murderous image of the Agency, albeit in this case in a wholly un-serious comedy film. But because that’s not positive PR in the minds of these academics, the conclusion that the CIA would have worked on the film just doesn’t compute, and hence they end up publishing utter crap in academic journals which is grossly misleading and dilutes the seriousness of the subject matter.

Having been at the absolute cutting edge of this area of research for over a decade, I know that academics have done a horrible job of dealing with government propaganda in Hollywood. They often don’t even call it propaganda, because that might make them sound like a bit of a conspiracy theorist and in academia all conspiracy theories are to be rejected. Another sign of just how dishonest and spineless all those professors and PhDs are. They call it the ‘Washington-Hollywood Nexus’ or the ‘Military Industrial Media Entertainment Network’ or some other stupidly unwieldly, impenetrable phrase. Quite honestly, academics seem more interested with coming up with complicated yet misleading names for this phenomenon than they are in genuinely researching it. It’s just monkey see, monkey name for the generation who grew up watching Dawson’s Creek and think that talking like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus makes you sound smart. And it does, to really fucking dumb people.

Indeed, it is two journalists who’ve made the most progress in this area – David Robb, and myself. Two guys, neither one of which was getting paid a university salary to do it, have done more to investigate, detail, source, analyse and expose these facts than the entire mainstream media and academia have, combined. Why? Because we obtained and studied primary sources. We didn’t wait for someone else to report this stuff so we could then take some news articles and use them an an excuse to write excessively verbose opinion pieces that get published in academic journals and read by 12 people.

My point being that anything that’s worth researching and exposing is difficult. Reading articles in the Washington Post and the Guardian and maybe a chapter in a book is quite easy, in investigative terms. Thus, you’re unlikely to ever break new ground or move the goalposts of the discussion or force the conversation forward. This is, fundamentally, why I’ve never pursued a career in mainstream news media or in academia. I’m too smart and talented to put up with having to do such low-level scut work. And having had a string of very similar experiences with having to teach academics how to do their jobs and having journalists expect me to pretty much write their articles for them, I am glad I took the choices and the paths that I have. If that was what my life was like every day I would have quit working on this topic a long time ago.

The Evolution of the Mission: Impossible Script

But I haven’t quit and am not going to for a while yet, so let’s take a look at three different scripts for Mission: Impossible and at how the film evolved through 1994 and 1995. The three screenplays from Koepp’s website are from November ‘94, December ‘94 and August ‘95, so we’ll look at the first two in this section.

The November script begins with Kittridge – effectively the commander of the IMF, the Impossible Mission Force. He records a video for Phelps, the head of the team containing Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise’s character. We then see Phelps on the plane to Prague, receiving the self-destructing video message outlining their next mission, should they decide to accept it.

This narrative conceit goes all the way back to the ‘60s TV version, but back then it’s an audio cassette, not video. The creators of the original TV show stole this from a spy novel, and while it works well cinematically it is a bit odd from an operational security point of view. You don’t need any special tech to play the tapes, so if your enemy got hold of one it wouldn’t take long for them to penetrate the covert operation you’re trying to carry out.

In this version of the story, Aleksander Golitsyn is ‘a former KGB operations officer now working the international black market selling intelligence’, i.e. quite a common character in 1990s Western cinema. After the Soviet Union was dismantled we saw no end of stories about loose nukes, rogue Russians, ex-Soviet agents now working for… whoever. Otherwise, the mission is as it is in the final version – Golitsyn is trying to steal the other half of the NOC list, a database of non-official cover operatives in Eastern Europe. He already has one half, the cover names, but needs the other half, with the true names, which is inside the embassy in Prague. The IMF team have to photograph the theft, detain those responsible, and make sure they recover the stolen list.

I want to stop here and observe a couple of things. First, this is the same plot as in The Recruit, where Al Pacino is trying to steal the NOC list so he can sell it and fund a lavish retirement. He dupes his young recruits, Colin Farrell and Bridget Moynahan, to steal it in parts for him under the guise of a training exercise or test. Did Chase Brandon steal the Mission: Impossible plot when he conceived of The Recruit back in 1996, or did he or someone else at the CIA feed this plot to the writers of Mission: Impossible?

Second, it is evident that the people who wrote and developed this script had a fair bit of knowledge about the real CIA. While the Macguffin, the NOC list, might sound a bit silly it’s a real thing. Most CIA stations are housed within US embassies, and most operatives work under official cover as agricultural attaches and other diplomatic staff. But of course, they recruit and run agents and assets from the country they’re working in, and you also have NOCs floating around without any official cover. In order to keep track of these people, a small handful of higher-level CIA officers at the embassy maintain eyes-only lists of the people they’re working with, so when the new station chief comes in they can easily take over and maintain those relationships (and for other reasons). This is the sort of thing they would immediately throw in the burn bag if the embassy was about to be taken over, as we see at the start of Argo, so there would probably be a backup list in the Directorate of Operations at headquarters.

So this setup is actually quite clever and realistic, even though it’s a tad cheesy. We will come back to this.

The November script then introduces Claire and Ethan, who are on a mission in Kiev to set up a Russian officer to be assassinated. This is a throwback to the original series, where the IMF rarely killed people themselves, but tricked people into doing it for them or otherwise set up the target. After the mission, it becomes obvious that the two are having an affair, that Claire is married to Jim Phelps and that Ethan wants out of IMF so he doesn’t have to deal with this situation any more. Even in the finished film there was a prologue outlining some kind of love triangle backstory like this, but after test screenings George Lucas said it didn’t work, took the audience away from the main through line of the movie, and it was left on the cutting room floor.

Jim manages to persuade Ethan not to quit, and they go on the mission to Prague, Ethan gets given the exploding chewing gum, gets disguised as Senator Waltzer and the team go and infiltrate the party. While in the movie there’s a lot more computer hacking of security systems, it otherwise plays out the same as in the script – they film Golitsyn stealing the list but then the operation goes bad. Everyone except Ethan and Claire are killed, including Golitsyn, and the list gets out into the open. When Ethan meets with Kittridge in a restaurant, he finds out the whole thing was an elaborate molehunt and, as the survivor, it is to be assumed that Ethan is the mole. He escapes by throwing the exploding chewing gum onto the giant fish tank, as in the movie version.

The rest of it plays out in fairly familiar fashion, Ethan goes to meet Max (who is a man, in this script) and offers to steal the entire NOC list in exchange for money, and the chance to take revenge on Job, the real mole and the man who set him up to lose his team and get wrongly blamed for it. So Ethan and Claire recruit a couple of other disavowed IMF agents so they can break into Langley and steal the list, to take to Max and find out who Job is. Just a quick aside – in this version Luther, the black disavowed agent, is the quartermaster and arms dealer while Mitnick, a white guy, is the hacker. There’s also another guy called Krieger. This gets changed to just two guys, Krieger and Luther, and it’s Luther who is the hacker in later drafts, and I have to say you don’t see a lot of technologically skilled African American characters, especially not in 90s films. Whether this change was a CIA recruitment plug at a time when they had almost no black people working for them, certainly not as hackers, I’m not sure.

Anyhow, the team break into Langley and steal the list, much as they do in the movie. As they pass through the lobby at headquarters, Ethan notices the writing etched into the wall – AND YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE. Again, whoever wrote this knew quite a lot about the CIA, bearing in mind this was before you could just look all this stuff up on the internet. The rest of the script is mostly very similar to the film – after they steal the list Phelps reappears, very much alive, and tries to convince Ethan that Kittridge is the mole who set them all up. Ethan figures out it’s actually Phelps who is the traitor, and there’s a climax with the helicopter and the high speed channel tunnel train and it’s all alright in the end. Ethan doesn’t leave the IMF and instead takes a promotion, replacing Phelps as a team leader.

A month or so later and the script had evolved, with Koepp reworking things. The opening remained the same, with Kittridge recording a message and then Phelps watching it on the plane. However, the mission in Kiev that introduces Claire and Ethan is no longer them setting up a Russian military officer to be killed, but instead it’s a version of the interrogation scene that we see in the movie. The Russian officer is being grilled about his contact in Pyongyang while Claire, seemingly dead, lies on the floor. The interrogator is Tom Cruise, disguised with one of the signature rubber masks that have come to define the Mission: Impossible franchise. He is posing as a senior Russian military officer, so the man being interrogated doesn’t realise he’s giving information to CIA contractors.

As I have noted before, the CIA do have these sorts of masks, that can totally change someone’s facial appearance quickly, and have done since the 1960s. The same 1960s when the original Mission: Impossible series aired, which also featured these latex masks, I hear you ask?  Why yes, the very same decade.

The next major change is that Ethan isn’t trying to quit IMF to get away from the Claire-Jim-Ethan love triangle, but simply wants a few months off, time away from the crazy world of black ops. Jim persuades him to do the mission in Prague, which plays out exactly as in the November script. But when Ethan calls in to talk to Kittridge and tell him the operation has gone south and everyone is dead, there’s another weird little change. In the November version there’s a brief scene where a satellite dish in Nebraska repositions, in order to direct Ethan’s call to Kittridge, but in the December script this has been changed to New Mexico. I have no clue why this is.

When the two – Ethan and Kittridge – meet at the restaurant with the giant aquarium and Kittridge accuses Ethan of being the mole, there’s another little change I noticed. In the November script Ethan tells Kittridge ‘they’re right about you, you are insane, worse than insane’ but by December this has become ‘You’re Angleton to the core, aren’t you? You’re insane, worse than insane’. This is a reference to notorious head of CIA counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, who was obsessed with finding Soviet moles within the Agency, though he had a terrible record of actually uncovering such spies leading to counter-accusations that he was the mole. Again, whoever wrote this, or consulted on it, had a very good knowledge of the real CIA. This whole fake operation inside a real operation to find a mole or double agent plot is pure Angleton.

The next interesting change comes when Kittridge is demanding a progress report from his number two, Barnes, on the efforts to find Ethan Hunt or otherwise figure out what he’s doing. In both the November and December versions, Barnes offers up some fairly lame details of these efforts, leading to Kittridge losing his temper and telling Barnes to arrest Hunt’s parents on trumped-up charges, apply pressure that way. In the November script he says:

Any objections from the local authorities, you federalize the bunch of ‘em. Make up anything you want, tell ‘em this is the biggest thing since the Rosenbergs. Make a stink, attract some attention, I want Hunt to know his elderly parents are gonna rot in a cell the rest of their lives, because that, Harry – is pressure.

In December this became:

Any objections from the local authorities, you pull rank, go in as a U.S. Marshal, make up anything you want. Attract some attention, use our people in the media, get it on that Headline News loop every twenty-two minutes, I want Hunt to know his elderly parents are gonna rot in a cell the rest of their lives, because that, Harry – is pressure.

Now, I am just speculating here that this addition of an explicit reference to the CIA’s ‘people in the media’ is because the producers had started discussions with the CIA’s media people, i.e. Chase Brandon and the Office of Public Affairs. Otherwise it’s another one of those ‘how did a screenwriter know this much about the CIA?’ moments.

Another major change is how Ethan finds out that Jim Phelps is still alive, when he was supposed to have died during the Prague operation. In the November script, Ethan goes to meet Kittridge in London after Kittridge has his parents arrested, but it’s all a set up, Kittridge has agents with sniper rifles ready to kill Hunt. As the last moment, Jim turns up on motorbike and rescues Hunt, they race off, then have the conversation about Kittridge being the mole. However, someone (I imagine you can guess who) wasn’t too happy about our senior CIA man trying to murder one of his underlings, especially an innocent one, so this scene got dropped. Instead, after seeing the TV news about his parents’ arrest, Hunt calls up Kittridge to have a go at him, then stumbles across Jim right afterwards. And then they have the conversation about Kittridge being the mole, and someone has inserted the line, ‘This is worse than Ames. It’s worse than Philby.’ At that point, Aldrich Ames (who was convicted of spying for the Soviets/Russia in 1994) was perhaps the most damaging traitor in CIA history, so I’ll leave it to you to guess who suggested a little reference to him be dropped into the script.

As the team – Jim included – prepare for the exchange of the NOC list on the train, Ethan and Jim have another conversation about Kittridge’s motive for turning, why he did it. Jim, obviously voicing his own feelings as he is actually the mole, says in the November script that it’s basically nihilism, he’s realised he isn’t making the world better and decided, just once, to say yes to all those opportunities to sell out the Agency and make a ton of money for himself. By December, this had become:

You’re looking at it from the wrong end of twenty years. Put yourself in his place. Imagine twenty years of Spy versus spy –— lies and rat hunts, propping up killers and thugs he despises, all for sixty-two grand a year. Plus a couple shitty marriages. And a personal life that’s a joke. And after this twenty years of sacrifice, does he get the thanks he deserves? Or a bonus? Not in the nineties. In the nineties they decide he’s obsolete. An embarrassment. Even shameful.

This is very similar – almost identical, in fact – to dialogue in The Recruit, explaining Al Pacino’s motives for stealing the NOC list, or trying to. CIA officers don’t make enough money, they don’t get enough thanks or respect, their personal lives are shit because they’re never there or have to lie to their partners all the time – basically, a bunch of sympathetic talking points that will resonate with real life CIA officers. Again I ask: did Chase Brandon rip off these scripts for Mission: Impossible when he was writing early drafts of The Recruit? Or did he have an earlier role in developing Mission: Impossible than anyone realised? Did he start his job as the CIA’s first Hollywood liaison earlier than we previously thought?

Another little thing that’s in both scripts, but not in the finished film, is also during this preparation sequence. Ethan gives Claire a plastic gun, to evade the metal detectors and get the weapon onto the train. Likewise, Luther shows Krieger an acrylic knife. There’s also a moment when Kittridge goes through the detector and sets it off, because he’s carrying a gun, but he flashes his ID at the police and carries on. These scenes go missing from the film, likely because they show people how to evade train station security while carrying potentially lethal weapons. In the event, Luther is killed with his own knife – something else that goes missing, possibly to reduce the violence and body count and help the film get a lower age rating.

The next meaningful change that I spotted between these two scripts is that the December one plays up the love triangle element a bit more, particularly when Jim dies during the climactic scene with the helicopter and the high-speed train. The scenario in both scripts is a bit different to the film, in that Ethan doesn’t blow up the helicopter with the chewing gum. Instead, the helicopter gets tangled in the electrical cables powering the train, and as it crashes Jim is critically injured and thrown off the side of the train. Ethan grabs his hand, cliché style, and tries to save him, but in both scripts Jim gives up and lets himself fall under the wheels of the train. It’s fairly gruesome, so again I think they changed this to reduce the violence to a simple explosion with no gore, but it’s what Jim says before he dies that is significant.

In the November script he says ‘At least it’ll stop’, a callback to his conversation with Ethan about why the mole turned and betrayed the IMF and the Agency. In that scene he says:

He’s smart, eventually he realizes that nothing he does really changes anything. He’s not making the world a better place. And one day he just gives up and admits that on balance he’s probably made it a hell of a lot worse. So he thinks about saying yes. Just once. At least it’ll stop.

In this script it’s Jim’s guilt at a life spent on the dark side that makes him give up, let go of Ethan’s hand, and kill himself. In the December script this becomes, ‘She’s all yours’, referring to Claire, making that his primary motive for the betrayal and for killing himself. Whether this is CIA influence or the studio wanting to focus more on the romantic through-line than the corruption motive, I’m not certain.

The final change I want to draw your attention to is what happens to Max. After all the drama with the helicopter and Jim’s death, Max is trying to send the copy of the NOC list provided by Ethan to whoever their client is. This fails, due to the disk being uncopyable, and in the November script we simply see shadowy figures – the ‘long arm of the law descending’ – before we cut to the next scene. But in the December script we get the first version of the scene from the film, when Kittridge approaches Max, who starts protesting and talking about lawyers and entrapment, and Kittridge strikes a deal with them, effectively recruiting Max as an asset.

Killing Deep Cover Agents and CIA Accountability

When we look at the evolution of these two versions of the script, and then the shooting script and then the finished film two key themes stand out to me: the killing of deep cover agents and the question of CIA accountability.

What’s key here is the tertiary character of Senator Waltzer, who Ethan disguises himself as in order to infiltrate the party at the embassy in Prague in act one of the story. In the November script he is introduced during the initial briefing, the Kittridge tape being listened to by Phelps while on the plane. Kittridge warns him:

This mission is deep cover, Jim, even internally. Keep your team, your safe house, all your specs strictly compartmentalized. Senator Waltzer’s oversight committee would love to expose a security breach; there’s no need to hand them this one.

Then, we see Waltzer on a TV screen in the background of a scene in the safe house, so we know what he looks like, and then the IMF team shoot out the wheels on the Senator’s car, preventing him from attending the party and allowing Ethan in disguise to assume his identity.

This line about the oversight committee does not appear in the December script, but they did insert a scene where Jim and Ethan are watching the senator doing an interview on TV, so Ethan can prep his cover identity for the party. The dialogue reads:

SENATOR WALTZER
I’1ll go you one further, Michael. I say the CIA and all its shadow organizations have become irrelevant at best and unconstitutional at worst,

KINSLEY
Well, Senator, I think Pat might disagree with you there — I think even I might disagree with you there.

SENATOR WALTZER
(on a roll)
It’s time we throw a little light on the whole concept of the Pentagon’s “black budget.” These covert agency subgroups have confidential funding, they report to no one ——who are these people?! We were living in a democracy the last time I checked.

In the shooting script this became just one clip of the Senator saying both of these lines, without interjection from the host. But the finished film dilutes this, we see the team sat around the computer watching the TV interview, and all we hear is the line ‘irrelevant at best and unconstitutional at worst’, before the host accuses the senator of ‘wanting to lead the sort of charge Frank Church led in the 1970s’ and ‘destroy the intelligence capability of this country’. The senator mildly responds that he wants to know who they are and how they’re spending taxpayer’s money, finishing ‘we were living in a democracy the last time I checked’.

Why is this scene so important? Because it changes so radically, and it harkens back to the origins of this TV and movie franchise. Allow me to elaborate for you.

Robert Maheu, the CIA contract agent who the original TV series is partly based on, was called before a congressional committee looking into illegal surveillance. This was in 1966, and the CIA intervened so he would not have to testify about his illegal wiretapping of a mobster’s girlfriend – itself part of the deal to get the mob to try to kill Castro. However, he did testify before the Church Committee about this assassination plot., in 1975.

As to the scene itself, it goes from a reference to not wanting to give the senator’s committee any excuse to expose a security lapse by the IMF, to the senator holding forth on CIA secrecy, lack of accountability, black budgets and so on. This then gets diluted right down, and even his milder criticisms are accused of damaging US national security. And a reference to the Church Committee is an odd thing to find in an action thriller from the 1990s, especially when it’s an overtly negative reference, and when all the name-dropping – Angleton, Ames, Philby – disappears from the script.

It strikes me that if Chase Brandon and/or others at the Agency were reviewing the scripts during this period and possibly reviewed the cut of the film, that they must have influenced this scene. Another line, in the scene where Ethan is trying to persuade the gang he’s recruited to help him break into Langley, also goes missing. He says to them:

Every one of you hates the Company as much as I do. This is your chance to get even.

Then, there’s the reference to ‘Virginia farm boys’, in the scene where he’s first dealing with Max, the arms dealer. He’s not talking about people who literally grew up on farms in Virginia, he’s talking about CIA officers. The Farm is a nickname for one of the CIA’s training facilities in Virginia, and the original working title for The Recruit, the film conceived by Chase Brandon and set at this CIA training facility, was The Farm.

All of these are strong hints that Brandon was involved in the development of the Mission: Impossible script during 1995, and possibly in late 1994. That would put his start date as the Agency’s entertainment liaison considerably earlier than the official date he was announced, in 1996. And we know he was hanging out with Gary Devore since the early 80s, and his cousin was Tommy Lee Jones. And that the movie was filmed in March to August 1995, and he appears on a DVD bonus feature. Why would they have even asked him to do that if he wasn’t involved in the production? How could they even know who he was? And why was the CIA credited on the film when, from the outside, all they provided was permission for one helicopter shot of some fire trucks approaching headquarters?

Aside from the message that oversight of the CIA is akin to destroying America’s national security, the other big message in the film is that exposing the NOC list (or presumably other secrets) will lead to the deaths of deep cover operatives. This is something that we hear repeatedly in both factual media and entertainment media – that leaks cost lives, that loose lips sink ships.

This element was in the November ‘94 script, in the scene where Ethan wants out and Jim is trying to convince him of the importance of the Prague mission, and says:

Do you know what would happen if the NOC list ever fell into the wrong hands? Dozens of agents would be exposed. And executed. We’re talking about our guys, Ethan, guys like you and me.

Later in this version of the script, Ethan and Claire are discussing what to do with the stolen NOC list, and Claire asks Ethan why they’re still playing by the rules when no one else is. Ethan says he isn’t going to just sell the information:

Because they’re not just names on that list. They’re people.

Another thing that’s noticeably different about this script is how dark it is – in keeping with De Palma’s requirements but perhaps a shade too far for what Cruise had in mind. When Ethan makes the deal with Max, Max tells him a story about someone in Silicon Valley who welched on an agreement and ended up being murdered in a horrible way, her lips literally sewn together. Ditto, when Ethan goes out recruiting his crack team of disavowed agents, he warns Luther that IMF are still watching and just waiting for him to do something that gives them an excuse to kill him. These both got removed. So did the scene where Kittridge tries to get snipers to gun down Ethan, as do the deaths of Luther and the other disavowed IMF agent. This might be because the threat from leaking secrets – that deep cover agents will be killed – doesn’t seem as great when you keep watching deep cover agents get killed. The message doesn’t come across when your entire plot contradicts it.

While the exact scenes and lines changed over time, this story beat and talking point made it into the finished movie, with Jim warning the team what will happen if they fail the Prague mission and the list gets into the open.

Putting these two beats together – a hostility towards oversight and accountability, and reminders of the dangers of being a covert operative for the CIA, especially when secrets get leaked, and the overall message is that secrecy, a lack of oversight, is not only a good thing but a necessary one. Breaches of secrecy, whether by enemy actors or oversight committees, not only put the operatives at risk but puts all of us at risk. Trying to find out what the CIA are actually doing, and why, is a threat to national security.

Conclusion: The CIA and Mission Impossible

Consider the signature sequence that we’ve seen in several CIA-supported productions, where our protagonist drives (or cycles) up to the Old Headquarters Building, goes up the steps, through the doors, over the seal on the floor and past the wall of stars commemorating CIA officers who’ve been killed on the job. While Scorpio was the first movie to feature a sequence like this, we never see the stars on the wall, though aside from that it laid out what would become a familiar shot sequence.

The first movie to give us the full monty was Patriot Games, where Harrison Ford (playing Jack Ryan) returns to work for the CIA after the Irish terrorists try to kill him and his family. That is to say, at the start of the movie he’s left the Agency but he goes back to them because they offer him and his family safety. He drives up to the building, goes up the stairs, through the doors, over the seal and there’s a rotating shot with the commemorative wall of stars in the background. He moves out of frame, leaving us lingering on the stars. Though we’re being given it visually, the message is just as clear as in Mission: Impossible a few years after Patriot Games.

Almost shot for shot, we see the same sequence in Argo and Game of Pawns and Jack Ryan, and the wall of stars also features in 13 Hours, though it was recreated using photographs because the Agency refused Michael Bay’s request to film in the lobby. There are other productions that do similar things, sometimes using the real lobby, sometimes recreating it on a soundstage, as in The Recruit. This is clearly a motif of CIA-sponsored film and TV, to keep reminding the audience that working for the CIA is dangerous, and they’re protecting us so we should protect them by respecting their secrecy and not demanding oversight, let alone supporting hackers and leakers and so on.

And yet, whenever I’ve looked for stories about Wikileaks-style exposures leading to the deaths of covert operatives, I can’t find much, if anything. I know of many CIA operatives (or assets, contract agents, proxy forces and so on) who have died on the job, but this was never because someone leaked a list of names or a document dump. For example, all the members of Brigade 2506 who died at the Bay of Pigs died because of a bungled, stupid operation and Kennedy not wanting to go to war with Cuba. Likewise, Barry Seal wasn’t gunned down by hitmen working for the Medellin cartel because someone leaked his name. The CIA officers who died at the Chapman base in Afghanistan when Humam Al Balawi blew himself up did not die due to leaks or traitors or loose lips.

All seven of those CIA officers have stars on the memorial wall in the lobby, though for some reason Al Balawi himself does not, even though he was working for the CIA (albeit as a triple agent) at the time of his suicide bombing. Barry Seal did not get a star, as far as I know, but the two men who died in the Benghazi attacks while working for the CIA do, I think have stars. And there again, those deaths were avoidable had any number of warnings been heeded, or if the US had realised that arming a bunch of mujahideen to get rid of Gaddafi and then setting up highly dodgy black operations in post-war Libya was destined to fail.

The other aspect of Mission: Impossible that I keep turning round in my mind is the notion of there being two IMF teams at the party in the Prague embassy. Ethan realises this during his meeting with Kittridge in the aquarium restaurant.

We’re told this cannot happen, that operations are deconflicted to ensure that you don’t get two teams tripping over each other out in the field. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Robert Maheu, who was tasked with running a parallel operation to the Bay of Pigs invasion. His efforts to get the mob to assassinate Castro weren’t shared with the officers running Brigade 2506, the invasion force. This was two teams operating in the same place at the same time, with one having no idea about the other.

Or we could look at the WTC93 group and ask whether the people who were running the Blind Sheikh in order to keep the jihad going, and to recruit people to fight in Bosnia and so on, knew about Ali Mohamed and Ramzi Yousef and the bomb plot. Recruiting the Blind Sheikh and giving him half a dozen visas to enter the US was partly to do with Egyptian politics at the time, partly to do with the wider jihad and using the mujahideen as a proxy force. But Ali Mohamed was a deep cover agent of some kind, seemingly on a mission that overlapped with what the Blind Sheikh was doing but which also had other dimensions to it. This is effectively two different teams within the same space at the same time, pursuing parallel but different goals.

As such, Mission: Impossible is in some ways a very realistic depiction of CIA covert operations, though not in the ways usually discussed. For example, ‘former’ CIA officer Andrew Bustamante was asked about this for a video by the Insider youtube channel and commented almost entirely on equipment and technology.

Please note, this guy is a media whore, a self-help guru who claims he can teach you how to use CIA techniques to make women go to bed with you, all sorts of pathetic, horrible trash. He is absolutely not to be trusted, and much like Michelle Rigby Assad seems to me a very dopey guy for a supposed former covert intelligence officer. Note in this video he talks about how the CIA did things ‘at the time’ i.e. back in the 90s, when he was (officially) at the Agency from 2007 to 2014, so he wouldn’t know much if anything about how they handled NOC lists a decade or more before he joined. Just one of many examples of this guy faking it until he makes it.

But my point is much more important than one slippery weasel doing the rounds on youtube podcasts, it’s that the CIA aren’t accountable, are hostile towards oversight, do rate the lives of their officers as far more important than the lives of those that they kill. In amongst the propaganda messaging in Mission: Impossible we actually have some honesty, though whether the intention was to be honest or was to depict these things with the aim of normalising them, I leave for you to judge for yourselves.