How and Why the FBI Rewrite Hollywood Movies

Just like other government agencies the FBI are deeply involved in the entertainment industry, collaborating with film and TV producers to polish the Bureau’s public imageand project their messaging into the minds of moviegoers. Documents recently released under FOIA show that the FBI routinely make script changes on movies that they support, in order to encourage the public to respect their authority, and to protect the reputation of both the Bureau and their long-dead chief J Edgar Hoover.

The FBI have engaged with Hollywood ever since they were created in the 1930s, when Hoover objected to the term ‘Federal Dick’ and removed it from dialogue and from the titles of films. The 1935 Paramount feature Men Without Names was originally called Federal Dick, but Hoover insisted it being changed, calling it, ‘a most humiliating and repugnant title’.


More recently the FBI provided extensive support to the terrorism-and-torture thriller Unthinkable, which centres around Yusuf (Michael Sheen), a former Delta Force operator turned Islamic radical. Yusuf plants three nuclear bombs in US cities and then sends videos to the government showing the bombs and their week-long countdowns. Once Yusuf is captured, an FBI counter-terrorism agent (Carrie-Anne Moss) is tasked with interrogating him to find the bombs. She is quickly usurped by a CIA/DIA interrogator known as H (Samuel L Jackson) who specialises in using torture to force suspects to give up information.

The producers first approached the FBI in late 2006, requesting a tour of the Baltimore field office so they could scout it as a possible filming location and to help research the script. An internal FBI report notes that the Baltimore public affairs staff believed, ‘the tour had a positive effect on the eventual outcome of the film which will portray the FBl in a positive way.’

A database entry on Unthinkable describes how the first draft of the script showed, ‘FBI agents taking part in an illegal torture in order to elicit a confession, and other questionable activities’. The Bureau’s Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit (IPPAU) then ‘suggested changes’ to the script during ‘numerous exchanges’ with the producers, in return for further production support. This included visiting FBI facilities, prop and costume assistance, consultations with FBI personnel and permission to use the FBI seal in the film. A letter to the producers made clear that this support would only be provided ‘assuming heretofore promised changes to the script have been addressed.’

As the movie progressed an FBI email outlined how ‘the writer is hard at work making changes to reflect our commitment and integrity with respect to the oath we took to uphold and defend the Constitution and civil rights.’ While in the original script the FBI agent was shown participating in the torture of Yusuf, in the final version she is mostly a passive observer who repeatedly objects to H’s brutal treatment. She cites the Geneva Convention and the US Constitution, ultimately denying H’s request to extend the torture to Yusuf’s children, screaming ‘we’re human beings!’.

Likewise, the initial script showed H murdering two FBI agents who turn up at his home, and the Bureau ‘are asked to turn a blind eye and sweep it under the carpet because he is a highly sensitive government asset.’ The email goes on to say the writers have ‘been impressed that this would not happen and the killing of two agents would not be “swept under the carpet”.’ In the finished film no FBI agents are killed – H merely kidnaps the two agents and is verbally castigated for doing so.

Public Enemies

Along similar lines is the historical biographical drama Public Enemies, which tells the story of FBI agent Marvin Purvis’ (Christian Bale) pursuit of bankrobber and public enemy number one John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). The producers asked for help in making the film historically accurate and consulted with FBI historians and weapons specialists. They also requested hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI files on the likes of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde.

While the FBI were happy to assist, one of the screenwriter’s requests was turned down. An internal email describing conversations with writer Ronan Bennett says that he wanted details on ‘early wiretap methods… How would the early FBI have tapped phones… from setting up the equipment to the retrieval of the information, how would this have worked?’

The FBI had consistently removed and minimised scenes of their agents wiretapping suspects from films and TV. The Crime Does Not Pay films and the long-running series The F.B.I. both had wiretap scenes removed from scripts by the Bureau, while a 2012 movie project from Mill River films was rejected by the FBI due to the portrait of an agent using ‘scare tactics of wiretapping and other surveillance’. As a result, while Public Enemies does briefly depict FBI agents listening to phonecalls between Dillinger and his girlfriend (Marion Cotillard) the equipment and methods for wiretapping are not shown.

It was not just the Bureau’s reputation that the IPPAU were trying to protect, it was also that of longtime FBI capo J Edgar Hoover. An FBI historian reviewed the draft script and observed that its depiction of both Hoover and the Bureau ‘heightens the image of the FBI as an agency seeking to win by whatever means necessary’. IPPAU officials leaned on the screenwriter to ‘make changes to minimize this impression’. Ironically, one document also make clear that FBI agents ran the names of ‘the production company, writer [and] others associated with the proposed film’ through their databases, but found ‘no negative information’.

The documents on Public Enemies also outline why the FBI is in Hollywood and what they hope to achieve. A fax from the FBI director’s office approving support on the film says that helping to make the film was consistent with their ‘mission interest’ in ‘developing the public image of the FBI’ so as to ‘encourage public cooperation with the FBI in performing its mission.’

The Company You Keep

The thriller The Company You Keep also suffered at the hands of the FBI’s entertainment liaison division. Centred on Jim Grant (Robert Redford) it tells the story of several former members of the Weather Underground, America’s most successful militant leftist group. Set decades after the Weathermen were active, it is a story of the past catching up with you, as Grant has to go on the run and try to exonerate himself after he is outed as a suspect in a bank robbery from the 1970s.

Early drafts of the script were critical of both the Weathermen and the FBI, reflecting the real history whereby FBI deputy director Mark Felt ordered illegal surveillance and break-ins in order to bring down the Weather Underground. This was undermined by the Bureau, who in exchange for granting permission to use the FBI seal in props and sets ‘provided input and changed approximately 30 scenes’.

An internal FBI email lists these changes, which again saw wiretaps removed from the film. Other aspects of FBI overreach that were nixed from the script included, ‘excessive force arresting a housewife driving to turn herself in’, ‘pre-emptive arrest’ and ‘Myth that FBI has a file or access to info on everyone instantaneously even if no crime committed’. They also toned down a scene where the FBI allow ‘a reporter to hit up the FBI for a favor in exchange for news fairness’ and removed a scene where the FBI falsely report there’s a bomb in a building in order to get it evacuated.

As a consequence of the FBI’s influence all three of these films had elements removed from them that showed the Bureau in a critical light. Whether it’s torture, wiretapping, covering up serious crimes or badmouthing J Edgar Hoover, if it doesn’t fit with their ‘mission interest’ then it isn’t allowed in the film. The resulting image of the FBI is one of the utmost professionalism. In FBI-sponsored movies their agents show a steadfast commitment to protect civil and constitutional rights, even when the capture of dangerous criminals or the lives of potentially millions of people are at stake.