A “Mission: Impossible” Roundtable

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Twenty years later, we talk Ethan Hunt as the American anti-Bond, the oddness of Brian De Palma helming a blockbuster franchise, and how M:I changed Tom Cruise’s career.  

Josh Smicker: I have a few questions/comments I’d like to toss to the group.

  1. So, the IMF is a specialized subsection of the CIA? Is that actually directly stated (rather than strongly implied, as in the NOC list, etc.)? Because I do think implication v. definition matters quite a bit here. If it is, does it stay that way in the future films? My memories of it are more of a Rainbow Six/SHIELD non-governmental group, but my memories of MI movies are pretty non-specific.
  2. After the “botched” first mission, how long does Tom Cruise stay in their HQ? Are we to think that the second IMF group, specifically sent their for a mole hunt mission, is unaware where this HQ is, and/or is totally inept at tracking communications from it? More generally, the film is at such an interesting inflection point in media technologies/infrastructures/cultures (and about a bunch of incipient digital technologies literally framed by the analog; apparently it was the last major studio release on Beta, too). I found the representations of hacking/the Internet to be super-hilarious even given the context (e.g. typing “max.com” into the usenet to look for Max; the “jam all signals now” command on the train).
  3. Given the themes of the film, especially around identity, I think De Palma makes a lot of sense as the director.

That’s it for now. I’m curious both about response to any of those, and also people’s general reactions upon returning to the film…

Amanda Grigg: My understanding is that the IMF is independent but I’m not sure that that has been consistent/clear throughout the series. I’m rewatching Rogue Nation and a few minutes in Alec Baldwin is calling for the IMF to be disbanded and its resources to be transferred to the CIA (he also complains about the time they broke into the CIA to steal the NOC list). Then Renner says something like “The IMF has been operating without oversight for 40 years”. 

Kindred Winecoff: Yep, as AG says the IMF is independent. It’s not even totally clear that they are part of the USG. Wikipedia says that during the original tv show they were completely independent — more like SHIELD or something — but in Rogue Nation they are called before Congress and are (temporarily) absorbed into the CIA. Then again, Kittridge is running the show out of Langley, and “the Secretary” could just mean SecDef (or SecState?) so maybe this is just purposefully ambiguous.

JS: Yeah, the ultimate lack of any identity is something that I think plays out in a number of ways (diegetic and otherwise) in this series. I also forgot that “Mission Impossible: II”  is largely premised on the audience believing Tom Cruise is capable of having romantic feelings for another human being. And lots of slow motion hair shots. Think I’m gonna need more booze.

KW: I think identity is a great angle into this. In the tv series the IMF would always infiltrate enemy organizations using disguises and other forms of trickery. They were basically con artists. The first film starts out this way too, but after the team is eliminated it basically becomes the Tom Cruise show. By the 4th film the facemask-making-machine (whatever it’s called) literally breaks, thus requiring Cruise to climb the side of the Burj Khalifa and be Superhero Ethan Hunt.

One of the downsides of this progression is that intra-group dynamics become less interesting with each film, with the slight exception of Renner’s introduction in Ghost Protocol.

This is only partially identity-related, but one aspect of M:I1 that plays with expectations of type is that Ving Rhames plays the nerd while Jean Reno plays the muscle.

JS: Has any character at the center of such a long-running franchise been such a cipher as Ethan Hunt? I mean, Bond/Bourne/etc. look like DeLillo characters next to the guy. I do think it speaks to that brief mid-90s to early-00s moment when people thought the internet a) could make identity a fundamentally malleable thing and b) that that would in fact be a good thing. I’m thinking of work like early Sherry Turkle/Kate Hayles in terms of technology and identity, but also the vogue for postmodernism and deconstruction in that moment. Is it only possible in the post-Cold War/pre-9/11 interregnum?

AG: Mission: Impossible is also driven by a single actor in a way that Bond and Bourne aren’t. Particularly in terms of the process of making of the films – Cruise is a producer, chooses the director, controls the scripts, can insist that he do every stunt himself even when it’s wildly dangerous and stresses everyone else out. They were preparing Renner to take over — which is what prompted his inclusion in Ghost Protocol — but that was a condition of returning to Paramount after a few years of public Scientology craziness and it hasn’t amounted to anything (yet).

JS: I think that distinction is tremendously important, but actually would think that consistency would tend to lend itself to the opposite tendency i.e., the fact that it’s been the same actor, who has such control over the franchise, etc. would allow a depth of character enabled by the continuity/control/etc. Instead, it is just the maintenance of a fundamental structuring absence.

KW: An interesting counter-example is the Daniel Craig/Sam Mendes Bond. They insisted on more creative control, and used it to develop the character. 

AG: Josh, I agree, given the process, you would expect it to have more depth than Bond. The fact that it doesn’t probably means that isn’t something Cruise is concerned with. I know they wrote at least one of the films action scenes first and developed a plot that would connect them. Which seems fitting with the final products/lack of character development.

AG: Another note on Hunt’s character – they filmed a romance with Claire for M:I but cut it from the final version because they (not sure exactly who, Cruise? De Palma? the studio?) thought it would make Hunt a less likable hero. That might give us some insight into how the creator’s saw Hunt, and it’s another difference from Bond.

KW: It’s very clearly alluded to though. In a creepy-ass way too, because it happens after Hunt knows that Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt) is still alive.

AG: Yeah they cut a sex scene but kept the hit-you-over-the-head allusions, which might have been the creepiest option.

KW: Later in the series they tried to introduce some depth to the character by putting his wife in trouble (M:I3) and then showing that she’s no longer in trouble but only so long as Hunt stays away from her (M:I4). Which makes them both sad, but also frees up Hunt to run around the world doing super-dangerous shit without having to worry about familial responsibilities.

This is kinda like Bond, for whom a wife was introduced mostly just to kill her and turn Bond into an embittered misogynist (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). And then Vesper Lynd was created just to kill her and turn Bond into an emotionless cyborg (Casino Royale).

But Hunt never really reacts to this in the same way. He just does what he does.

AG: I think one of the videos we passed around earlier mentioned that M:I3 is classic Abrams in the sense that it tries to develop a strong emotional grounding for an action film. And M:I3 really hits Hunt’s normal-person(ish) personal life hard, the engagement party, the meddling brother in law, the intimate wedding, the call-back to where they met when he wants proof of life, teaching her how to reload a gun by talking about the flashlight in the kitchen.

JS: Is it as totally non-believable/nonsensical as the “romance” in M:I3?

AG: There’s a lot more time devoted to developing the relationship, and I think Michelle Monaghan could sell a real life romance with a phone book so that helps.

KW: Yeah, much better than in M:I3.

JS: But this is all relational–while the “Bond girl” (of which his wife, essentially, remain one) is an important structural element of Bond films, Bond still has a certain character (even if it is superficial) without them (i.e. whatever is read as debonair + prototypically British at the moment). This minimal definition allows Bond to be constantly reinvented, but also to feel  like he is connected to the broader context of his different iterations.  So Brosnan’s Bond does feel reflective of the moment of Blairism/”Cool Britannia” (a moment which also allowed the revitalization of the franchise), and Craig’s Bond often reads as an embodiment of what Paul Gilroy has called British post-colonial melancholia (particularly in Skyfall).  I would argue that Hunt doesn’t have even these minimal character points that get reconfigured, or really a strong connection to the moment of these films’ production, with perhaps the exception of the initial mid-90s lack of identity.  If you control for whatever is the current cutting-edge technology being used by the  IMF in the film, I feel like any of them could have been made at any time.Hunt does not. Or, to phrase this more general point — what is Ethan Hunt’s defining characteristic? At least at this point, I would argue he doesn’t have one, even a superficial action one. “Extreme” might be the best contender, but even that seems wrong…

KW: Yeah, extreme force of will is the closest thing.

AG: If we think about MI as the American Bond, is Hunt’s character prototypically American in some way?

JS: I think maybe so, in terms of embodying a (then perhaps still believable) sense of pure potentiality/constant redefinition. But I think that was, in its modern form, only possible at this rather specific moment. Bourne seems far more protoypical now than Hunt, embodying a number of current popular discourses of resilience and what the positive psychologists like to call “post-traumatic growth.”

KW: Hunt’s Americanness is weird. He doesn’t wisecrack like John McClane or Steven Hiller (Will Smith’s character in Independence Day). He doesn’t get super-beat-up and then come back from it like McClane or Rocky or whoever. He’s not super stoic. Felix Leiter has more resources. Hunt is more like a hero from a Western. That kind of quiet, determined, solitary man.

The first MI is also the only one with James Bond-style gadgets, mostly the exploding gum.

AG: He is working outside of the law/his organization in 3/5 films. And his essence seems to be being intense and determined.

JS: Exactly. I think it’s because it is the moment when “Americanness” was undefined. I think the sense that the cognate might be in a different genre (Western; perhaps scifi–the repititions of Edge of Tomorrow might be relevant here) might also be correct, although it also doesn’t quite map — the Western hero is usually incredibly constant/consistent, whereas Hunt…

AG: I’ve heard Hunt described as basically a messiah. In the first movie he’s a little naive but still manages to outsmart everyone he knows. In the rest of them he’s infallible, his only fault is being too determined, and everyone expects him to do (or watches without having their minds blown while he does) superhuman things that no one else on the team(s) could come close to doing.

JS: I can see the messiah thing, but again, it’s the total characterlessnes of it that’s interesting to me. There’s a long history of superhuman/idealized types, but they usually have SOMETHING attached to them. I cannot figure out what is attached to Hunt. Besides extreme competence. Which gets back to my initial thoughts on this being a sort of technocratic fantasy/nostalgia…

KW: Yeah, I agree. Not a messiah. He has no politics, let alone a religion. And most of the threats he faces aren’t existential.

JS: And Hunt seems utterly incapable of INSPIRING anything in anyone. He can be really good at doing a job.

AG: He is mostly really great at his job. Which maybe makes him a uniquely American hero? And his motivation is often fundamentally about his job — defending his employer, the IMF, against attacks, and/or addressing perceived failures in his job performance (Kerri Russell dying after he sent her into the field in MI3, proving he didn’t kill the Chancellor/proving the Syndicate is real in Rogue Nation) or his agency’s (the Kremlin in Ghost Protocol). M:I2 he’s also misrepresented, or at least his reputation is threatened by the use of his identity to kill the Dr.? Although that’s not driving things.

KW: Yes, he definitely is driven by maintaining the integrity and independence of IMF. The last one — when he was tracking the Syndicate — is the only time he really faced a Bond-level enemy.

AG: Just watched Baldwin’s speech in Rogue Nation and thought of some of our conversation here: “Hunt is uniquely trained and highly motivated. A specialist without equal, immune to any counter measures. There is no secret he cannot extract. No security he cannot breach. No person he cannot become. He has mostly likely anticipated this very conversation…and is waiting to strike in whatever direction we move. Sir. Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny.” Doesn’t give him depth but confirms much of what we said with the bonus of some on the nose American-ness.

JS: Hunt as the “living manifestation of destiny” might be the closest thing we get to a thesis.

KW: Oh my god I hated that “living manifestation of destiny” line so much.

But I think we should talk more about Cruise’s decision to rely so heavily on style-forward directors in this series. Particularly in the early entrants. This was a period in which Cruise pretty much only worked with name-brand Capital-D Directors, but it was still an anomaly for the genre. Less so now, but back in the 1990s you’d either get no-names taking over huge franchises, or you’d get style-less guys like Joel Schumacher.

It was a pretty big deal to open with De Palma, who was coming off of a series of flops. But Cruise was always pretty interested in taking risks with his choice of director: M:I3 was (IIRC) JJ Abrams’ first feature; M:I4 was Brad Bird’s first live-action feature, etc. Even John Woo hadn’t done many English-language films before M:I2. Does that make this series any different from, say, Bond? At least until Sam Mendes came along Bond directors were expected to conform to the style rather than the other way around.

AG: This is where I’m most out of my depth in discussing M:I but I did peruse a bit of the unauthorized Tom Cruise biography recently. So basically I’m contributing Page Six background to your question. For what it’s worth, the biographer suggests that Cruise was from the beginning intensely focused on long-term career development, and working with the greats (directors and actors). He turned down a boatload of money for Top Gun 2 to do The Color of Money with Scorsese. He supposedly had no framed posters from Top Gun or M:I1 on his office wall in the late-’90s, but had framed a note from Kubrick saying that he would like to work with Cruise and Kidman. I think people were surprised that he did Rain Man at first, but he wanted to work with Hoffman. So it makes sense that he would take risks in the name of artistry, and chose De Palma to start M:I off.

KW: “So it makes sense that he would take risks in the name of artistry, and chose De Palma to start MI off.”

Yes, this makes sense if you start from where you and I are starting. But if you start from Cruise’s public persona — MOVIE STAR! SCHLOCKY ACTOR! VAPID SCIENTOLOGIST! — then it is still surprising.

At one point, around the time of M:I, Cruise’s co-stars won acting Oscars in some absurd percentage of his films. He’s never won and hasn’t been nominated since 2000.

AG: Yes, I should clarify, it makes sense to weirdos who are concentrating this much brain power on M:I/Cruise

KW: If Tom Cruise were making these same decisions now wouldn’t his career arc look kind of like DiCaprio’s? (In this metaphor Titanic = Top Gun). And wouldn’t he be given more respect than he has been given? When DiCaprio was given an Oscar for The Revenant people said it was long overdue. But it’s impossible to imagine Cruise winning an Oscar, or if he did that it wouldn’t be a complete surprise.

AG: He was on that track, two Oscar nominations in four years and three Golden Globe wins by 2000, but I don’t think you can talk about his career without talking about the crazy Katie Holmes/Scientology stuff of 2004-2005, after which he leaned really heavily on action and seems to have mostly given up the focus on great collaborators, unexpected roles etc. He’s even doing Top Gun 2 now.

KW: Agreed.

JS: Ditto. I think it speaks to my ongoing interest in M:I as essentially a liminal/threshold phenomenon, here between Cruise’s “action”/popular background, and the more highbrow work he was doing around the same time (working with Kubrick, P.T. Anderson, etc.). In some way, I think it also connects to our discussion of Hunt’s character (or lack thereof), as someone without any real identity, but who is just good at EVERYTHING. Going back to the first M:I, where Hunt is the character who does the impersonations, the athletic stunts, the usenet sleuthing, gets the Biblical references, etc. For an theoretically “team” franchise, Hunt fulfills the function of everyone.

KW: Good point about him being Mr. Everything. He also gives Claire an injection in the opening scene (Dr), out-Sherlocks Max, etc. In some ways reducing him to being a physical character in later installments is a relief.

AG: We haven’t talked much about reactions upon returning to M:I after twenty years, any final thoughts on how it holds up?

KW: It wasn’t that hokey, either by the standards of the day or by contemporary standards. Josh pointed out earlier that the internet scenes are pretty silly, and they are. But both Hackers and The Net had only been out the year before M:I so it wasn’t too bad.

Seriously, compare this the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies… it holds up well. The Bourne movies are almost unwatchable the camera shakes so much. Not sure what else is in its peer group — the superhero films don’t quite fit, in my mind — but I don’t think anybody has much to be embarrassed about, looking back.

JS:  I think the first M:I holds up quite well. It’s essentially three tableaus–the first “botched” mission, the Langley break-in, the train sting–and both in terms of pacing and cinematography, are quite well-executed. The dialogue writing is atrocious, and the tech scenes are a little laughable, but as KW points out, that was pretty de rigueur for the moment. It wasn’t nearly as absurd (or wonderful) as the graphic representations of the internet in Hackers (also, sadly lacking in indoor skate parks/arcades). This is largely because the internet hadn’t really been defined yet, either in terms of popular representation or really, as a technology. And, the IDEA of some of the technologies really hold up–if it was being remade today, Hunt would leave the CIA agent an Apple watch that was synced up to his Google Glass for the big reveal that Jon Voight is still alive.

You can find more of our symposium on Mission Impossible here. We’ll be updating throughout the week with new additions, including a continuation of our roundtable that turns to where the franchise went after M:I.  



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