A Thousand Faces Without a Hero: Ethan Hunt, the ’90s as Transition, and the Power of Non-Identity in Mission: Impossible

This is a guest post by Dr. Josh Smicker, a Lecturer in the Department of Communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His work focuses on the intersection of new media technologies and new forms of militarization, and is currently working on a book exploring the history of discourses of “resilience” in the U.S.

In 1996, the year of Mission: Impossible’s release, the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells published the first volume of his magnum opus The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. It was his attempt to make sense of the sweeping transformations and transitions taking place throughout the 90s, and specifically to link up technological changes to the many geopolitical and ideological reconfigurations of the era. The second volume, 1997’s The Power of Identity elaborated (at length) a dialectic that is now mostly a commonplace—that the combination of the political, economic, and technological changes taking place throughout the 1990s allowed redefinitions of older identities and the emergence of totally new identity formations. However, these shifting or emergent identities also provoked backlash and resistance, and are therefore paralleled by a resurgence of nationalist and fundamentalist movements. The question of what tendency might prevail is largely left open, with Castells more interested in documenting the ways that the “process of techno-economic globalization shaping our world is being challenged, and will eventually be transformed, from a multiplicity of sources, according to different cultures, histories, and geographies.”


Missionary Impossible: The Tangled Web of Tom Cruise, Ethan Hunt, and Scientology

In 2004, in an impossibly ornate room in a Castle just outside of Sussex, England, the International Association of Scientologists awarded Tom Cruise with its first and only Freedom Medal of Valor.

Saint Hill Manor, former home to L. Ron Hubbard and current UK Headquarters for Scientology, during a recent IAS Anniversary celebration

After praising Cruise for several minutes, Scientology leader David Miscavige cues a video montage celebrating him. In a voice out of a movie trailer, a narrator exclaims that “every move” Cruise makes amounts to “countless impressions,” that he is one of a “rare few in history” with his level of influence, before cutting to clips of Jay Leno, Oprah, Barbara Walters, and Ellen,  introducing Tom Cruise to their audiences, often as “the biggest movie star in the world.” Lights flash, cuing rapid fire clips of Cruise walking red carpets, waving to fans, talking to photographers.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the Mission: Impossible theme begins. Cruise appears dressed in a black turtleneck and speaks passionately and at length about Scientology, while the iconic theme song continues to play. We are seeing, as the narrator puts it, “Tom Cruise on Tom Cruise Scientologist.”


A “Mission: Impossible” Roundtable

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…


Republicans In North Carolina Strategically Tapped Into a Long History of Anti-LGBTQ Rhetoric

The United States has a long and storied history of invoking the purity and safety of (cis, white) women and children in defense of terrible things. The racial/sexual purity of white women was used to justify the murder of Black men and boys including, 14-year old Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered for saying “Bye baby” to a white woman while leaving a Mississippi store.

Similarly, the safety of children has consistently and successfully been used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. So much so that The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the depiction of gay men as a sexual threat to children as possibly “the single most potent weapon for stoking public fears about homosexuality.” The first organized opposition to the gay rights movement began as a political campaign against a city anti-discrimination ordinance in Miami (sound familiar, North Carolina?). The group, led by celebrity singer and former Florida Citrus spokeswoman Anita Bryant,  called itself “Save Our Children.” (more…)

Florida Politicians’ Unrelenting Support for the Death Penalty

Conventional wisdom suggests that Florida loves the death penalty. The state currently has 390 inmates awaiting execution, more than any other state but California (which has 20 million more residents). They were the first state to pass a law reinstating the death penalty after the Supreme Court struck down state death penalty laws in 1972. In 1999 Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida argued that the state’s legislature had an “obsession with electrocution as a method of execution.” Current Governor Rick Scott has seen more inmates executed during his tenure than any other modern Florida governor and signed a bill to speed up the execution process. Just last month, Florida State Senator Thad Altman, a Republican who has pushed to revise the death sentencing procedure for years, told the New York Times that his state’s legislature is “very pro-death penalty” and averse to being perceived as “being soft on crime in any way.” Florida has been at the forefront of some of the death penalty’s more gruesome innovations including a custom electric chair for a 344 pound inmate, and the use of “purple moon suits” to disguise the identity of doctors assisting with executions from the American Medical Association, whose code of ethics forbids their participation.[1] The custom electric chair was widely criticized in part because a large blood stain appeared on the inmate’s chest during the execution. A spokesman for then Governor Jeb Bush defended the procedure saying  “We are absolutely, 100 percent comfortable that the chair performed flawlessly…Everybody’s getting all worked up about a nosebleed.”

But earlier this year, the state encountered a serious obstacle to its favorite form of punishment. (more…)

Un-American Hustle: How North Korean Hackers Made The Hollywood Wage Gap Undeniable

North Korean hackers might have done more for the wage gap in Hollywood than anyone in entertainment history. In December of 2014, hacked e-mails revealed conversations about disparities in American Hustle stars’ pay that prompted Jennifer Lawrence to speak out and sparked an ongoing conversation about the wage gap in Hollywood. Following the the hack, Lawrence’s fellow actresses began sharing similar stories. In July of 2015 Amanda Seyfried told The Sunday Times that she was paid 10 percent of what her male co-star was paid on a big-budget film despite the fact that they were “pretty even in status.” Vulture hypothesized that the film was Les Miserables and the co-star a pre-Oscar winning/Harry Potter spinoff leading Eddie Redmayne. That Fall, Sienna Miller told Vogue that a producer for a Broadway play had tried to get her to settle for less than half the salary of a male lead (she left the production). In her memoir Diane Keaton revealed that she didn’t get a back-end (a percentage of box office grosses) for 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give despite the fact that she was an Oscar winner and the film’s star. Jack Nicholson got a back-end despite a smaller role in the film and sent Keaton part of his check to make up for the disparity. And of course Gillian Anderson recently reported that she was offered half of co-star David Duchovny’s pay for the X-Files revival after fighting for years to equal his pay on the original series.

Last week, American Hustle’s Amy Adams finally spoke about being paid less than male co-stars for the film (more…)

Aunt Flo Meets Uncle Sam: Menstruating While Incarcerated

The ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of eight female inmates from the Muskegon County Jail who assert that “inhuman and degrading policies at the filthy, overcrowded lockup violate their constitutional rights.” Among the (many) degrading policies is the jail’s refusal to provide adequate feminine hygiene products to inmates.

Unfortunately, this is a common problem facing female inmates. According to Maya Schenwar, who has worked regularly with incarcerated women she has heard one recurring complaint from female prisoners: “There are never enough feminine hygiene products to go around.” Many facilities don’t provide feminine hygiene products at all, requiring women to buy pads or tampons from prison commissary. In these facilities women can wait weeks for their commissary to come in. Others have no external source of funds and are forced to go without or use makeshift hygiene products made of toilet paper. (more…)