The Relative Strangeness of Brian De Palma on Mission: Impossible

This is a guest post by Navarre Megali, a filmmaking student at UNCSA and North Carolina transplant by way of California, where he enjoys a saturation of craft beer and the use of the word “barbecue” as a noun.

While it isn’t uncommon these days to have “auteur” filmmakers behind big Hollywood franchises, it was practically unheard of in the 90’s, and therefore quite a strange circumstance to find Brian De Palma helming a big splashy action/adventure vehicle for Tom Cruise in 1996. Both Cruise and De Palma at this point were known names in the industry, but their pairing–both then and now–seems to be something of an anomaly. Indeed, the crafting of the first Mission: Impossible and its subsequent success seems to be a sort of happy coalescence of talent and timing.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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The Mission: Impossible Soundtrack as Mere Shadow of the Glory of 1990s Soundtracks

Film soundtracks were at their best in the 1990s. It was an important genre in the last pre-download era, because it provided space for down-list acts. And in the 1990s, record companies’ down-list acts, at various points, included Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Mazzy Star, Bjork, Pulp, the Flaming Lips, the Cardigans, and other art rock favorites that couldn’t rely on radio play to move units. (Plus lots of great hip-hop and R&B but like an idiot I tuned that out until Stankonia opened my eyes.) Headline acts used soundtracks to stretch out their muscles, trying out new ideas, performing covers — there must’ve been five hundred versions of Harry Nilsson’s “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” on 1990s OSTs — and using up their album leftovers. By the end of the decade soundtracks were stuffed with terrible nu-metal, rap rock, and Smashmouth, but for a few weird years soundtracks were one of the best ways to become introduced to cool new music.

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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…

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Alain Renais, RIP

I have not seen all or even most of his films, but La Guerre est Finie is one of my favorites of the 1960s and an immediate precursor of the soixante-huitard movement that it (barely) preceded.

Perhaps other Jilters will have more thoughts on Renais legacy. He was 91.