At the Movies

Michael Wood

Did someone say familiarity breeds contempt? In the cinema it often breeds attraction and money. The film series called Mission Impossible began in 1996, picking up from a television show that ran from 1966 to 1973 (171 episodes), and the new, sixth movie (Mission Impossible: Fallout) had as of 15 August made $458 million worldwide (it cost $178 million to make).

Of course there have been changes over time. In the first episode of the TV series the voice describing the mission the secret agent is to embark on and offering him the chance to wreck the story and the franchise (‘should you choose to accept it’), is on a long-playing record, and announces that it will ‘decompose’ in a minute. For many years it was spoken on a tape that would ‘self-destruct’; now it is on some unspecified ‘device’. In all cases, though, it erases its information in a puff of smoke, the perfect instance of a deniable project, existing, at least until the story gets going, only in a small selection of minds. Or rather two selections, one small, one large: the minds of the seen and unseen film characters in the know, and the minds of the audience.

The big change is from what happens on television to what happens on film. The earlier series was stylish and (it now seems) innocent, a matter of a team and its skills putting away the authors of a whole array of evil deeds. The later one is dark and slippery and began by turning the former hero, Jim Phelps, long and suavely played by Peter Graves, into a faintly smiling villain played by Jon Voight. This did not go down well with everyone. Martin Landau, who was the master of disguise in the television series, said the original show ‘was a mind game. The ideal mission was getting in and getting out without anyone ever knowing we were there.’ The film series, by contrast, was just ‘action’.

The mind games continue in the movies, as I have suggested, but they do meet with heavy visual competition. There are always shoot-outs, and Tom Cruise does a lot of running. In the first film he hangs from a long wire to make a CD copy of a file from a computer inside CIA headquarters. In the new one there is a nearly failed parachute drop, a rooftop chase in London, a lot of motorised whizzing around the streets of Paris, some fine scenery in Kashmir, and battle of smashed helicopters. And in one splendid moment Cruise and a companion drive a truck at great speed down a narrowing alley. The vehicle is too tall for the James Bond ruse of tilting it at an angle. It stays level and finally gets stuck between the walls. The two men leap out and climb onto two waiting motorcycles. It was all planned.

This is where the mind comes back, of course, and we might think the attraction of the movie series lies in a medium-specific version of a philosophical problem, let’s say the call to a deep enjoyment of appearances combined with the deepest distrust of them. There is the beginning of a case for such a view in the first film, directed by Brian de Palma. Voight explains to Cruise why a long-time good guy has become a villain. He is ostensibly talking about someone else, a CIA colleague, but actually he is confessing. ‘No more Cold War,’ he says. ‘No more secrets to keep from everyone but yourself … Then one day you wake up and the president of the United States is running the country without your permission … And you realise, it’s all over.’ For good measure, these lines appear in the middle of one of the film’s visual tours de force. Voight and Cruise are sitting in a restaurant, Voight is elaborating his accusation of the other man, Cruise is listening attentively but seeing, in interleaved shots, what he takes to be the real story of what happened earlier in the film: Voight himself betraying his team, leading them to their deaths.

The new film, directed as was the previous one (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, 2015) by Christopher McQuarrie, takes up pieces of an earlier story. Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of the so-called Syndicate, is in American custody, and has been interrogated, we are told, in 12 countries. The bad guys’ plot is to kidnap him and exchange him for three plutonium bombs that will be released in Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca, causing havoc in a large portion of the world. The impossible mission is to prevent this from happening.

One of the best illusory moments in the film occurs when the havoc seems to be in process. The Americans have captured a crazed Norwegian scientist, who is part of the havoc’s design. All they need from him is a password that will let them into the scheme. He lies in bed, laughing with sneering pleasure at the news he sees on television. The bombs have dropped in all three places, and the newscaster Wolf Blitzer (played by Wolf Blitzer) is there to report on the devastating event. The Norwegian relaxes, no need to hold on to the password now, so he tells his doctor what it is. At this point, the walls of the room fold down, all the wiring of fake news appears, and Wolf Blitzer tears off his mask to reveal the face of Tom Cruise, alias Ethan Hunt. Blitzer was needed for the film image, but not for the film story. Mission accomplished, or at least off the ground.

The putting on and taking off of the mask was part of the recipe for the series from the beginning – in the very first television episode Martin Landau was impersonating a Caribbean general – along with a proliferation of remote-control gadgets and temptations/distractions in the form of a beautiful woman. The support staff in the Bond movies stays at home. In the Mission Impossible series they travel and are part of the action. When they are almost all killed in the first movie, Cruise needs to recruit some more, one of whom, of course, turns out to be a traitor. In the new film he is in part on firmer ground, with Ving Rhames as his technical operator, Simon Pegg as his domestic scientist, and Rebecca Ferguson as a returning British ally. His problem lies with his supposed colleague August Walker, played by Henry Cavill. Amazing how secrecy goes to the head of these fellows.

The revelation of the depths of the problem – the CIA man closest to the mission is also the man the mission is supposed to defeat – also occurs through the use of a mask and a multiple deception. Alec Baldwin as head of operations suspects Cruise of being the ever-present mole, since he keeps surviving when so many others die. The reasoning isn’t bad, and its working delights Cavill, who had planted it in Baldwin’s mind in the first place. In an excess of joy Cavill tells the now kidnapped Lane the good news, and Sean Harris strips off his mask to reveal … Simon Pegg. The team knows its business and what could be truer than an unmasked face? The unsuspecting (or complicit) Baldwin dies, because the story doesn’t need him anymore.

The criteria for survival are always interesting in these movies. Cavill is a superhero, at least by association (he has played Superman in three movies), but Cruise manifestly is not. He is a puffing, ageing human with an uncanny ability to escape all dangers alive. At the end of the film – a literal cliffhanger, as Anthony Lane (no relation) noted in his New Yorker review – Cruise and Cavill are suspended from a mountain, slogging it out as far as their separation along a rope will allow, and the hero of the scene is a large red hook holding the rope that holds the men. Not for long, of course. The hook keeps slipping from crack to crack, and any moment now it will let the men drop to their doom. No, it won’t. It will let Cavill drop to his doom. We know as surely as we know anything in this world that Tom Cruise will not die in this film.

The apparent paradox has turned into a collapsed contradiction. ‘This might happen but it won’t’ has become identical with ‘This won’t happen because it can’t.’ The impeccable performance of non-suspense is connected to the series’ running question about appearances and knowledge, and to the argument of Voight’s confession in the first movie. What dominates here, I think, is not the fantasy of power that imagines working for the CIA in the old days as rather like being Dr Mabuse in pre-Nazi Germany. It is the fantasy of knowing for sure what no one else knows at all, a sort of inversion of paranoia, where everyone else knows what we don’t. We would experience, ideally without more than half-noticing that it was going on, an anxiety-dream with a perpetually happy ending.