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Mission: Impractical

Why the Impossible Mission Force is bad for America

I used to think that “Mission: Impossible,” the 1996 Tom Cruise vehicle, was the most subversive movie of the 1990s. I guess I still do.

Let me explain.

As a kid I had been a fan of the original TV series, and the hero, Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves, who, meaningless sidebar here, went to the same elementary school I did, Burroughs Elementary in Minneapolis, albeit 30 years before me. Graves’ brother, James Arness (Marshall Dillon on “Gunsmoke”) went there, too. You don’t mess with Burroughs boys.

For the 1996 movie they tapped Jon Voight to play Jim Phelps (a little puffy in the face but otherwise OK), and in the beginning he gets his mission on a plane after exchanging code phrases with the flight attendant. “Perhaps you’ll consider the cinema of the Ukraine,” she says. As in the show, his team of Impossible Mission Force (IMF) agents is assembled, and, as in the show, the tape self-destructs in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

Then in Prague everything goes wrong and Jim Phelps dies. Jim Phelps dies. That’s like killing off Mr. Brady 10 minutes into “The Brady Bunch Movie.” Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Phelps’ protégé, is accused of being a mole and is chased all over hell and back, and during the course of these adventures Jim Phelps resurfaces and you breathe a sigh of relief. Only to discover that Jim Phelps is the mole. You’re kidding me? Jim Phelps is the traitor? Which means Jim Phelps will self-destruct in five seconds. Bye-bye Jim.

Chickens coming home to roost

Since Hollywood execs grew timid and began making movies out of TV shows, no movie has so screwed with its source material. The hero of the TV show had become the villain of the movie.

That, however, is not the subversive element of “Mission: Impossible.” The subversive element is felt in the end, when Ethan Hunt, supposedly no longer an IMF agent, is sitting on a plane and the flight attendant starts speaking to him in code — “Perhaps you’ll consider the cinema of...?” — and recognition alights in his eyes. Cue Lalo Schifrin's kick-ass theme music.

Yes, on one level this scene simply opens the door for the sequels. But on another level it makes Hunt the new Phelps. And Phelps betrayed us. Since the movie places Hunt where we first saw Phelps, it doesn’t take much of a leap in logic to realize that one day Hunt will betray us, too, and he’ll have to be chased and killed by his protégé, who will replace him. And on and on, world without end.

Watching the credits roll back in 1996 I thought, “Wow, what a cynical end!” Except nobody felt what I felt. “Dude, it’s just an action movie,” is basically the response I got.

Now having watched the first two “Mission: Impossible” movies again in anticipation of the third, I have to say they’re right. The ending to “Mission: Impossible” doesn’t say something cynical about the spy game. The entire series says something cynical about the spy game. Because the main message of the “M:I” movies is this: We need IMF agents to protect us...from IMF agents.

Target one: Jim Phelps

Who was Jim Phelps? A cranky old spy, pissed off that the never-ending Cold War had ended. Not visionary enough to foresee the never-ending War on Terror just around the corner, and feeling like an outmoded piece of technology that wasn’t worth upgrading, he decided to 1) kill all the agents on his team and 2) sell a list of every American agent (the NOC list) to America’s enemies for a Dr. Evil-like sum of six MILLION dollars.

Was he smart? Not particularly. Besides the money thing, he didn’t kill one of his agents (Hunt) and he left a paper trail in the form of a Gideon Bible. One could argue he left Hunt alive to serve as scapegoat but that’s assuming Phelps knew the agency was attempting to flush the mole; and if that’s true he would’ve known the NOC list was bogus. Which he didn’t. So why leave Hunt alive?

Maybe — and this is just a guess — but maybe he left Hunt alive because he knew Hunt was a hothead who would grasp at any straw floating by. Example: In order to prove he’s not a thief and a traitor, Hunt becomes a thief and a traitor. Not the cool, level-headed thinking we want from our spies.

Target two: Ethan Hunt

First Hunt poses as Job (Phelps) to hook up with Max, the arms dealer (Vanessa Redgrave), and in the process warns Max that that floppy disk with the NOC list on it? It’s a fake and probably has a homing device attached — thus allowing Max to escape from IMF hands. Good company man.

Then, in order to ensure the NOC list doesn’t wind up in the hands of America’s enemies, he acrobatically steals it from Langley and sells it to America’s enemies. Max is seconds away from transmitting the list (to al Qaeda?) when the TGV goes into the Chunnel and cuts off communication.

All of this to flush a cranky old spy. Not smart.

So how does IMF deal with a hothead who continually risks America’s safety in order to satisfy his personal vendettas? They reinstate him and make him a team leader. I feel safer already.

Target three: Sean Ambrose

So who’s the big bad villain of the first sequel? Another IMF agent, of course, and this one makes Jim Phelps look like a piker. Phelps was Hunt’s mentor; Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) is Hunt’s double. Phelps was after millions; Ambrose is after billions. Phelps was willing to compromise every American agent; Ambrose is willing to compromise every human being on the planet. Seriously, IMF has to rethink its recruitment strategy.

Remember the plot? A super-influenza (codename: Chimera) and its cure are created, and a pharmaceutical company wants to unleash the influenza in order to make money off the cure. A scientist with a conscience tries to come in from the cold, but he’ll only trust Hunt, who is on vacation (trying to kill himself through rock climbing), so IMF sends an agent (Ambrose) disguised as Hunt to accompany him to the states. But Ambrose is like the pharmaceutical company, without conscience, and he steals the vaccine and parachutes out with his team of undesirables, leaving the passenger plane to fly, like a precursor to 9/11, into a mountainside. Are IMF agents on the no-fly list? They should be.

OK, you’re IMF. There’s a dangerous man loose in the world. How do you find him? BTW: This is no longer a test.

IMF does it by tapping Hunt to recruit a jewel thief, who goes by the tongue-protruding name of Nyah, and is played by the tongue-protrudingly beautiful Thandie Newton. She’s Ambrose’s ex, and Ambrose is still smitten. (An IMF agent and a jewel thief? Shouldn’t they have been suspicious of him then?) If Ambrose hears she’s in prison he’ll have her sprung and brought to his hideout, and she’s got a tracking device injected into her elegant ankle.

Of course IMF doesn’t tell Hunt this, and of course Hunt and Nyah fall in love after a day of knocking cars and boots in the Spanish mountainside. Seems odd for two glib, shallow people to fall in love so quickly but just consider it more thievery: It’s the plot of Hitchcock’s “Notorious.”

Questions inevitably arise. Why did IMF need Hunt to recruit Nyah? Couldn’t they have imprisoned (and tracked) her without her knowledge? And once they found Ambrose’s hideout — an isolated coastal mansion in Australia — why not bomb it back to the stone age? And why leave Hunt in charge of the mission since 1) he’s the one agent Ambrose knows better than himself, and 2) he’s emotionally compromised? Who’s in charge of IMF anyway — Michael Chertoff?

But at least IMF found their most-wanted man, which is more than we’ve done with ours. Maybe we should’ve sent Thandie Newton to Tora Bora.

Target four: ???

So somehow we’ve made it all the way to “M:I3,” which is good news because it’s a fun movie, the best of the series. It restores a sense of teamwork to the Impossible Mission Force, it includes literary references (“Wells, not Ellison”), and it gets rid of that awful, floppy Hong Kong hipster haircut Ethan Hunt sported in the last film.

But — without giving too much away — while the main villain, Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a global arms dealer, willing to sell horribly destructive technology to the highest (Mid-East) bidder, he is only able to do what he does with help from someone within a certain government spy agency. The rationale for the latest IMF mole is fairly unique — one might even call it neo-conservative — but it doesn’t make it any less traitorous. Which is why I’m urging Congress to look into IMF. Call a bi-partisan commission. Get Richard Ben-Veniste on the line. Three movies and three traitors is enough.

Back in 1996 we might have been able to afford a self-generating government agency — one that ensures its own funding by creating the villains it’s designed to catch — but these are more perilous times, in which “Mission Accomplished” banners turn into “Mission: Impossible” banners in the blink of an eye, and we need a little accountability. Yes, we all could use a little accountability.

—Erik Lundegaard misses Lynda Day George. This piece was originally published on MSNBC.com.