It’s no secret that filmmakers – people who create elaborate fake situations for a living – get drawn to the concept of real-world fakery. Gaslight (the movie mostly remembered these days as a verb) was remade multiple times, and the original play ran in the West End and Broadway for years. Orson Wells threw a light on the shadowy world of art forgers, and Christopher Nolan dramatized the passionate showmanship of 19th-century magicians. The heist movie, as people far smarter than me have pointed out, has its roots in a metaphor for the act of directing a movie: Assembling a team of specialists to do a job that, if done correctly, no one will notice.
At first this may not seem like it has much to do with Mission: Impossible, a series that sells itself on the authenticity of its filmmaking – Tom Cruise really did put his life at unimaginable risk, all those times; we really went around the world to bring you the most stunning backdrops to these acrobatics. It should be remembered, though, that this isn’t some grand tradition for the series: In the first one, they obviously didn’t fly a helicopter through the newly-completed Chunnel, or blow up an entire avant-garde restaurant in Prague.
Nor was this an element of the dimly-remembered predecessor to the movies, the long-running TV show Mission: Impossible, starring Peter Graves as Jim Phelps, along with other rotating members of the Impossible Mission Force. The show was made in television’s first real creative heyday, but production budgets at the time fell laughably short of practical stunt work or location shooting anywhere farther than an hour’s drive from Hollywood.1
Faced with these constraints, the Mission of the 1960s became a show entirely about the drama of fakery. You know those almost-but-not-exactly heist plans that keep showing up in the movies? Those elaborate situations Tom Cruise and his IMF team plan, using rubber masks and hastily-constructed rooms and such to hoodwink the bad guy, and that give way fast to the car chases and the globetrotting? Those cons were the entirety of the show. Each episode would consist of forty minutes or so of Graves and his IMF team executing that plan, with the minimum of preamble to keep us surprised as it happened.
The show’s famous “fuse” title sequence (above) exemplifies the storytelling style: Each episode would be completely laid out in the credits, but everything would be too brief and out-of-context to anticipate the twists and turns. In this way, the audience thinks it has watched a fair-play mystery, been given clues and the opportunity to solve for themselves, but in point of fact it had no way of knowing.
There are people out there who don’t really understand the movie series, who can’t see the underpinnings that have remained constant over six wildly variable movies and two decades of shifting standards for cinematic action. I think that this old formula of the elaborate con is the key: The movies rarely do it as directly as the show did, but they always return to that same core concept so they can iterate on it: The core concept of having to win not just through creativity, but through coordinated, planned, improvised and unseen creativity.
The IMF’s schemes aren’t exactly heists, as I’ve said. Where they overlap with heists is in the emotional underpinning: The idea is to not only achieve a goal, but achieve it by concocting a specific fictional story, use whatever tools you have at your disposal to make it seem real, improvise for the host of inevitable problems and holes that will appear, and keep it all seeming as smooth as possible for anyone not in on it.
This all overlaps with another process, more above-board than espionage or theft but no less secretive: filmmaking. Not only are we watching a group of filmmakers, we’re watching them save the world with filmmaking, and perform superhuman feats in the name of filmmaking.
From these first principles, all the series’ seemingly disparate elements fall into place. The first film in the series was also the first film Tom Cruise (an avowed fan of the show) produced himself. The movie concerns his character, Ethan Hunt, a young hotshot who looks up to Jim Phelps and usually “stars” in the fake realities Phelps creates. Hunt has to go on the run when something goes wrong, and use all his skills to plot the impossible missions on his own.
Over the next few movies, Cruise attracted a variety of directors to the series, who brought their own filmmaking styles along for the ride. A classical Brian de Palma neo-noir, a fast-paced John Woo thriller, and a flashy J.J. Abrams psychodrama make strange bedfellows as three consecutive movies in a series, but that’s where the creative metaphor comes in. The philosophy of saving the world by tricking people with outlandish fakery only gets stronger with strange new permutations of that fakery: The best argument for filmmaking as an art form is how disparate films can be.
On the other side of the coin, popular cinema in the 21st century has skewed towards more connection, relying more on background knowledge of the creative team and their work; thanks to the internet, audiences can be expected to know – and care – a lot more about these things. Mission: Impossible has followed suit: Each movie in the series after 2000 builds and iterates on the one before it. Each plot is informed by the previous one, the schemes escalate in scale and danger, people who aren’t Tom Cruise or Ving Rhames start returning to the series as supporting team members. Like any popular art, filmmaking has changed over time, and so this cloak-and-dagger-and-rubber-mask version of filmmaking has along with it.
By Fallout, last month’s most recent installment in the long series, the sands of time have worn away much of the circumstances surrounding the metaphor: Simply put, there’s now very little difference between making Mission: Impossible and being in a Mission: Impossible movie.
Over and over again, the podcast linked above shows us examples. Who’s the mysterious voice, giving Ethan Hunt his mission? It’s Christopher McQuarrie, the movie’s writer and director. Why do the characters keep repeating how they don’t have a plan? Because the movie was shot with basically no script, with most of the final plot and dialogue created on the fly. How did they shoot the tense final sequence, where there’s a literal ticking clock until the world runs out of time? They had to film it while a literal ticking clock was counting down, to when the production would run out of money.
Fallout has been widely described as the darkest, most serious movie in the series, but this is just more trickery, more fictional situations designed to give you the wrong idea. At multiple crucial points in the movie, we see the most serious possible versions of a Mission Impossible story: The villains win, or Ethan and his team become cold-blooded killers, or the entire world is destroyed. It’s always revealed to be some kind of fake – sometimes executed by our heroes, but usually just a trick by the filmmakers played on the audience, leaving you with the impression of what you thought might have been.
What does this mean, what does it amount to that you have to dig so deep to find meaning in what seem like mindless, weightless trifles? I think it means everyone did their jobs. You were there to see everyone pull off their masks and laugh to each other, about how well they convinced you it wasn’t personal, and you still couldn’t accept the true reality, because the fake one was so convincing.