That Moment In Mission: Impossible (1996): Ethan Puts it all Together
Mission: Impossible is a 1996 action thriller about an American agent, under false suspicion of disloyalty, who must discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization.
So it turns out that the U.S. government doesn’t trust other governments. Shocking, right? But there’s more. The government actually employs people to work covertly and undergo various espionage and secret missions for gathering information, infiltration, confidence scams and more. Hard to believe. These operatives are naturally a rather difficult bunch to uncover. Many work for a top secret agency called the IMF, or Impossible Mission Force, which, by definition means no mission ever succeeds, but RGCFSMF (Reasonably Good Chance For Success Mission Force) just doesn’t have that roll off the tongue quality a good government agency needs.
The real problem though is this: they’ve gone and put together a list of all non-official cover agents out in the field, meaning coverts undercover who are not protected by the government. It’s called a NOC (knock) list and seems like something that would a number one priority of things not to make, but apparently even spy agencies can’t resist a good list. Either way, the head of one IMF team, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), just got a mission, which, I should point out, after given the choice, he chose to accept. He and his team are to stop the theft of this NOC list and track the no-gooders responsible. So it’s off to Prague because if you’re gonna stash a list of secret agents anywhere, it might as well be in the largest city in the Czech Republic. (That and the tax breaks offered by city officials for filming there.)
The team are all young hotshots; the best in the business, with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) being one of the team’s finest. For this mission, he’s disguised as a U.S. senator visiting the American embassy where the list is expected to be stolen. Along with him are four others scoping out the building, handling interference and hacking. Phelps is behind the scenes, running the operation from the outside.
Things go terribly wrong. One is killed by a car bomb. One is stabbed in the gut. One gets killed by an elevator because that’s a thing that can happen. And lastly, using his spy wristwatch, Ethan sees his boss, Phelps,get shot on a bridge. With his team killed, Hunt calls in and reports the damage, meeting the IMF director in a fish tank cafe where he is told that the operation was a setup meant to uncover a mole inside the program trying to sell information to an arms dealer named “Max” for what is called “Job 314,” and since Ethan is the only surviving member, well, guess who they suspect?
Now on the run, needing to get the list and clear his name, he contacts two disavowed IMF agents for help. Together, the three, (actually four as Claire, Phelps’ wife and fellow IMF team member actually escaped the car bomb attempt)(curious!) work out a scheme to recover the stolen data, find the mole and pull of the greatest heist in heist history: break into CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Directed by Brian De Palma, the original movie adaptation of the famed 1960’s TV drama, is a genuinely fun spy thriller with some clever twists and now classic action sequences that set a standard for the modern genre. Cruise is especially good as Ethan Hunt, playing a man under tremendous pressure, seemingly facing insurmountable odds from all sides. And despite an awkward and rather forced conversation about coffee at the beginning of the film, which is about as tired and derivative as is sounds, the rest of the film crackles with some tense dialog, really shining whenever Max (Vanessa Redgrave) is verbally battling Hunt. De Palma keeps to what he does best, playing with viewer perspectives and teasing with slow, twisting camera movements. He is a master at setting up suspense, and the genre is a natural fit for his style, notably in the earlier scenes in Prague and of course, in the CIA building. While the story can meander and motivations are not always clear, the twists are satisfying if not disappointing for those fans of the TV show and their beloved Jim Phelps. The decision (spoiler) to make him a turncoat is dubious at best. Regardless, the movie is smart, inventive and ultimately a lot of fun.
That Moment In: Mission Impossible
Scene Setup: Everything hinges on whether Hunt and his new team of misfits can acquire the real NOC list from the super secret computer in Langley. They devise a plan that relies mostly on distracting the nerdiest computer operator in cinema and suspending Ethan from the cooling vent above the terminal. This leads to one of the most iconic moments in recent film history with Hunt tapping into the system while hanging like a puppet.
A bit later though, Ethan is in London, playing phone tag with Kittridge (Henry Czerny), the CIA director hunting him. At a phone booth, he hangs up just seconds before Kittridge can successfully pinpoint his location because Kittridge forgot to active the Find My Friends app on his smartphone. No, because it’s 1996 and that’s not a thing yet. But more interestingly, when Ethan hangs up, the man in the next booth reveals himself to be none other than Jim Phelps, his former IMF team leader shot on the bridge in Prague. He’s wincing in pain, nursing his untreated wound so obviously the two men head immediately to a coffee shop because gunshots to the gut really need to be left alone to heal on their own. The last thing you want to do is get in there and slow down that rapid spread of infection. It’s just science. As the men talk, Ethan begins piecing together some bits in the recent past that reveal maybe he did pay a little more attention in that “well, this seems peculiar” class.
The Scene: (Time stamp 1:21:19) In a London Underground station cafe, the two men meet for the first time since the mission went sour in Prague. To this point, Ethan has thought Phelps was murdered, along with his other team members. Seeing him is shocking at first, especially as he seems almost unable to sit up. Sitting across from each other, Phelps explains how he survived, telling Ethan he was able to swim ashore after falling into the river and then drag himself back to the safe house where he must have just missed Hunt and Claire, his own wife. He looks exhausted, worn down, and weak. It’s pretty convincing. He’s been trying to track down Ethan since it happened, finally finding him through a rental service in Liverpool, a place he showed him long ago. They reminisce and at last, Phelps admits that he saw the man who shot him, and claims that man is the mole the CIA is looking for. Big surprise though, he says it’s Kittridge. Hunt seems genuinely surprised.
But Hunt’s got his prickly ears on and he’s been conned enough recently. He doesn’t trust anyone. So it is with his once friend and IMF team leader, Jim Phelps. Hunt has been trained to question everything, and it’s instinct now. This is how he survives in such dangerous work. He has to navigate through often deadly situations, keeping himself and his fellow team members alive. He relies on this trust as well, or else the team would never be able to work together. This is evident in the team’s silky smooth cohesiveness in the film’s opening missions, despite it’s failure when sabotaged. All of that has been destroyed by the time he meets Phelps again. There can be no trust, even among compatriots. That’s doubly so because of the mole. We see this clearly as Ethan listens to his former leader. Hunt is soaking it in and letting it roil around in his mind. He senses, wisely, that things don’t line up with what he’s being told and with what he’s witnessed. He works it out verbally for Phelps to hear but what he says and what he thinks are entirely separate. As he breaks down how Kittridge could have been the killer of his team, talking directly to Phelps, we see what he actually believes: Phelps, one by one taking out the IMF crew and faking his own attack.
What could have been a standard “I know it was you” confrontation, becomes something all together different, handled especially well by De Palma’s direction and Cruise’s performance. De Palma moves the camera in tight on Hunt, and in flashback, shows us the view from the opposite perspective. Combined with Danny Elfman’s ethereal score, and the dreamlike quality of the cinematography, it’s an intriguing and satisfying technique that allows the viewer to safely recall the previous events and yet keep it fresh. Each sequence in flashback carefully answers the mysteries surrounding the Prague incident, most especially the shooting of Phelps on the bridge. It is Hunt’s version, his vision of what he is suspecting took place, and appropriately, it has a fogginess to it, a grainy unreality that instills a sense of discovery.
Cruise has always been an intense actor, and here he is practically bursting. De Palma focuses a lot of attention on Cruises face, sometimes right up in his darting eyes, showing the myriad emotions he travels through as he begins to realize that the double cross is still going on and he’s made some mistakes with trust, up to and including one of the men he had helping him bust into Langley. It’s a devastating moment, and we are equally toppled (and kind of stoked!) by another twist. Then, he suspects Phelp’s wife might also be part of the cover up, it becomes almost too much. There is a great moment when Hunt is sure he’s got it figured out, at least enough to be convinced that everything he thought was true isn’t and the man he trusted most is farthest from. He holds his head and looks up and even though he is talking about Kittridge, asks Phelps why?
In a movie filled with outstanding action, it is this one moment that has the most impact. Hunt regains his footing and from here, we know that he’s all done being fooled. We know that the conflicts are over, the mystery is solved and now Hunt can get on with the business of revenge and redemption. It’s crucial because despite all that Hunt has done to here, he has always been a bit behind things, playing catch-up and getting spun around. That’s all over. No matter what happens next, we know that Hunt is assuredly in charge. We’ve been waiting for it from the beginning. He doesn’t disappoint.