New Drama — From the December 2015 issue

New Drama

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At the beginning of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, the top-secret Impossible Mission Force (I.M.F.) is disbanded after a congressional investigation deems it too reckless. Now Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the rest of the I.M.F. must work outside the law. But Hunt never worries. He’s a man who can hold on to the side of an accelerating airplane loaded with nerve gas and suffer no damage beyond his hair parting weirdly in the wind, which leaves him looking vincible and a little bit Amish.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

The brilliant conceit of Rogue Nation is that the structural characteristics of the independent I.M.F. are also those of the criminal network it is battling, the Syndicate. Both answer to no government, and the public knows about neither. The head of the Syndicate is Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), a former MI6 agent; Lane employs (or deploys, it’s fuzzy) dozens of operatives around the world, each one a former intelligence agent who is believed by his government to be dead but is not actually dead. The missions of the Syndicate — blowing up factories, disappearing planes — are, like the missions of the I.M.F., made to look like accidents or the work of others. By not taking credit for their acts, the Syndicate is not, Lane emphasizes, a group of terrorists: their method is not terror but illusion.

We never learn what all these missions are intended to bring about. It’s simply presented as a given that the goals of the I.M.F. are good and that those of the Syndicate are bad. Lane isn’t even into luxury — he doesn’t want Dr. No’s private island. He’s just a guy who wants to manage world events, like everyone else in the film.

The movie is, in part, an exploration of the ethics of extralegality, of going rogue: if you and your enemy are both breaking the law, who will judge what’s wrong and what’s right? For Hunt’s team, the answer is uncomplicated; they are motivated mainly by loyalty. It’s an emotionally appealing idea, suggesting that if you always act to protect your friends, less stuff in the world will explode and fun adventures will ensue.

To prevent Lane from enacting his new world order (not that we ever know what that might look like), the good buddies in the I.M.F. eventually decide that they need to capture and sedate the British prime minister. Only the prime minister can speak the passphrase that opens some very important, triply locked files. The passphrase proves to be quite moving. It’s a quote from a Rudyard Kipling poem, a poem that schoolboys of the past often learned by heart, before Kipling became confused in the Western imagination with a desire to own and rule the world: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.” The passphrase doesn’t include “and blaming it on you” or the next line in the poem: “But make allowance for their doubting too.”

At the end of the mission, Hunt offers the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) a pretty story to describe what happened, which of course is not what really happened. Since the story casts the CIA as the hero, the agency is usefully willing to report the lie back to Congress and testify in defense of the I.M.F. (There is an echo here of what Edward Snowden described as his “breaking point”: the testimony that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, gave to Congress in 2013, when he claimed that the NSA wasn’t collecting data on millions of Americans.) By the end of the movie, the I.M.F. is legal again, as are its secret, unchecked missions.

Not that we ever forget that this is just a movie — one of five movies in a multibillion-dollar enterprise. A memorable moment in Rogue Nation comes at the end of a long chase scene in Morocco: Hunt is pursuing a woman on a motorcycle, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose allegiance is as yet unknown. The chase ends abruptly when Faust gets off her motorcycle and stands in the middle of the road, causing Hunt to stare, swerve, and crash.

It seems appropriate to add here that the time signature of the original Mission: Impossible theme song was 5/4; at various points in Rogue Nation, it’s been altered to 4/4. This is, some say, because the 4/4 beat is easier to dance to.

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