Monday, August 3, 2015

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: Mission Impossible Rogue Nation & a Not-So-Lucky Rabbit's Foot

This is really important: as Mission Impossible, or any other film for that matter, makes you think of another film, it's not that they are borrowing from that film, it's that they are "quoting" it, they WANT you to think of that film: for example, when Ethan and Ilsa are both at the opera, it's very reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, which was reminiscent of James Bond at Tosca in Quantum Of Solace. Why does a film want to quote another film? For at least two reasons. First, it aides the film in expanding their visual and narrative vocabulary. MI5 doesn't have to spend a lot of time talking to you about what you should be looking for in Turandot, because you all ready know to look for the similarities from SH and QS. The second reason films quote other films is the same reason they quote other art, like operas: it elevates itself. Knowing that Quantum of Solace mirrors the events of Tosca, or that we can see traces of Don Giovanni in Game Of Shadows, validates the story line of the action film because, let's face it, action-thrillers are fun, but they don't have a good rep when it comes to dramatic impact, so by incorporating the narrative elements of these "elevated" works of art into their own narrative, they get to validate themselves. We can also add a bonus reason: it delights members of the audience when they "get" the reference. 
The film could not have been ANY better. Please, if you have not seen it, stop reading and resume after watching the film; needless to say, there are numerous spoilers in this article, and you have the right to enjoy watching the film without it being spoiled for you, and I highly recommend it, as the film makers have gone to great lengths insuring you enjoy yourself during this film. Now, on with the analysis.
This scene was incredibly well-directed. Ethan is handcuffed to that pole, with no shoes on; why? When Ilsa comes in, she takes her shoes off (as you can see in this image); why? The feet symbolize the will and Ilsa and Ethan both have "exposed" their wills (their uncovered feet) to the other so they know what the other is all about. Why is Ilsa concerned with saving Ethan? They are allies since she is British and he's American, and that is something we don't get to see often (think, for example, of Captain America and Peggy Carter and their bond, or Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in Cowboys and Aliens).  Before Obama took office, and sent back the bust of Winston Churchill to Downing Street, the British-US Alliance was unshakeable but, due to the anti-British stances of Obama, the alliance has greatly suffered (sadly). As Ilsa, in the image, beats up Lane's thugs, Ethan attempts unlocking his handcuffs with the rabbit foot key Ilsa thew to him, but the key chain emphasizes how "unlucky" he is because he can't reach the lock, so he has to lift himself up from the pole by an extreme physical exertion, in order to help Ilsa and, ultimately, escape. 
"Ethan Hunt is the very face of destiny," Alec Baldwin's character warns the British Prime Minister, and we, the audience, get to discover what destiny it is that Ethan Hunt represents. Perhaps one of the most dangerous stunts that has ever been done in a film opens Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) hanging on the outside of the airplane until Benji (Simon Pegg) can get a door open. Why start with this? Why not lay down a bit more narrative? Because this will introduce a theme that runs throughout the film, specifically in association with Ethan: luck.
One of the first images of the films, if not the first, is of a field, and we hear Ethan's voice, and after a few seconds, we see Benji rise up, camouflaged, from the grass and dirt, and start trying to work his computer magic. Why is Benji in the field? Because he has literally become a "field agent," and he makes a point of telling Ethan this in the film. In a very real way, we the audience are Benji: just as Benji opens "the wrong door," (the loading dock), so we, too, are apt to open the "wrong doors" into the film itself and mis-interpret what is REALLY going on (don't believe me? Read the review that this critic wrote and how he might as well as been asleep during the film, because he missed every single point). When Bejni has "won" the tickets to the opera, that begs the question, what "other tickets" are there involved? Our tickets, the tickets we purchased to see the film, and just as the audience in the film is watching the opera, but all kinds of other stuff is going on, literally, backstage, so, too, in the film we the audience are watching is all kinds of stuff going on backstage, namely, with what the film makers want to communicate about who The Syndicate is and what they have been doing. Before going to the opera, when Benji gets off the subway, and a messenger gives him the packet with the eyeglasses in them, that is Ethan "widening Benji's gaze," but also the gaze of us, the audience. Just as Benji thought he was going to go see a opera he could enjoy, we, too, thought we were going to see a film we could sit back and enjoy, rather than have to work at interpreting. When Ethan takes Benji to where he has been "in hiding," and gives Benji all he needs to go into hiding, and Benji objects, stating that he wants to be a part of it, this is Ethan communicating with the audience that we can walk out of the film if we want to; we don't have to stay and listen to what they are going to talk about if it makes us uncomfortable and we don't want to be a part of it. When Benji and Ethan are in the car pursuing Ilsa, and they are about to flip backwards, Ethan asks, "Do you have your seat belt on?" and Benji says, "You're asking me that now?" but Ethan is really asking us, the viewers, if we have our seat belts on, because we are about to get flipped upside-down in the chase scene and how it ends (with Ilsa walking out in front of Ethan and him crashing to save her, then letting her ride off) and, if we don't have our seat belts on, like Benji we are going to end up way behind and upside-down. Like Benji, we, too, have been taken hostage by Solomon Lane and we are being held captive; how? Just as Benji sits upon a sensitive trigger so that, if he moves the wrong way or too fast, it will go off, so we the audience--if we go the wrong way in our interpretation--we too will explode and miss the whole point of the film. 
Ethan running and jumping onto this moving plane, that then goes up into the air, captures a trait of American cinema that has nearly disappeared: American bravado. The team has to stop the plane because there is a "package" of nerve gas on board and if they don't stop the plane, they will lose the package and it will be used in a terrorism plot. It would have been simple enough for the plot to allow Benji and Luthor (Ving Rhames) to manipulate the plane's electrical system to stop the plane, but that's not the plot the film makers wanted to go with, and there are two subtle plot details which made this stunt on the plane necessary for the film.
This is definitely my favorite shot in the film, with the second favorite being when it happens to Lane at the end. Listening booths were popular in the 1950s and 1960s--which just happens to coincide with the Cold War--so it is no wonder that it all fits so neatly in together with the main message of the film. There is also a sub-text regarding the concept of Ethan's "luck." When he enters, he discusses with the shop girl jazz musicians, and their improvisation style mirrors what Ethan himself can do (although, we have to admit, the end scene when the English prime minister reveals what The Syndicate is all about took a lot of planning); when the shop girl hands Ethan the record and notes, "It's a first pressing," we know that is just like Ethan himself, a first pressing, rare indeed. But then the girl does something that actually leads to her undoing: "The stories, they can't all be true,...?" she half asks Ethan when she realizes who he is, and Ethan doesn't respond. Why is this her undoing? In not believing in the greatness of Ethan Hunt, or even that such greatness could be possible, she's buying into the socialist idea that everyone should be the same. You might claim they are two different things, but when we start ignoring how great individuals can become in whatever field they are good at, then "mediocrity" (like Solomon himself) becomes the norm and the rule. In this image above, Ethan's personality is being "dissolved," as he's being "erased." Just as Secretary Hunley wants to "dissolve the IMF," so Solomon Lane will "dissolve" Ethan Hunt. What causes the dissolution is, again, not knowing how great Ethan and his team really are. 
In order for Benji to get access to the plane's system, Luthor has to hack into a Russian satellite; where was the last place we heard about a Russian satellite? The film Gravity with Sandra Bullock, when a Russian satellite crashed into their space craft, killing all but two people. In Gravity, the Russian "satellite" wasn't just an electrical device in orbit, it also symbolized the political satellite states of the former USSR (the Baltics, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.) and it was their determination to break-away from the Soviet government that causes conservatives--such as myself--to deem socialism un-workable (for more on Gravity, please see my post Gravity: Buddha and Da Vinci).
What does that have to do with MI5?
Well, everything.
It's clear that The Syndicate has been staging catastrophes in order to selectively execute certain people and manufacture a crisis situation in which they are able to completely take control of the world. Again, we are concerned with patterns, not "originality," so that we have seen this in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows in the schemes of Moriarty, as well as Spectre in the newest James Bond film, HYDRA in the Marvel franchises, the group of extreme athletes in the upcoming Point Break remake, Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in The Kingsman: Secret Service and the group in The Man From UNCLE and possibly even the Kronos controllers in the upcoming Aurora film. Someone could argue that films are dependent upon a good villain, and power-hungry international organizations make good villains right now because there aren't any others, a point I would disagree with vehemently: there are the ISIS terrorists in the Middle East and Africa massacring innocent people, there are jihadists throughout the world ready to commit acts of terror and there are organized mobs of people going around destroying US cities in "protests." This is just off the top of my head, we haven't even really touched on corrupt politicians.
This is an incredible end to an incredible chase scene. After following Ilsa, after she has taken the drive with the ledger on it from Benji, Ethan turns a corner at high speed and Ilsa stands in front of him on the road and Ethan has to wreck his bike--and himself--to avoid killing her, and that's the point of the scene: Ilsa knows she is putting her life in Ethan's hand and, if he doubts her for even one second, she's dead, and Ethan comes through for her showing her that he does trust her. That act of total faith in him is why Ethan continues to trust her from this point out in the film, and to understand the horrible position that her British Intelligence officer, Adley, has put her in regarding Lane and the ledger.
So, the instigating of these catastrophes by The Syndicate is part of a larger pattern being established by films; why? Remember, Rebecca Ferguson, a British Intelligence operative, is named "Ilsa" in the film, and where does Ethan find her? Casablanca, as in, Casablanca, the World War II film where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is running from the Nazi socialists, and the location "Casablanca" is both spelled out for us on the cinema screen, and then Ilsa (Ferguson) says, "Welcome to Casablanca!" to Ethan and Benji when they show up so we don't miss this imperative point. This brings us back to the detail of the Russian satellite Luthor hacks in order for Benji to stop the plane (which turns into getting the door open for Ethan) and, remember, this is all in the very first scene of the film when the film is, essentially, introducing itself to us the audience. If you think reading the "Russian satellite" is too much of a stretch as a strain of socialism in the film, you can't deny the connections to Casablanca, because the film won't let you. Reading the references together provides a strong platform from which to view the events of the rest of the film.
Opening the Red Box requires the Prime Minister's voice, and the prompt for his password is from Rudyard Kipling, and the PM proceeds to quote advice from a father to his son in Kipling's well-known poem. Why this and not something else? Kipling could be called the writer of British Imperialism, and this poem specifically spells out, not only what it means to be and celebrate in being British, but also a man. Why would that be brought up in the film>? Because masculinity has been increasingly under threat and persecution even. What's so interesting is that, the PM is under some kind of tranquilizer and can hardly react and respond to the situation he is in, however, true to perfect British form, he remembers what it means to be British and finish the job he has before him,.... just like Hunt and his team. 
We know by the end of the film and Ethan's reveal of him that Solomon Lane has every intention of establishing a ruling class akin to socialism, and using the "Russian satellite" to stop the delivery of the nerve gas--to be used on protesters not wanting to live under Lane's rule--is a tidy method of establishing what is truly at stake in Ethan getting on that plane and stopping the nerve gas from being delivered, which brings us to one more important detail about this scene: the IMF investigation.
Before Benji is taken in for his weekly polygraph test, he's playing a computer game; why? Because it foreshadows that Benji has been "playing games" ever since he's been at the CIA, including in this scene when Hunley asks him about helping out Ethan. There are several times when the motivation of different characters is questioned in the film, but Hunley's purple tie in this image reveals his true motivation. When something is around our neck, like a tie, acts as a leash of sorts and reveals what is guiding that character. Hunley wears a purple tie, and purple is the color of suffering, which means that he is truly trying to do the right thing in dissolving the IMF and bringing Hunt in before he causes more chaos. Hunt's master plan, at the end of the film, however, was to bring Hunley in on the action and give Hunley the credit for saving the English Prime Minister's life, which is why Hunley's name and Hunt's name are so closely spelled (they share the first three letters, indicating that, even though they appear to be on opposing sides, they are far more similar in their essence). Likewise, with Benji's tie, being different shades of blue, we might understand that Benji understands there are "different shades of truth" and that is why he can pass the lie detector test while supposedly disavowing Ethan as his friend.
Brandt (Jeremy Renner) tells Luthor he can't hack the Russian satellite and Luthor says, "That's why I didn't ask," and Brandt responds that they are all ready under investigation; when Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tries to get the IMF dissolved, it's mentioned that they have been operating for 40 years; why is that important? Forty years ago, in 1975, then President Ford ordered an investigation into the CIA for alleged abuses (January 8), so what goes around, comes around. When Ethan has entered the listening booth at the Vinyl Offer record store in London, and he hears the message that identifies The Syndicate with the IMF itself,
Turandot is a story of a man and woman testing each other and seeing what the other is made of: we can see this in the relationship between Ethan and Ilsa, but also between Ethan and Solomon Lane, as well as Ethan and Hunley. If we want to, we can even see it between Brandt and Luthor, neither of them very sure of the other, and getting on each other's nerves throughout the film. 
Throughout the film, Ethan is called a "gambler" who has been lucky and Secretary Hunley suggests that all of the IMF's successes "look like luck"; does Ethan's boarding that plane and entry then exit with the nerve gas, seem like luck, or skill? To help us answer that question, when Ilsa first meets Ethan and goes into "break him," Ethan sees the key to his handcuffs on a table, attached to a rabbit's foot key chain, a typical symbol of "luck" in the West. Ilsa tosses Ethan the key but, Ethan's bad luck, he isn't able to reach the keyhole with the key, so instead, he does a physically impossible release, as he uses his abs and leg muscles with leverage to climb his way up the pole, jump down to ground level and then help Ilsa fight off Lane's thugs while his hands are still handcuffed.
Luck or skill?
Above, with the listening booth image, we saw how Ethan's identity, like the IMF itself, was being "dissolved," and with the black helmets of the Lane thugs, and all his henchmen being operatives who had supposedly died, we can see that is exactly what Lane is attempting to achieve with Ethan Hunt: the end of his singular identity as an individual. Now, this is the thing about movies which are trying to save the world, and so many of them do: the world that is at stake is the world you yourself live in, the world that is inside of you, the world that is you. That is truly the only world that matters, because even if you have been around the world several times, the only world you ever really identify with is the world of your own identity (be that your family, home, job, money, pets, friends, hobbies, etc.) but all these films have the sub-text that there is a world that you, the viewer, inhabit, and that little place that you alone have access to, is in danger but they are going to show you what you have to do to save it. In the case of MI5, that involves not becoming dead, like the motorcycle rider on the left. There really isn't any difference between him and say a Star Trooper from Star Wars, or even the Orc army in The Hobbit. In overcoming these threats, Ethan protects himself, but he also teaches us in the audience that if we ourselves don't overcome these threats, we will become just as faceless (i.e., "identity-less") as the thugs.
This brings us to Hunley's assessment of Ethan as the "very face of destiny." What does that mean? Destiny is a person's fulfillment of virtue, skill and ability; when a person has fulfilled their destiny by mastering whatever talents and gifts they have been given, then they are called upon to use those gifts for a greater good. Ethan, then, has fulfilled all his talents and uses them for the greater good, which is why he can't just run off and be with Ilsa (and that he is also married). By the time Hunley makes his dramatic statement about Ethan Hunt, Hunley has witnessed that, indeed, there is nothing about luck regarding IMF or any of the team members, rather, they have all become extraordinary individuals serving the greater cause, and to remind the audience of that is the purpose of the film, as well as to expose wretched people like Solomon Lane, who are the exact opposite of Ethan.
My second favorite shot of the film:just over Ethan's right shoulder, is Lane's reflection, having been caught in a bullet-proof glass box, and cutting in front of Ilsa's image is Benji's reflection; why? Again, Benji provides us the viewer with our "role" in the film, and where we fit in. Glass symbolizes inner-reflection and meditation, so Lane being trapped in the position that Ethan was stuck in earlier demonstrates how Ethan was the innocent party, it was, after all, Lane who caused all the problems which Ethan had been accused of, and when one does things like that, they cease to exist as an individual because they don't recognize the individuality in others. 
Why is Solomon Lane a villain?
As is often the case, his identity is contained within his name: the Hebrew king Solomon was known as being the wisest of men, with great power and knowledge. Solomon Lane, in the film, must certainly be intelligent, or he wouldn't have been able to pull-off as many stunts as he did. We can say, though, that like King Solomon, Solomon Lane choose the "wrong way," ("Lane" being a path or road that can be taken) and in becoming corrupt and irreverent about human life, he lost his own life.
What is in the ledger? They are going to significant lengths to acquire it, so Solomon Lane must, indeed, be afraid of what is in it; so, what's in it? As Ilsa says, it's a record of everything they have done, which means, it's a history book. Who is so terrified of history? Socialists, because history truly reveals who they truly are, not just the Utopian bliss they bedevil the ignorant with. The other part is, of course, the money, but also, who supplies that money for them to operate, and in this sense, we can understand this as being a larger, more significant statement the film makes because of the existence of organizations like The Syndicate: ISIS, for one, and Al Queda, and the Muslim Brotherhood (whoever was getting guns in the 9/11 Benghazi attacks).  
In conclusion, Mission Impossible Rogue Nation can be said to be an apt symbol for America itself: how many people, like Alec Baldwin in real life, are calling for the end to the United States? There is an intricate balance between great people, like the character Ethan Hunt, and real-life heroes who serve and protect everyday: they can do what they do because they are allowed to do it. If we disavow people like Ethan Hunt and Ilsa Faust, we have sealed the doom of, not just the US, but the UK as well, because it's their skills, talents and devotion which protect the multitudes and their freedom. The film is full of adrenaline and fun, but it's also a serious examination of where the country, and the world, are headed.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
Although it may not seem like it, Brandt and Luthor play a critical role in the film: that of faith. Being Ethan's friends, they are loyal to him, even at the cost of their own lives. Why is this important? As Albert Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted, counts. And not everything that counts, can be counted."