The Artistic Brilliance of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, 20 Years On

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The camera lies all the time… lies 24 times a second – Brian De Palma.

The highlight of the cinematic year 1996 was undoubtedly the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Fargo, but 1996 also saw the release of one of the most intelligent, idiosyncratic, well-crafted blockbusters in years… Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, starring Tom Cruise. Though I have already done an overview of the entire series so far, I felt that a few bullet points did not do De Palma’s film justice; so, I have written this article as a means of highlighting the elements of this tight-wire thriller that merits its naming, as, not just a great blockbuster, but a great film.

(Note: there will be spoilers; also, for a brief summary of the film’s labyrinthine plot click here)

If one word could sum up the greatness of this movie, it would be ‘complexity’: complexity of narrative, complexity of style and complexity of character that has, arguably, never been seen in a blockbuster since. Although some will say that Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Dark Knight trilogy were complex, I would retort that Nolan’s movies rarely require thinking over or revisiting in order to fully understand them. Any narrative complexity in a Nolan film is resolved by the film’s ending (and I should note that ambiguity is not the same as complexity), very few of his characters are truly in the morally grey area (because, although some of the characters do morally grey deeds, they are all driven by a single moral compass from which they never deviate), and few of Nolan’s films seem to operate within distinct, stylistic visual forms. However, style in a Brian De Palma film should be taken as given.

On rewatching the film, I was struck by the number of high angle, almost omniscient, shots throughout it. Aside from the fact that these shots appropriately provide a heightened sense of scale and paranoia, they could also be read, in the context of De Palma’s post-modern philosophy of film, as a means of at once watching the action of the film while at the same time looking at it; the height and distance of the camera provides a critical distance from which the viewer becomes subtly more aware of the intricacies of camera movement and blocking, but not so distant that they are removed from enjoyment of the spectacle in front of them.

Although De Palma’s use of high angle shots is laudable, and it is used to a greater extent than many Hollywood films, the high angle shot is not a technique unique to him. However, throughout the film, De Palma brilliantly reinvents the most conventional shots in visual language to suit his own ends. While it is common knowledge that, in cinema, the low angle shot brings about associations of power and strength, De Palma uses the low angle shot to create the polar opposite effect in the scene below, one of the best in the film.

In this scene, the low angle shows the fish tank over the characters’ heads, drawing associations between Ethan and a feeling of drowning, and a general sense of claustrophobia as the characters are trapped between the frame and the ceiling (hence, most conventional low angle shots occur outdoors, or neglect to show the ceiling of a room). Also, the uncomfortable proximity of the camera and the sheer strangeness of the angle (I have never seen a shot of this type outside of this film) puts the viewer in a dual state of malaise as they participate in Ethan’s feelings of shock, confusion and weakness, and are repulsed by the almost grotesque portrayal of Kittridge by means of the camera angle.

These are but two of the most brilliant stylistic techniques of the film (which also includes a brief, but superbly executed, one-take perspective shot, and several of De Palma’s renowned deep-focus split diopter shots) which were rarely, if ever surpassed by the other films.

Another element M:I got right that it’s sequels didn’t was in it’s portrayal of characters with depth. Each time one watches the film, the more one realises that Ethan and Luther are the only two characters who don’t know what’s going on from moment to moment, while all the other characters are disguising their true motivations of trying to collectively gain the NOC list and frame the crime on Ethan. However, while the majority of these two-faced characters are portrayed fundamentally as villains, the characterisation of Claire (played by Emmanuelle Beart) deserves special mention as being particularly complex.

Image result for claire mission impossible

It is ironic that Brian De Palma, a director frequently accused of portraying his female characters in a sexist manner, should be the director to deliver one of the most multi-layered, complex portrayals of a female character in mainstream cinema. Though on the first viewing of the film, Claire can be perceived as being a one-dimensional back-stabber along with the majority of the supporting players, this perception changes with the very next viewing. Now that we know that her initial intention is to play Ethan into delivering the NOC list to Phelps, the small moments she has with Ethan take on a strange poignancy as she at once manipulates him but also can’t help liking him. The moments of laughter and affection between her and Ethan are genuine, but she nevertheless continues on with the fatal plan, in the vain hope that she can work it to a place that suits her, in which she gets the money but Ethan’s life is spared. In this regard, Claire separates herself from the role of the villain (as the villain is typically apathetic to or reaps sadistic satisfaction from the suffering of the hero/victim) and asserts her will as a strong, decisive woman, even if said decisions revolve around romance.

Also, we as an audience are able to focus on the strength of her character because the camera does not objectify her. Beart is a beautiful woman, but De Palma decided not to use close-ups of any one part of her body for the sake of exciting certain members of the audience, and her costumes are at once elegant, flattering, but also functional and business-like, so that the audience can see that she is a woman of action. Additionally, the scene that would most obviously have been used in an objectifying manner, in which Ethan searches Claire after she mysteriously appears in the Prague safehouse, is played out in a tone of dramatic tension rather than sexual tension, which would have added little to the story and come across as forced in this stage of Claire and Ethan’s relationship (also, the fact that the two characters are framed in a two-shot while looking at each other minimises the objectifying power of the camera).

However, the portrayal of women starts steadily going south with the very next film:

Mission: Impossible 2 (dir. John Woo): the character of Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) is frequently put in embarrassing situations where her body is the focus; her professional abilities are trumped by her sexual desirability; Woo’s choice of costume and camera angles emphasise her breasts; at one point she is coerced into sex by the movie’s villain; and the character is frequently framed in single shots to be an object of the look rather than a character.

Image result for lindsey farris mission impossible

Image result for julia mission impossible 3

Mission: Impossible 3 (dir. JJ Abrams): though the two main female characters of the film are not objectified physically, they are used primarily as plot devices and motivation for the hero; also, the fact that the character of Lindsay (Keri Russell) is killed midway through the film (after approximately ten minutes of screentime) nullifies any of her previous character strengths, and the execution of the film’s antagonist by Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is rendered arbitrary by the fact she had spent the majority of the film as a passive object, and was unaware of the antagonist’s identity.

Image result for jane carter mission impossible

Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol (dir. Brad Bird): the character of Jane Carter (Paula Patton) is often wearing restrictive, impractical clothing for the work that is required; Carter is often framed either in a single or from the perspective of a male character; her most useful contribution to the plan is seducing a character with key information, and the one time she uses her combat prowess becomes a setback to the mission.

Image result for mission impossible rogue nation

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (dir. Christopher McQuarrie): though the character of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) undergoes a genuine character arc, and is exponentially more competent in combat than any of her predecessors (suggesting better characterisation in future instalments), the costuming and framing choices by McQuarrie often objectify her to the point of pornography.

And, contrary to what one might think, by not objectifying Claire with the camera or through the eyes of Ethan, De Palma enriches their relationship and allows him to speak volumes about it with the smallest gesture. This is most evident in the pair’s most erotic scene, which is simply a kiss goodnight from Claire in London. However, by this stage, we feel the genuine connection between Claire and Ethan, and in the acting of Beart, we sense her desire to love Ethan, but the fact she kisses him on the cheek shows at once her guilt at betraying him, and an unwillingness to be vulnerable as she knows their relationship will only end in pain; and after she has left the room, Ethan’s touching the spot she kissed reinforces the connection between them, while showing him savour the kiss of a woman he’s harboured feelings for since before the first shot of the film, but also the fear of offending the memory of his former friend and mentor. Paraphrasing Roger Ebert’s description of the first look Rick and Ilsa give each other in Casablanca, this scene is not as strong on the first viewing as it is on subsequent viewings, as we don’t know Claire’s full story; but the more you see it, the more the entire film gains resonance. Moments so seemingly innocuous yet sexually and emotionally charged are rarely seen outside of the Golden Age of Hollywood, so hats off to De Palma, provocateur-par-excellence, for pulling it off (interestingly, a more explicit kissing scene had been shot, but was wisely excluded from the final cut).

Obviously, the representation of Claire isn’t perfect, as she plays only a minimal role in the overall plot of getting Ethan to steal the list, and her involvement in the heist, though significant, was not as impressive as that of Hunt or Luther. However, Claire stands apart from the other women of the Mission: Impossible franchise in that, were she removed from it, the film would have suffered as a whole.

Finally, what sets De Palma’s film apart from it’s sequels, and the vast majority of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, is it’s combination of strong characters and exquisite style into a film that experiments with narrative and filmic form, ultimately forming a thesis on cinema itself. Though the entire film is done in this spirit of experimentation, it is most obvious in two key scenes: the opening scene, and the meeting between Ethan and Phelps in London.

The opening scene proceeds as follows: Jack (Emilio Estevez), the tech guy of the team, is watching an interrogation unfold on a television screen in front of him. In it, a tall, moustachioed man is trying to extract a name from a dishevelled man who has (apparently) killed Claire, who lies caked in blood on a nearby bed. After the man gives the name and is promptly knocked out by a drugged drink, the moustachioed man leaves the room, approaches Jack, and rips off the mask he was wearing, revealing it was Ethan all the time. After ordering Jack to “get rid of that scum”, another agent knocks on the wall of the room and several operatives start taking it apart, revealing it to be an elaborate set. After Ethan delivers an injection to Claire to counteract the induced death-like state she had been placed in, she wakes up, asking “Did we get it?”, to which Ethan replies “We got it”.

To fully appreciate this scene, it is important to have some background on De Palma’s artistic fascinations, and to bear in mind that the film is based off a 1960s T.V. show. In several of his films, De Palma has included a nerdy and/or technically proficient character who uses their skills to observe/watch/record the action unfolding before them (most notably, the Keith Gordon character in Dressed to Kill and the Jon Travolta character in Blow Out); many critics (myself included) consider these characters to be stand-ins for De Palma himself, who studied physics before discovering film, and spent much of his youth experimenting in mechanics and surveillance (often for rather upsetting reasons). De Palma is also fascinated with the idea of film as artifice, and using the artifice of film to entertain his audience while misguiding and terrifying them, even as he deconstructs the artifice within the context of the story (one of the ways he has done this throughout his career is by having a film-within-a-film). In this regard, if we consider Jack to be De Palma, and the screen and set to be representative of the T.V. show, when we watch the scene again we see that De Palma has laid out his intentions for the film in this scene: his aim is to regard the film as an artifice and, in the process, deconstruct its television origins (most notably in handing over the franchise to the character of Ethan, and the transformation of Jim Phelps, a beloved character from the show, into a psychopathic killer). Also, the ripping off of the face mask and the deconstruction of the set subliminally alerts the audience to not trust everything they see; the waking up of Claire from her bloody “death” can be read as a subtle in-joke between De Palma and his detractors, reminding them that the violence portrayed in his films is fictional; and the lines “Did you get it?” “We got it” could just as easily refer to a good take of a scene or a good audience reaction. By increasing the theatricality of the role of the cinematic secret agent, De Palma is free to subtly discuss the artifice of cinema without having to blatantly refer to it.

However, the subtle complexity of the opening scene shies in comparison to the conversation between Ethan and Jim in London. The scene unfolds as follows: Jim tells Ethan that Kittridge is the mole, and Ethan appears to believe him. However, in Ethan’s mind, he realises that not only did Jim have the means of orchestrating the deaths of his team without leaving any evidence, but also that the only reason he thought Jim was dead was because of what he saw through a visual medium: namely, Jim’s camera glasses (Jim looked at his hand as he fired a blank round towards himself, looked away as he applied fake blood, then looked down at his “bloody hands” to sell the effect before falling into a river). Ethan then considers that Claire must have been involved in at least one of the murders (by being in a car with another agent, then stepping out to detonate it), but constructs a much more implausible theory in which Jim detonated the car after falling in the river, not knowing if Claire was in the car or not. Now certain that Jim is the mole, the following dialogue (written by Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne, and David Koepp) transpires between him and Ethan:

ETHAN 
Why, Jim?  Why?

PHELPS
..when you think about it, Ethan, it was
inevitable..no more Cold War.  No more
secrets you keep from everyone but
yourself, operations you answer to no one
but yourself.  Then one morning you wake
up and find out the President of the
United States is running the country –
without your permission.  The son-of-a-
bitch!  How dare he?  You realize it’s
over, you’re an obsolete piece of
hardware not worth upgrading, you’ve got
a lousy marriage and sixty-two grand a
year. Kittridge, we’ll go after that no
good son-of-a-bitch, big time!

In the context of De Palma’s vision of cinema, the realisation by Ethan that he was tricked by what he saw through Jim’s glasses is De Palma drawing attention to the fact that nothing one sees in cinema is real, and it has all been shaped by the vision of the director. Also, the fact that Ethan reimagines the scene so that Claire isn’t involved puts Ethan briefly in the morally grey category, as he tries to defend the innocence of a potential murderer because he is in love with her (thus, Mission: Impossible beat Memento to the chase by four years in terms of having a hero who willingly changes their perception of an event purely to satisfy their own desires, and M: I was a mainstream film). The reconstruction of the scene in Ethan’s head is done almost entirely visually, making the scene feel all the more operatic. And finally, the dialogue between the two characters after Ethan realises Jim’s guilt is a stroke of genius, because each word carries two meanings: Ethan’s questioning “why” can be read as him playing along with Jim (“Why did Kittridge do this?”), or a genuine questioning of Jim (“Why did you do this?”), and Jim’s response is at once him providing a cover for himself by attempting to justify Kittridge’s betrayal while also being the exact motivations for his own actions. As the scene is played out, due in part to excellent acting by Voight and Cruise, and careful direction by De Palma, the characters manage to succeed in conveying both meanings, as both are aware of the other’s intelligence, but also aware that playing along with the deceit is the most beneficial path for both of them at this time.

While most people will remember this film for its near silent heist scene and concluding helicopter-train chase, it is this artistic complexity that truly makes the film worth watching, and allows one to watch it over and over again and appreciate the myriad clues, cinematic trickery and bold artistic statements that De Palma left hiding in plain sight.

Although the film was moderately well received in its time, most critics felt that the film was too confusing for its own good and didn’t stand up to scrutiny, with Roger Ebert saying “When the movie is over, it turns out there wasn’t anything except the flow. Our consolation, I guess, is that we had fun going with it”. I hope this essay has shown that this criticism of the film is not the case, and that, if there is a moral to be taken from the film or this essay, it is “don’t take things at face value”.

* * * * * (Great Movie)

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