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Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible Films Are a Rejection of Blockbuster Ambiguity

MI Christopher McQuarrie rejects moral ambiguity Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation Fallout Dead Reckoning Part One

This discussion of the Christopher McQuarrie run of Mission: Impossible movies contains very light spoilers for the newest Mission: Impossible film, Dead Reckoning Part One.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a remarkable film for a number of reasons. It is a superb action blockbuster on its own terms. It is a fascinating study of both Tom Cruise as a movie star and the sometimes complicated relationship that the actor has with his audience. It is also a thematic meditation on what the Mission: Impossible films are, as well as the space that they occupy in the modern cultural landscape.

The early Mission: Impossible movies were products of a different time, one that Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.” There was a moral ambivalence that reflected the post-Cold War milieu. In Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, the hero of the original show, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), betrays the ideals of a country that had moved past him. By his own admission, co-screenwriter Robert Towne peppered Mission: Impossible 2 with “some chicken-shit misogynism” for flavor.

This is all standard spy movie stuff. These sorts of thrillers are built around morally complex and ambiguous figures. In the new millennium, blockbuster cinema began to lean harder into that moral uncertainty and relativism, depicting heroes who were often conflicted about their decisions and whose actions had unintended consequences. The standard-bearer for this approach might be Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, one of the century’s great blockbuster achievements.

However, it was also apparent looking at the other iconic spy franchise. Running in parallel with those early ambiguous Mission: Impossible movies, the James Bond films starring Pierce Brosnan had edged into high camp with entries like The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. The franchise went through a gritty reboot with Casino Royale, casting Daniel Craig as a version of the character who was more introspective and conflicted than his predecessors had been.

As the James Bond movies became heavier, the Mission: Impossible movies became lighter. Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol has an energy that occasionally veers into broad slapstick farce as the team works with malfunctioning equipment in high-stakes situations, with producer J.J. Abrams even singling out Bird’s comedic sensibility in pre-release interviews. However, the Mission: Impossible movies wouldn’t truly begin exploring this shift until Christopher McQuarrie took over.

McQuarrie is one of Cruise’s long-term collaborators. Although McQuarrie is now an established director in his own right, he established himself as a screenwriter on The Usual Suspects and first crossed paths with Cruise as the screenwriter of Valkyrie. Cruise has frequently brought McQuarrie on board as a writer on projects being overseen by other directors. He even did an uncredited polish on Ghost Protocol and had a hand in shaping Top Gun: Maverick.

As such, it makes sense that even McQuarrie’s crowd-pleasing blockbusters have a certain “writerly” quality. McQuarrie’s three Mission: Impossible films — Rogue Nation, Fallout, and Dead Reckoning Part One — are all in some ways about exploring what a Mission: Impossible film actually is. Modern pop culture is dominated by franchises and intellectual properties, so what makes Mission: Impossible unique? How do these films stand out from the crowd?

McQuarrie’s films understand that the spy thriller is a genre built around a murky internal morality. These are stories about “realpolitik,” about systems governed by ruthless pragmatism and horrific compromise. These are stories about the sacrifices required by “the greater good,” the inevitability of “the necessary evil.” These are games played in the shadows, in which human lives are measured as statistics and where decency is a luxury that players can seldom afford.

MI Christopher McQuarrie rejects moral ambiguity Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation Fallout Dead Reckoning Part One

It is notable that McQuarrie’s biggest addition to the Mission: Impossible mythology is the character of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose very name evokes a metaphorical deal with the devil. In Rogue Nation, Faust finds herself caught in a moral compromise between MI6 head Atlee (Simon McBurney) and international terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Atlee is blackmailing Faust into compliance, using her to infiltrate Lane’s organization and cover up his own complicity.

Faust breaks with Atlee when she undermines her cover within the terrorist organization to prevent Lane from executing Ethan Hunt (Cruise). For Faust, it is a simple moral choice. “He was going to torture and kill an American agent,” Faust protests. “I wasn’t going to let him die. He’s our ally.” Atlee counters, “There are no allies in statecraft, Ilsa, only common interests.” Atlee then warns Faust that Lane is going to order her to kill Hunt and that she will do it because she has “no choice.”

Hunt operates within a similarly morally ambivalent system. Early in Dead Reckoning Part One, he meets with CIA Director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny). Kittridge argues that the world is a morally complicated place and that Hunt’s worldview is outdated. “Your days of fighting for the so-called greater good are over,” he warns Hunt. The CIA is seeking to control “the concepts of right and wrong for everyone for centuries to come. You’re fighting to save an ideal that doesn’t exist.”

While this theme runs through both Rogue Nation and Dead Reckoning Part One, McQuarrie brings it squarely into focus in Fallout. At its core, Fallout is a rejection of the moral ambiguity that defines so many contemporary blockbusters. It is a movie in which Hunt is repeatedly confronted with the choice to sacrifice an innocent life for the greater good, only to reject the choice and find a more creative solution to the problem facing him.

At the start of the movie, Hunt chooses to save the life of his old friend Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), allowing nuclear material to fall into the hands of terrorists. Later on, while organizing a daring raid on a prison convoy transferring Lane, Hunt is haunted by visions of a situation where he might have to take an innocent life to preserve his cover. During the eventual abduction, Hunt chooses to blow his cover rather than allow an innocent police officer (Alix Bénézech) to die.

This character trait is established early in Fallout. “Some flaw deep in your core being simply won’t allow you to choose between one life and millions,” explains Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), the head of the Impossible Mission Force. “You see that as a sign of weakness. To me, that’s your greatest strength.” In the closing monologue, CIA Director Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett) admits that the world needs “people like (Hunt) who care about the one life as much as they care about the millions.”

Fallout is not simply a rejection of the classic “trolley problem.” The film repeatedly pushes Hunt towards the sorts of ethical compromises that defined American foreign policy during the War on Terror, only for him to reject them. At one point, Sloane proposes to abduct a suspected terrorist, boasting that they have “a G5 standing by to rendition him to Gitmo, where a waterboard is waiting.” Naturally, Hunt doesn’t operate that way.

Early in the film, the team captures Nils Debruuk (Kristoffer Joner), a scientist complicit in a terrorist plot. As news footage reveals the horrors of the attacks, Hunt loses control. “Give me five minutes with this guy,” Hunt pleads. “That’s not who we are,” Stickell replies. Hunt counters, “Then maybe we need to reconsider that.” McQuarrie frames this as high drama. The soundtrack builds with solemn choirs and mournful violins. The camera pushes in on Hunt’s face, a man lost in introspection.

MI Christopher McQuarrie rejects moral ambiguity Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation Fallout Dead Reckoning Part One

Of course, it’s all a ruse. The reports are fake. The scenario has been staged. Hunt manipulates Debruuk without resorting to “enhanced interrogation.” The hospital room is just a set, opening up behind Hunt once he has tricked Debruuk into telling him what he wants to know. Hunt isn’t actually feeling conflicted; he is just playing a character for the scientist’s benefit. McQuarrie reminds audiences that these sorts of cinematic dilemmas are just elaborate constructions.

Fallout isn’t just engaging in abstract philosophical debates or grappling with the political climate. It is also a conversation about the narrative conventions of contemporary blockbusters, which were increasingly morally ambiguous. Fallout’s primary villain is John Lark (Henry Cavill), a brutal CIA operative who is the “hammer” to Hunt’s “scalpel.” Cavill is a modern blockbuster star, at this point most famous for his portrayal of a morally complicated Superman in Zack Snyder’s superhero films.

Fallout often feels directly engaged with Nolan’s Dark Knight films. The sequence in which Hunt and Lark break Lane out of custody directly evokes the Joker’s (Heath Ledger) raid on the convoy holding Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in The Dark Knight. Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack seems to directly evoke Hans Zimmer’s score for those films, with “The Exchange” specifically recalling “Gotham’s Reckoning” and “Fate Whispers to the Warrior” suggesting “Necessary Evil.” This is no surprise, as Balfe emerged from Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. Still, the influence is particularly pronounced here.

MI Christopher McQuarrie rejects moral ambiguity Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation Fallout Dead Reckoning Part One

As a result of all of this, Fallout positions Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in contrast to other big blockbuster franchise protagonists: Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Henry Cavill’s Superman, Christian Bale’s Batman. Even more than Chris Evans’ Captain America in that same summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, Hunt is positioned as a man who refuses to “trade lives.” He’s a protagonist that the audience can root for without any conflicted emotions or ethical uncertainty. Hunt will always do the right thing.

This is McQuarrie’s thesis statement about the Mission: Impossible franchise. It is a rejection of moral complexity and ambiguity. There is no elaborate ethical trap that the heroes cannot outwit through inventiveness or spectacle. Any time the films threaten to get too bogged down in a philosophical quandary, the solution is an insane stunt or a crazy reveal. It’s a very simplistic and appealing approach to blockbuster storytelling, and Mission: Impossible does it better than any other franchise.

About the author

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.