Monday, August 24, 2015
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Rogue Nation and the Perpetual Intensity of Elections
by Matt McKenna
There’s a scene in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation in which CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) describes to a Senate oversight committee just how insane the IMF’s counter-terrorism practices are why the department should be shut down immediately. To provide context for readers unfamiliar with the Mission Impossible show or series, the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) is the franchise's super-secret government agency that tracks down bad guys--specifically those with violent, existential issues--and eradicates them. As you can imagine, over the course of each of their missions, the IMF explodes a goodly number of cars, helicopters, buildings, etc. Anyway, Hunley lands some great points about how the IMF is more of a liability than an asset because it has no accountability for the mayhem it causes. To drive home his claim about the recklessness of the IMF, Hunley shows footage from the previous Mission Impossible film in which, as a result of the IMF’s attempts to stop some such bad guy, a nuclear warhead grazes the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and falls into the Bay, narrowly avoiding detonation. If the best the IMF can do is just barely avoid world-ending calamities via last-second heroics that nonetheless cause millions/billions/trillions in damage, Hunley suggests, perhaps it’s time to put our faith in a different form of international relations.
But we the audience know better: of course the IMF is necessary. Even if we doubted its efficaciousness, even if Hunley’s impassioned, pragmatic speech purchased any sympathy from viewers, we are provided myriad shots of IMF agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) listening to the arguments against his organization while smirking, scoffing, and otherwise undercutting Hunley--that square from upper management. Hunley clearly doesn’t realize the IMF’s importance, how desperately the world needs the organization to avoid falling into violent anarchy. Brandt’s mocking eyes reinforce what the audience already knows by virtue of the fact they paid nine dollars for matinee tickets to watch the film: without the IMF, the planet’s evil geniuses, scheming nihilists, and power-hungry terrorists would have free reign to run roughshod over the world, and the impotent, paper-pushing bureaucrats would be powerless to stop them. There has simply never been a more important time for the IMF to exist.
Having the protagonists (and by proxy the audience) alone in their awareness of the direness of the narrative situation is an effective storytelling technique that plays out like a reverse-conspiracy, an anti-mystery in which the heroes know convoluted truth in all its detail, but the rest of the characters are either skeptical of it or hostile to it. In Terminator 2, for example, an institutionalized Sarah Connor can’t convince her psychologist that robots are travelling back in time to end humanity. The audience knows Connor is right, but the psychologist just isn’t part of the enlightened in-group. In Jaws, police chief Brody’s dire warnings about a man-eating shark go unheeded, and viewers can only shake their heads as the shark subsequently devours its victims. And in the Colombo television show, the audience and detective Colombo almost always know the identity of the murderer at the very beginning of each episode; The show remains dramatic primarily because the viewer is provided the pleasure of watching the rest of the characters come to the realization that the mystery is not how crime was perpetrated as per a typical whodunit show. Instead, the real mystery is how Colombo already knows how the crime was perpetrated.
If you’ve ever received an email from a political campaign, you understand how Rogue Nation’s technique of using reverse-conspiracy to create drama plays out in reality. Just as the audience knows there’s never a good time to fold the IMF, the politically engaged American knows there’s never a good time to vote for a politician belonging to a party other than one of the two big ones. These campaign emails rallying us to action let us know that we are part of a special group of individuals who understand that the barbarians from the other party are always at the gates waiting for a moment of weakness, ready to take advantage of any naïve idealists who are either too ignorant or too stupid to realize that God didn’t actually rest on the 7th day; Instead, he created the Democrats and the Republicans so they could be locked in endless ineffectual battle for his amusement, and any attempt to abolish this holy writ will be punished by God’s wrath. The Democrats know this wrath well: just think of the year 2000 when a number of votes that “should have gone” to Democrat Al Gore instead went to third party candidate Ralph Nader, thus (many claim) splitting the vote and resulting in Republican George W. Bush being elected to office for eight years. Liberally minded individuals now know better than to disrupt God’s careful balance.
Fast-forward to the year 2015 when the Republicans have to deal with their own heretic, Donald Trump, a man who would make one heck of a goofy uncle but since he’s a billionaire, he’s running for President. If Trump loses the primary, which of course he will, he has refused to agree to support whichever Republican candidate beats him. Like Nader, Trump is spitting in the eye of the natural law of duopolistic politics, and as such has drawn the ire of the devout soldiers of the American culture wars. Unlike Nader, however, Trump’s platform focuses less on principled consumer advocacy and more on showcasing his personality, a personality that resembles a Big Mouth Billy Bass strapped to a bag of money. In any case, if Trump runs as a third-party candidate or throws his support behind some other third-party goofball and the Republicans lose the election, he will be known as a spoiler, a Judas among Republican hopefuls. Of course, Republicans think it would be a terrible sadness to lose the election, but I haven’t heard any of them commit to a prediction of the heinous disasters that would unfold if it did.
So why does it always feel like the current election cycle is so crucial when in all likelihood it is probably equally important to all the elections that preceded it, which is to say not that important? The answer is that we feel the same way about politics as we do our Mission Impossible movies. Just as there is no Mission Impossible movie in which the failure of the IMF would merely be a bummer, neither is there an election in which the failure of our preferred parties would merely be a bummer. You’d figure Americans would eventually develop a Danny Gloveresque “I’m too old for this shit” attitude, but our energy for politics is sustained by a steady stream of warnings telling us that if the election doesn’t swing our way, a law might be overturned, a diabolical Supreme Court justice might be appointed, or a social movement might be stymied/encouraged. Perhaps that’s why the cost of elections continue to grow and Americans’ political attitudes continue to polarize even while the two parties coalesce their opinions on the few topics that might actually have a meaningful impact on our lives: financial regulation (bad!), war (good!), wealth gap (what do you want us to do about it!?).
Back to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Tom Cruise has once again reprised his role as IMF super-agent Ethan Hunt, and he is fantastic. I hope by the time Cruise is too old to do another Mission Impossible movie, computer graphics have advanced far enough they can just CG his six-pack in. As it stands, however, Cruise's six-pack is still intact, and Rogue Nation is a good film. I give it whatever number of stars you need to justify going to see a movie. Is it something you’ll tell your grandchildren about? Definitely not. But then again, neither is this election, and at least Rogue Nation is entertaining.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:45 AM | Permalink