Hollywood is a strange business these days. Every entertainment corporation bet on streaming in the COVID era, which made it seem as though the change begun by Netflix would quickly lead to an entirely new America. Billions were spent on something many of us loathe, a vision where Americans are reduced to consuming content on screens, mostly alone and often distracted, chatting about it all on social media, chasing trends, isolated from a world they increasingly treat with despair, hysteria, or panic. This is the death of cinema, of anything memorable, and maybe the death of American freedom. Happily, it’s not happening just yet!
Theaters have returned and so has the American habit of spending time around each other, enjoying things together. For all its faults, the movie theater is much preferable to the lockdowns and the ideas people got in that unhappy situation. Streaming is collapsing as a business model, there simply isn’t money in it to compensate for the costs. With interest rates rising and investors returning to reality, every studio is cutting costs and looking to entertain people rather than transform them through a combination of technology and “imagineering,” as Disney calls it. Speaking of Disney, it’s in bad shape, even the parks are doing badly, apt punishment for its attempt to socially engineer Americans into Progressive prejudices, not to say, brainwash children.
The worst future imaginable—think of it generally as “Virtual Reality” (an odd, typically modern synthesis that gets rid of both virtue and reality)—has been averted for now. What beautiful visions, however, does cinema have to offer the audience, to have a better, more American, less corporate-oligarchic future instead? The only answer for what might inspire us these days is Tom Cruise. The hardest working man in showbiz is carrying two franchises on his back, Top Gun and Mission: Impossible, to astonishing success, and working hard to get people to see other people’s movies as well.
Romantic American Manliness
Cruise reveals the strange character of American manliness in an era of prosperity, a combination of Romantic heroism and common sense. Cruise is the last movie star, the only actor of his generation to still have great success, perhaps because he understands simple but fundamental things—you cannot be a movie star without the movies. But he’s also the only one to have avoided the lure of the ugly and sordid that’s typical of our elites nowadays, the desire to “demystify” or “debunk” or “bust the myths,” which is nothing but an oligarchic attack on the American people’s love of freedom, which was once beautified in the movie stars.
Cruise has been a star for about 40 years now—if you like, he’s our last boost of Reagan-era confidence—but only Mission: Impossible really shows that and why he’s a star. His character, Ethan Hunt, offers a beautiful image of the qualities that make Cruise so successful, yet so moralizing. At his most earnest, Ethan tells his friends: I will put your life above mine. That, in a sense, is true of his career—he has dedicated himself to serving the American public, inspiring hope and confidence when he might have spent it enjoying himself or doing something more personal and less official. If you ever see Cruise in an interview sound not just friendly, but strangely like an ambassador, it’s because he’s something of an ambassador of America to the American people, self-appointed, admittedly, but gratefully accepted by the country as a whole. A new Jimmy Stewart for a more democratic era.
All these business, political, and technological issues are involved in bringing Mission: Impossible–Dead Reckoning Part I, the seventh and penultimate entry in the franchise, to the screen. The panic that destroyed the movie theaters in 2020 is still felt and the box office hasn’t entirely recovered, but neither has production—we’re still watching movies made years ago and the Writers’ Guild is more than two months into a strike caused by streaming. The business has meanwhile transformed into something increasingly woke, with the Oscars embracing oppression quotas and other ugly attacks on what’s left of art. Cruise alone is making artistic statements in defense of the middlebrow art that has done most to keep America not just smiling, but sane by way of being reassured.
Ethan Hunt’s struggle then is to prove true the American creed. That justice—the individual rights of each citizen that follow from his nature—prevails against elite attempts at scientific-technological tyranny through institutional manipulation. That manliness proves its nobility in protecting the weak rather than destroying or abandoning them. And that the cleverness involved in politics, espionage, and diplomacy is not inimical or suspect to democracy. Far from cynical thrillers, his adventures are acts of civic piety. In Dead Reckoning, set mostly in Rome, Venice, and on the Orient Express to Innsbruck, the fight for freedom takes the form of tracking down the key to the code of an AI gone rogue, as the AI’s agents and American spies try to kill him and his colleagues in pursuit of control over digital information across the globe.
The Romanticism shows up once you consider the difference between the great power of America, unexampled in modern history, and how small and vulnerable any given individual American is. Ethan is constantly being hunted down by the American government, which is always run by amoral players in a bureaucratic situation; they are unable to prevent madmen from sowing seeds of chaos, but they cannot tolerate Hunt’s freedom. Unlike so many of us, he has the option of going beyond the law and is therefore not a victim of institutional injustice.
The Age of The Machine
Now, the oddity is that Mission: Impossible has largely been quiet as to why the Romanticism and lonely heroism might be necessary. The forgettable, cartoonish villains of the series seem to be made up to please not so much the audiences, but the critics and other educated people who have schematics about how a story goes, how a character shows motivation and advances through an arc; it’s really like judges at a dog show, flattered that someone puts in the effort to please them.
The philosophical idea that guides Ethan Hunt is that human beings show their dignity in their freedom and there must be some way in this world for human enterprise to succeed, even if it takes a great man to achieve the seemingly impossible. The good things are not beyond us. Better to fail nobly, therefore, than to succeed meanly. The political problem is that this issues a commandment to dare you to act when you see people in trouble. Yet Ethan confronts people who have surrendered their freedom in order to be administered, without even knowing how to demand good administration or a minimum of respect for the dignity they surrender.
The drama of democratic man is conformism, as we learned from Tocqueville: helplessness leading to hopelessness, restlessness without deliberate action. Ethan Hunt is therefore continuously going rogue at the risk of his life and perhaps of his sanity, because conformism is moral suicide, and he loves freedom above all. In Dead Reckoning, Hunt finally confronts the source of all that conformism, the modern science that issues in technology, which is guided by a contradiction. On the one hand is the idea of determinism, or material causation, which commits horrors upon the human soul, but keeps our bodies safe and comfortable; that tension creates the monsters Ethan must hunt down. On the other hand is an endless skepticism about moral matters and contempt for religion, which leads to a terrible recklessness to replace God and a temptation to destroy the noble, which is why monsters try to hunt Ethan down.
These themes are important, but there is almost no plot. Ethan just has to fight against the agents of AI, the embodiment of materialist science, a god above human beings, a Leviathan to humble the proud, a combination of natural (technology) and political science (behaviorism). The theological concept of the katechon, which holds back the apocalypse, by the way, is represented as a cruciform key that might get access to the malevolent AI to stop it. Obviously, the AI was created by the American government, in a paroxysm of paranoia and self-aggrandizement, of military-industrial ruthless cowardice. Thus, M:I is making contact again with post-War-on-Terror American politics—disinformation hysteria, institutions losing legitimacy, political conspiracies everywhere. If it’s not stopped, the AI would destroy not just Ethan, but our very access to truth, since digital technology interposes between us and reality. But that’s going to be in the sequel.
Mission: Impossible movies used to be primarily for men. This isn’t to say that women were uninterested or there was no charm to appeal to them. But everyone involved in making the movies was on the side of action, of the thriller, in short, of men’s interests in danger and death. The conquest of fortune by a rogue with skills as diverse as theater and technology. Directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo, for the first two movies, made their careers appealing to men, in their different ways. Cruise’s favored director over the last decade, Chris McQuarrie, ditto.
This is all changing now, as the movies fail as stories and instead become somehow social media activities in our technological “virtual reality,” increasingly moralistic and ineffective. Dead Reckoning is a movie about Ethan’s relation to four different women and his fate is decided by their choices. If you stop to think about it, we’re no longer in an action movie, but beginning to enter the realm of religion. Cruise seems to be taking a kind of Christian mission and going around converting women to his humanitarian faith.
This is all I can say without spoiling the movie, which is just now in theaters. Hollywood gets another lease on life with Tom Cruise’s blockbuster. Audiences get two and a half hours of excitement and moral suasion, with the promise of at least as much to come in the final installment. And we get to think over freedom and dignity, as well as America’s special role and present predicament. It’s a bargain, if not a steal, at the price, so go see it and enjoy the achievement of the impossible!