Elaine Lennon

Mission: Impossible: Surprising Depths

Mission: Impossible: Surprising Depths
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Elaine Lennon takes an in-depth look at the screenplay, discovering hidden references, metaphors and motifs.

By Elaine Lennon.

Robert Towne

Robert Towne

Oscar-winning writer, producer, director and actor Robert Towne is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, contributing to such films as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. In the 1990s he wrote screenplays for several of the biggest blockbusters, including Days of Thunder and Mission: Impossible, hitching his career to that of Tom Cruise.

In the third of a series of articles about Robert Towne and his collaborations with Tom Cruise, we examine Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian De Palma, for which Towne co-wrote the screenplay together with David Koepp.

The Action Genre

Distinguished by the use of physical force and the presence of a single heroic protagonist, albeit sometimes partnered with another man of perhaps dubious intention and eminent corruptibility, the best example of the action film is probably the James Bond series, which has adapted itself time and again to geopolitical changes and audience demands over its forty-year-plus existence. Determined to preserve the masculinity fetishised by such films, they are usually populated with soldiers, policemen and government agents.

The many faces of James Bond

The many faces of James Bond

The action genre is properly a hybrid. Neither quite a war or a combat film, it usually has an ideological subtext (Us against Them). Neither an historical tract nor an overtly political message-bearer, it can be fairly contemporary, or even offer what Alvin Toffler once termed ‘future shock’ in its documentary potential. For example, the extraordinary sequence of anti-Islamic films turned out by Hollywood in the mid and late Nineties, such as The Siege, Rules of Engagement and Executive Decision (all criticised for their hostility to Moslems), turn out to have been stunningly prescient in the wake of 9/11.


Undoubtedly inspired by the James Bond series and the potential for a spy film in a post-Cold War/Berlin Wall climate, the reawakening of old TV show Mission: Impossible (created by Bruce Geller) had all the ingredients for a hit – a killer cast, amusing stories, gadgetry galore, and a huge star behind it in the form of Tom Cruise. Cruise had already made a name for himself as Maverick in Top Gun, then further cemented his presence as action hero with Days of Thunder. However, with the fall of Communism, the body politic was no longer quite to the forefront, nor was there quite such a desire to foreground the male body. Interestingly, while many of the Nineties action films would concentrate on destabilising and then re-formulating the white bourgeois American family, Mission: Impossible’s central conceit was the job at hand, and mostly set in Europe, a nod to the genre’s forebears.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible

One Problem

There remained only one problem with Mission: Impossible, the movie – and that was the script. It had been a Paramount property for eleven years before Cruise took it on. He recounted: “I said, ‘I’d like to make a movie out of Mission: Impossible…and a lot of people were, like, ‘What a ridiculous…’ And then The Fugitive came out and did great, so…”

When De Palma joined the production the screenplay had yet to be written. The first writers brought on board were husband and wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. They were succeeded by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). Apparently, he and De Palma “mapped out a story line from scratch…Six weeks, every day. I mean, going over every way to go about this story, staring at each other across the coffee table until we came up with a scenario.”

But Zaillian couldn’t commit for longer than six weeks; he was followed by David Koepp (who had previously written Carlito’s Way for De Palma.) Koepp commented: “I had quit smoking, but starting on a spy plot started me again.” Then Cruise called his collaborator, Robert Towne.

Michael SragowAccording to Michael Sragow, the challenge for Towne “was to sustain suspense in a format loaded with gimmicks and processes that warred with the characters.”

The production was plagued with rumours of power struggles. David Koepp confirms this: “Yep, no shortage of opinions on this movie. No one was going to roll over and let the other’s creative opinion rule the day… We all have egos.”

The film was co-written with David Koepp but the draft available to this author, which is largely that of the feature as released, is in Towne’s name only. It is difficult to surmise what his overall contribution was, given the series’ generic roots, and that it was based on Bruce Geller’s TV show. However the leitmotif of the film is contained within Ethan’s name – Hunt – which was a creation of the film. And the film, unlike the series on which it is based, separates him from his team, leading to an operation in which he is disavowed and spends the rest of the story trying to clear his name, and that of his mother. As a result, the film differs greatly from the series.

The emphasis on clearing the name of Hunt’s mother may have a parallel with Cruise’s own background, since his mother divorced Cruise’s father after an acrimonious marriage, then mother reared him and his sisters single-handedly. (Cruise is apparently devoted to her.) However, a more interesting allusion to real life in the film, by way of a shared surmane, is to Everette Howard Hunt, the infamous CIA spymaster and member of the ‘Plumbers,’ that circle of Nixon’s friends who masterminded the Watergate break-in. Everette Hunt’s reputation as a great insider and then as the enemy within gives subtext to Ethan Hunt’s own alienated status in Mission: Impossible’s story arc, and also lends a certain wry humour to Ethan Hunt’s break-in at Fort Knox and the manner in which it is achieved – literally plumbing the depths.

Finally, it should be noted that the overall theme of corruption is something that exercised Towne’s writing sinews on a number of previous occasions. Clearly, there is much evidence of Towne’s hand in the script.

Everette Howard Hunt

Everette Howard Hunt

The Ending

Tom Friend states that “the ending was so many rewrites in the making that writer Robert Towne had a perverse déjà vu from Chinatown.” Cruise’s take was different: “It was actually fun working on the script. We’d go, ‘Okay, what would be the coolest thing we can think of to do here?’

Described as ‘the movie that would not end,’ Friend claims:

There were 4A.M. last-minute faxes volleyballed to Towne, to Koepp, to Towne again, begging for revisions, and all were mostly De Palma’s doing. He had read Towne’s original ending to the movie and he hated it, and had gone to Cruise with an alternate plan. ‘Bob thought we could resolve the movie with a character revelation in a boxcar, leaning toward a Maltese Falcon type of ending,’ says De Palma. ‘I’d constructed a high-speed chase scene on top of the train, and I thought the movie needed this visceral ending to work. Of course, the cost was huge, and if we hadn’t had my ending, we would’ve saved millions of dollars. Tom arbitrated, and, at one point, I said, ‘Let’s try Bob’s.’ But, in the end, Tom ultimately sided with me.

Towne, told of De Palma’s explanation, chuckled:

‘That’s fine with me. It was a little more complicated than that, but what the hell. I went out and worked on his ending and kept some of the things I had. It was actually the same thing that happened with Chinatown.

And apparently Towne enjoyed the overall experience, as he relayed to the Los Angeles Times columnist, Liz Smith: “I have never experienced anything like Mission: Impossible. It has been so easy. Tom made me feel like I had been doing something wrong all these years because this was so great.” He continued: “It was a real challenge. But Tom just commandeered me…To see that much skill in the service of an old TV classic is truly amazing. I think it’s as good as filmmaking gets, and this Mission: Impossible owes a lot to Tom’s performance.”

Mission: Impossible: Television Series

Mission: Impossible Television Series

Themes, Metaphors and Motifs

Animal References

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible

The entire film is littered with animal references, from the restaurant meeting at Aquarium (also a nod to Towne’s fondness for water motifs), and Ethan running up a spiral staircase which, photographed from above, looks like a seashell; to the idea of the disavowed Ethan as a mole (he literally burrows his way back into Langley – he has to be a mole to find the mole); and then Ethan as prey, dangling like a fly into the spiderweb vault at CIA headquarters. Furthermore, Krieger’s giveaway Judas sneeze is occasioned by the intrusion of a rat into the tunnel – thus putting the analogical symbol and the actual referent into the one shot so that we don’t miss the crucial information – Krieger is the rat…

Biblical References

The name ‘Ethan’ is Hebrew (meaning ‘firm’ – a subtle reference to Towne and Cruise’s previous collaboration?). This is entirely in keeping with the screenplay’s reliance on the Bible for the transmission of information over the internet (a post-Cold War use of a pre-Cold War tool), whilst the Book of Job is entirely appropriate for yet another Townean hero trapped and then enlivened by his occupation. It is a Gideon Bible from the Drake Hotel which provides Ethan with the key to his predicament and the organisation’s mole. In fact, the entire structure offers proof of Towne’s desire to take a myth and make a new myth – from a pre-existing reality.


Alexander Golitzen

Alexander Golitzen

Another in-joke might have been in the naming of the CIA’s prey at Kiev in Act One: Aleksandr Golitsyn. Written in Occidental style, this becomes Alexander Golitzen, the name of a lauded set designer, supposedly responsible for over three hundred films, according to the classically Hollywood mode of authorship attribution, by virtue of being ‘Head of Department.’

Going Fishing

Towne’s penchant for things Irish (which also references Cruise’s film Far and Away) is revealed in Jim Phelps’ dialogue when he refers to a colleague flyfishing at the ‘Oughterard Slough in County Kildare,’ even if his geography is a little off. The whole theme of Mission: Impossible is emblemised in the term ‘fishing expedition,’ and the sight of Ethan dangling in the Langley vault waiting to copy the diskette of NOC agents is nothing if not ‘bait’ writ large, completing the metaphor let loose when he explodes the fish tanks at Akvarium, literally flushing Ethan out into the paranoid open.

Transcending the Situation

As with so many of Towne’s male heroes, such as Jake Gittes in Chinatown, or Mac in Tequila Sunrise, Hunt’s occupation has him in a vise – he is first trapped and then ultimately transformed by transcending the predicament, forced to recognise the dark consequences of his character’s choices in order to finally do some good. This is an agent with a conscience, out to avenge his team’s unnecessary deaths.

Mel Gibson as McKussic in Tequila Sunrise

Mel Gibson as McKussic in Tequila Sunrise

Set Pieces

Leaving references aside, the greatest aspect of the film are the wonderful setpieces. The film is structured around one or more scene-sequence in each country in which it is set: the bridge, the American Embassy and Akvarium restaurant scenes in Kiev; the Topkapi-inspired break-in at CIA headquarters at Langley; and the TGV train sequence, starting in London (commencing with a scene at Liverpool Street Station, De Palma’s referential way of hinting at his own The Untouchables, as well as the train scenes from any number of Hitchcock films); and finally ending in Paris.

Film critic José Arroyo states that “their function as spectacle exceeds their function as narrative.” But that is simply not true, since no scene in Mission: Impossible exceeds its narrative demands, a basic scriptwriting rule (it may, however, transcend them), and every scene is built in strict cause-and-effect style, with intricate metaphors and motifs underlying every action and line of dialogue, creating action and reaction in escalating style.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible

The aquarium restaurant scene: Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible

Show and Tell

Some of Towne’s better moments are based on the use of the shift from omniscient narration to subjective narration, at its most ingenious when Jim, back from the dead, insists on his version of events in Kiev to an apparently gullible Ethan. Ethan, however, sees things [as does the audience] in his mind’s eye – which is at all times logical. The difference between what we see and what we are told is palpable: it is the difference between a subjective lie and the objective truth, albeit from Ethan’s point of view. It is a variant on both fundamental narrative strategising and the game that American children play in the schoolroom – Show and Tell. What we are shown and what we are told differs 180 degrees; and it is on this pivot that the film turns.


In his review for Britain’s Empire magazine, a title that is usually exacting in its demands of the Popcorn Movie, Ian Nathan remarks that “it certainly wasn’t the movie we expected,” before continuing:

The team game that was the indelible series format is shunted into a sterling opening salvo in favour of a star-driven plotline – Cruise’s point man is left to fend for himself in a world of moral fuzziness. And plot fuzziness. Screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne swotted up on their John Le Carré, instilling the storyline with the cool paranoia of post-Cold War spying. In a world without bad guys, you have to invent them.

The film opened to mixed reviews but unprecedented box office receipts.


days of thunder featured 2Not yet read the first article in this series,

Days of Thunder: An Exercise in Speed?

Check it out Here!


The Firm Featured

Not yet read the second article in this series,

The Firm: One Screenplay, Three Writers?

Check it out Here!

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One Response to Mission: Impossible: Surprising Depths

  1. Avatar
    polfilmblog July 13, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Anti-Muslim propaganda in the 1990s turns out to be “prescient?” What muddleheaded gibberish. Hollywood has been demonizing Arabs for a century. Xenophobia isn’t some new phenomenon, nor does it elevate those trash films. Give me a break.

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