There’s a fight scene in the first hour of Mission: Impossible — Fallout that takes place in a bathroom at an EDM party. I know, I know, you’re already sold. It was no doubt the highlight of the trailer, with an oft-gif’d moment of Henry Cavill’s Agent August Walker pumping his arms as if they were loaded guns (and who am I to say they’re not) before he punches a man in the face. It’s great, it’s comical. It’s the type of image you use to react to people on Twitter who say something wrong about a movie you like.
What drew me in, what sold me, really, 100 percent, on Fallout occurs just moments later when Walker is half-unconscious on the bathroom floor, and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, a martyr, maybe, but we’ll get there), panting, looks up at the assassin who just clocked his associate. Hunt knows he has to get up. He knows he has to take this guy down. He knows he has to finish the fight. But before he does it, he sighs and rolls his eyes. And not a blink-and-you-miss-it eyeroll, the type you sneak by your extended family during a long holiday meal. I’m talking a full 360 degrees eyeroll, baby. Isn’t that just the way it is sometimes? Or even most of the time? To get back up, to fight through it all, isn’t it the most annoying fucking thing in the world?
“Your mission should you choose to accept it,” Walker sneers, throwing the conceit of the entire franchise back at Ethan. “Isn’t that the thing?” That is the thing. The impossible missions of the Mission Impossible franchise are entirely optional. At any given time, they—and Hunt, specifically, and his scrappy can-do attitude—can choose to not accept. And yet, with an eye roll, no less, he gets back up onto his feet and runs full-speed into the man who wants him dead.
I have for several years now held onto a belief that every Tom Cruise movie is about death—the fear of, the desire for, the fight against. I say this not as a diehard Cruise fan (and truthfully, it feels almost entirely unethical to write about him in 2018) or even a Cruise completist, but where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. And even if not every Cruise vehicle aligns with my flippant theory, the Mission: Impossible franchise has certainly evolved to become more death-defying than ever before. Set against the Fast & Furious franchise—different, I know—and its increasing hyper-reliance on CGI for its stunts and locations, the Mission: Impossible movies and their penchant for making everything as real as it can be feel downright old school. And knowing that, it’s tough to watch Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and it’s even tougher to watch Cruise motorcycling sans helmet through the frantic roadways of Paris and not think, this guy is going to die making these movies.
I got into a bad habit this year where I became almost too reliant on the texting acronym “kms.” It stands for “kill myself.” Never did I use it to be anything but flippant. I promise it was never a threat. Rather it became an emotional crutch throughout what I’ll politely refer to as an emotional and turbulent year. There was some sort of creature comfort in responding to each subsequent blow by referring to all of it as “real kms hours.” It is hard to articulate what I mean by this, and I dedicated too much time throughout the year patiently telling those closest to me that this was just the way I communicated, and not indicative of any cry for help. For what it’s worth, most of my close friends seemed to hate this. It drove them insane, and I’m not proud of it. “Can you please not…say that?” they’d patiently ask. And I knew I shouldn’t. I knew it was bad. But what I meant, truly, any time I would respond to something with a tongue-in-cheek “kms” was not unlike the feeling of rolling one’s eyes before getting up and tackling a guy to the ground. There’s a death wish—embedded, floating, amorphous, invisible—but I’m gonna barrel on anyway.
It is sort of impossible to talk about guys with death wishes in film in the year 2018 without talking about Free Solo. The rock climbing documentary, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, centers around 31-year-old rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Apologies for all of the proper nouns. Free soloing, for those unfamiliar, as I was before I saw this documentary, is a lone ascent up a rock face with no ropes. To phrase it so formally feels like a disservice. The dude climbs up cliffs with nothing.
(Let me tell you a non-secret: Men are insane!)
The plot of Mission: Impossible — Fallout is both incoherent and deceptively straightforward. An attempt to procure three plutonium cores before they are sold to a terrorist organization called the Apostles is, easily put, botched. In lieu of letting his teammate Luther (Ving Rhames) die, Ethan Hunt lets these cores get into the hands of the Apostles. The rest of the film (where twists and turns abound, of course) is a mad dash across the globe to get these cores back so the Apostles don’t use them to make nuclear bombs. Simple enough, right? That Ethan let the bombs get into the hands of terrorists rather than lose a member of his team haunts him throughout the film, and this mistake (if you consider it one) pushes him to greater and greater heights—both physically and emotionally—to make up for what he’s done.
Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), Hunt’s handler, as he sends Hunt on his mission, tells him: “Some flaw deep in your core being simply won’t allow you to choose between one life and millions. Now you see that as a sign of weakness. To me, that’s your greatest strength.” It’s said appraisingly of Hunt, but it doesn’t feel entirely accurate. Hunt is constantly choosing millions over the one life—the life in most cases just isn’t that of his teammates, but himself. The extent and frequency at which Hunt puts his life on the line is wildly irresponsible. Before you tell me that’s the premise of the franchise, trust me, I’m aware that’s the premise of the franchise. But in Fallout, the structure feels changed, altered. There’s a tragic undercurrent. He has to keep going. He’s not trying to die, but it’s also the job.
Jimmy Kimmel, in speaking to Henry Cavill on the press tour for the film said, “I was getting angry watching [Cruise] do these stunts in this movie because it seems just irresponsible at this point.” Moments later: “Is he nuts? Is he out of his mind? Does he have a death wish?”
“You know what,” Cavill says, only half-certain (no matter what his jawline tricks you into thinking about his tone of voice), “you would assume so…”
“But he doesn’t,” Cavill explains, before elaborating how good Cruise is at these stunts, which, if I’m being totally honest, seems entirely besides the point.
Free Solo is not, if you can believe me, “about” death; it’s about perfection. I know, I know: it’s easy to look at someone climbing up a cliff and decide they’re doing it because they want to die. Tommy Caldwell, Honnold’s friend and something of a mentor to him, explains: “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level athletic achievement that if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re gonna die. That’s pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like. You have to do it perfectly.”
Part of what makes Free Solo such a compelling watch is that it dives so thoroughly into Honnold’s training process for soloing El Cap. Day after day, he gets up onto the rock, practicing sequences (“pitches”) over and over again until they don’t seem quite as scary. Except, obviously, they’re still extremely scary. It’s still a 3,000-foot vertical ascent with no sense of security whatsoever. Honnold says to the camera, “[T]here’s a satisfaction in challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. You can’t make a mistake. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect. Like for a brief moment.”
Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t: Tom Cruise broke his ankle filming Mission: Impossible — Fallout. The footage, or a fraction of it, makes it into the finished movie. Hunt is running along a series of rooftops in central London, leaping across alleyways with all of the grace of a big cat, until he misses the mark for one, slams his body against the edge of the wall. He eases himself up over the ledge and hobbles ahead on a shattered ankle. Hunt trucks along, as does Cruise. For a moment, they’re one and the same. A man determined, grimacing, pushing forward.
I read tweets all the time that talk about the loose fascination we all seem to have with threatening to die or promising to die or saying we want to die. I’m generalizing. Your feed could be a lot brighter than mine. Regardless, it’s tough to not feel like we exist on the precipice of the apocalypse, if not already somewhat submerged in it. (If nothing else, the end of the world is fucking boring.) And to be flippant about death gives us, maybe, maybe!, a sense of control. Yet, I don’t think the political/economical/environmental circumstances are the same as flattening the language we use around death these days. I’m forced to quote Honnold in Free Solo and echo: “Look, I don’t want to fall off and die either.” We don’t joke about this because we want it, really. He doesn’t. I don’t. It’s just that it feels so unavoidable that there are fewer and fewer ways to react. The inevitability of death feels unavoidable and unfair and helpless and horrible, so why not come face to face with it? Even for a second?
Walker punches Ethan Hunt in the face. “Why won’t you just die?” he spits.
I have done about as much as I can do this year to not take care of myself. I mean this more emotionally than physically. Well, physically too. It was the year of no sleep or too much sleep, no food or too much food. I thought giving up an air conditioner would be a sign of physical strength, and I wound up with a heat rash. And in a recklessness that I can only describe as “theoretically romantic yet profoundly irresponsible,” I only escalated this harmfulness in my personal life. I sent the one in the morning text. A few too many of them, to be honest. I dug up the bodies of relationships long gone and buried for good reason. No one I haven’t spoken to in three years should be able to make me cry, and yet—. It was the first year I can recall knowing there are people who no longer want to be in the same room as me. To appease my loneliness, I scrounged my past in search of answers. There will be clues, I figured, easter eggs, for why things were the way they were. Why I am the way I am. In the heat and humidity of my un-air-conditioned bedroom, I wondered if I had always been so doomed?
I told a friend about something stupid I wanted to do, something I thought would be “good,” in scare-quotes, because I really meant bad, and they said, “that would be compelling if you hadn’t already done that this year.” Another go on El Cap. Another entry in the franchise. These things do get repetitive sometimes.
The truly harrowing footage in Free Solo—and this is a bold claim to make about a movie that centers around a man alone on a cliff without a rope—are the interviews with those closest to Honnold trying their best to make sense of his drive to solo El Cap. Or solo, in general. His mother, his girlfriend, even the production crew for the film itself. Jimmy Chin, the director, explains as evenhandedly as one can, “It’s hard to not imagine your friend Alex soloing something that’s extremely dangerous and you’re making a film about it which might put undue pressure on him to do something,” and here, Chin’s hand simply lowers, “and him falling through the frame.”
The weight of gravity haunts the film, a spectre. An inevitability. Mikey Schaefer, a climber and cameraperson on Free Solo, spends the majority of Honnold’s climb with his back to the camera and his hands over his eyes. I was able to stomach the film without looking away, but I felt all the liquid in my body sweat out through my palms. Walking out of the theater, a friend (a different one, I have at least two friends) turned to me and said, “We’re gonna live to see Alex Honnold die, aren’t we?”
Tom Cruise laughs at the footage of his ankle breaking on Graham Norton as Simon Pegg looks away in fear and disgust. Look, he’s insane! Cruise, I mean. I know it! You know it! The movie is still good! Watching Cruise by which I mean Hunt but I really mean Cruise get up onto that broken ankle and run across London was exhilarating. Thrilling. In the theater, I remember laughing. It’s ridiculous, this impulse. I can’t think of another way to face it.
Later in Fallout, as Hunt mans a helicopter—a vehicle this character is not known to know how to pilot, and that Cruise learned how to fly in order to make this film—art imitates life: Benji (Simon Pegg) tells Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), “I find it best not to look.”
It does not seem like a coincidence to me that men get the luxury of hurtling towards death with an unrelenting eagerness. Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, confronts him about his intent to solo El Capitan without telling her first.
“I want to have this more holistic approach,” McCandless says, “like you have where you’re like, ‘we’re all gonna die, might as well do what we want while we’re here and it’s okay when people die,’ but I feel like I want you to meet me halfway, and when you solo to take me into the equation.” Moments later she adds: “Would putting me into the equation actually ever change anything? Would you actually make decisions differently?”
“If I had some kind of obligation to maximize my lifespan, then yeah, obviously I would have to give up soloing,” Honnold tells her.
“Is me asking you—do you see that as an obligation?”
“Uh, no. No.” He’s confident. Certain. This is what remains so remarkable about Honnold. His steadfast commitment to risk and perfection. To placate McCandless he adds: “But I appreciate your concerns and I respect that, but I in no way feel obligated, no.”
“To maximize…your lifetime…?” she specifies.
“No,” he repeats.
What makes Fallout and Free Solo what they are is not death. It’s the spectatorship of death. It’s watching those around a person come to terms with what we all know is out there. Say what you will about Cruise, but we don’t want to see Ethan Hunt die. We want to see him succeed, we want him to achieve perfection. Mission accomplished, etc. And Honnold, too, is humanized in Free Solo. Easy, as I did earlier, to chalk him up to being a psychopath, but like so many other things, it’s much more complicated than that. “If I perish, it doesn’t matter, that’s not that big a deal,” he says. But Free Solo proves otherwise. It would be a big deal. It would ripple throughout the lives of his family, his friends, his charity work, the world.
Hunt, too, does not throw himself at assassins in French bathrooms for the hell of it. It’s so the world can keep spinning. The sun rises on Ethan Hunt and his teammates in a valley in Kashmir. “How close were we?” Benji asks. Hunt shrugs. “The usual.” Then he laughs.
Honnold too, reflects on his proximity to death, shifts uncomfortably. “Maybe that’s a little too callous,” he murmurs, looking away.
I type “kms” then delete it quickly. “Haha, sucks,” I write instead. Is this profound? I have no idea. Together, sometimes, even briefly, we soften.