There is a Mission: Impossible – Fallout spoiler at the beginning of this article. If you’re concerned about spoilers, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to skip over that part and read the rest.
There are a lot of fantastic scenes in Mission: Impossible — Fallout. But there’s one particular scene that secures the film’s place within a larger trend of unreality in the summer of 2018. It takes place in a hospital room where a nuclear weapons expert (Kristoffer Joner) has awakened to see CNN news coverage of three catastrophic nuclear explosions that he helped orchestrate: one in Jerusalem, one in Mecca, and one in Rome. Members of the Impossible Missions Force are there, telling him that he and his cohorts pulled off the attacks. Meanwhile on TV, Wolf Blitzer describes the extent of the destruction.
Then comes the twist: The nuclear explosions didn’t actually happen. Preying on the man’s arrogance in the face of his apparent success, Ethan Hunt and co. tricked him so they could gain access to his mobile phone, which contains the intel they need to track down some stolen plutonium. As for that CNN coverage? It turns out to be, quite literally, fake news. Even the hospital room is fake. After its walls recede, Wolf Blitzer himself enters and, in classic Mission style, peels off his face, revealing that he’s actually IMF field agent Benji Dunn. He’s a Simon Pegg in Wolf’s clothing.
It’s a great sequence that, more succinctly than any other moment in recent film or TV, captures the degree to which truth and fiction have gotten completely scrambled. The lines between genuine and fake in our politics and our pop culture have been blurry for a while, at least since the shouts of “fake news” started and The Handmaid’s Tale was first flagged as a reflection of life under President Trump. But this summer, those lines have blurred at what feels like an even more rapid pace. A surreal sense of confusion regarding what to believe — about where fiction ends and nonfiction begins — is as central to the vibe of the summer of 2018 as World Cup viewing parties, heated discussions about the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, and Bud Light Orange hangovers. (As Billy Porter’s Pose character Pray Tell might say, “The category for the summer of 2018 is … Unreality Realness.”)
Our summer of unreality — a season that’s so on the nose, it even had a surprise release of the final season of UnReal — has been filled with moments that seem designed to meddle with our notions of what’s true and what’s false.
Images are playing tricks on us. A photo of Kim Kardashian West meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office looks so jarringly odd that we assume it is Photoshopped. It isn’t. Pictures of First Lady Melania Trump wearing a jacket that says “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” while boarding a plane to visit migrant children seem so callous that they can’t possibly be real. But they are. An image purportedly showing arrested Russian spy Maria Butina at a 2017 meeting in the Oval Office is deemed legit by multiple journalists on Twitter, until someone verifies that the redhead in the doorway isn’t Butina after all. Are our eyes lying, or is the world so consistently un-freaking-believable that our ability to sort the legitimate from the preposterous has gotten out of whack?
After a reportedly benign medical procedure, Melania Trump stays out of the public eye for a full month. Rumors circulate that she was really having plastic surgery or that she’s moved out of the White House, but no official explanation ever tells us exactly why the First Lady vanished for so long. The best we get is Donald Trump insisting to the press corps that his wife is watching from a White House window when, in fact, there is no one there. During any other summer, the mystery of the missing First Lady and a president who might be hallucinating her presence would consume the public imagination until Labor Day. In the summer of 2018, it’s already been washed away by a tidal wave of other unrealities.
This summer, official speak has not only turned into double speak, it’s become double-negative speak. (From beyond the grave, even George Orwell is going, “Wow, kudos, even I never thought of that.”) “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump declares at a summit while supporting Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Then the next day, Trump announces that what he actually meant to say was, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.” He adds: “I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.” It does not. It is the opposite of clarification, because there is no such thing as clarity in the summer of unreality.
Exhausted and confused, we turn to trusty television for some nice straight-forward, escapist narratives. What we get is more fiction/truth blurring. Sacha Baron Cohen assumes the role of a fake Israeli anti-terrorism expert and conducts an interview that leads to the very real resignation from office of a very racist Georgia state representative. Shows like GLOW, Dietland, and Younger feature #MeToo-inspired story lines that aren’t real, but sound so real we aren’t sure if there really is a vigilante group running around called Jennifer. On HBO, we find Sharp Objects, a limited series with a deliberately hazy visual and editing style, about a town where girls have a tendency to disappear. We watch several episodes and still have no idea what exactly is going on, but — oh my God, is it possible that Melania briefly went to Wind Gap and that’s why no one wants to talk about it?
Clearly our brains our totally buggin’, so fine, screw it, let’s go to the movies. We could see Tully, in which everything you think you understand about the film’s version of reality gets turned on its head. Or we could see The Incredibles 2, a Pixar feature in which supposedly decent superheroes are actually the victims of mind control. Or we could try Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which tries to sell us the biggest lie of all: that Cher is Meryl Streep’s mother even though she’s only three years older than Streep in real life.
What about breakfast food? Surely breakfast food wouldn’t lie to us. Leslie Knope taught us that! Except now IHOP is called IHOB, short for International House of Burgers. Except wait, no, it isn’t because the chain changed the name back, revealing that the whole thing was a publicity ruse. Okay, this is rock bottom, right? We can’t even trust pancakes anymore.
But even pancake deceit on an international scale isn’t as unreal as it gets. It turns out that the summer of unreality didn’t actually hit its apex until this week: not because of the Michael Cohen tape, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s resistance to (and eventual acceptance of) fact-checking Goop’s content, but because of something President Trump said during his Monday visit to a Kansas City VFW hall.
“Just remember,” Trump said during a lengthy speech in which, among other things, he bragged about a Space Force that Congress already decided not to fund, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” As others have pointed out, this is very reminiscent of a line from Orwell’s 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” The president of the United States has said, in clear, disturbing language, that only he speaks the truth and everything else you hear about him and his administration is false. That is peak unreality.
It’s fitting that we’ve reached it just a few days before Mission: Impossible — Fallout arrives in theaters, complete with a prominent scene that relies, in part, on the idea of fake news. That’s either super-meta on Fallout’s part, an ill-timed move for CNN (given the precariousness of this media moment), or probably both.
A couple of other things make Fallout just right for our summer of collective cognitive dissonance. There’s the fact that it stars Tom Cruise, who is both beloved and deemed suspicious in equal measure, praised for his work ethic and clouded by controversy because of his connections to Scientology and the odd dissolutions of his three marriages. No other movie star in modern times is as big as Cruise, while being shrouded in so many mysteries about who he really is off-camera.
Then there’s what the Mission: Impossible franchise stands for, which, at this point, is authenticity above all else. We know the effects are practical and that many of the eye-popping stunts are performed by Cruise himself. (The marketing of these films makes sure we never forget it.) That’s what makes these movies so cool: This man is willing to dive out of airplanes, crash helicopters, and even break an ankle while diving onto a rooftop, all for the sake of our entertainment. When he actually does break an ankle while diving onto a rooftop, we eventually get to see the shot where it happened — and in IMAX! While these films are obviously fiction, the rush of watching them springs from our awareness that certain aspects are genuine.
The idea that the Mission: Impossible movies still appeal to moviegoers for that reason is, to me, a positive sign. It’s proof that even in a summer of unreality, the real still has value, at least in a Hollywood action franchise where people regularly reveal that they have two faces.