I am grateful to my friend Christabelle for suggesting I go see “Mission Impossible 5 Rogue Nation”. The film is chock full of allegory and oblique references to real-life incidents.
Let’s start with the names of the protagonists. Could Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise in the series) be a reference to Everette Howard Hunt (1918-2007), CIA operative implicated in the Watergate scandal and prolific author of espionage novels written under pseudonyms? What about Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), British intelligence agent who is compelled to make a ‘Faust’-ian pact with the ‘devil’, or the villain in this piece? The acronym of Mission Impossible 5 is MI5, and the plot centres around a malevolent force within the British intelligence service, although it is MI6 that gets the spotlight.
Hunt also works for IMF, acronym for Impossible Missions Force, that gets indicted for its reckless activities and for unilaterally carrying out missions unfettered by checks and balances. How can one possibly not think of the “other” IMF, the International Monetary Fund, whose critics highlight its disregard for human and labour rights of less empowered people across the world, and its support of anti-communist regimes and military dictatorships whose interests align with those of American and European governments and corporations?
Hunt, in his research into the Syndicate, finds that seemingly unconnected world events are not so random but seem to be the work of an evil organisation, The Syndicate. As plotlines go, it is rather trite (Remember Spectre from James Bond? Ho hum). The examples he cites are culled from real life, though: mysterious airplane crashes (can one help thinking of the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines flight numbers 370 and 17 from just last year?), terror attacks in disparate corners of the world, collapses of banks and economies, etc.
The principal figure after Attlee in the Syndicate is rogue agent Solomon Lane. Why Solomon? A reference to the Key of Solomon, the grimoire or textbook of magic and the ‘dark arts’? And to ‘black ops’ launched by governments, often with no transparent motive?
The name of the IMF operations officer is, of all possible names, Willy Brandt! Former Chancellor of then West Germany Wilhelm “Willy” Brandt spent the twilight of his career countering allegations that he had been on the CIA payroll. Furthermore, one of his personal assistants was found to be an East German spy.
The film suffers from the irritating Hollywood tendency to portray the American-run IMF as the ultimate heroes, showing up the obviously inept, mole-ridden MI6, protecting the world from The Syndicate, and even saving the life of the British Prime Minister as they do so.
Now on to the music. Hunt is on the run from both The Syndicate and his own colleagues because it is deemed that the IMF should be disbanded for overstepping its limits and its unorthodox methods. He sends his friend Benji within the IMF tickets to the opera in distant Vienna. We are treated to on- and off-stage thrills and spills (“You want drama? Go to the opera”, Hunt tells Benji on the phone) at Vienna’s State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper). And the opera? Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot.
The number 3, wittingly or otherwise, features strongly in Turandot. It is in three acts, to start with. Suitors for the hand of Chinese princess Turandot have to answer three riddles, with any wrong answer resulting in death. Sounds like a Mission Impossible right there. Anyone wishing to take up this challenge has to strike a ceremonial gong thrice. The plot is said to respect the “three classical unities of time, space and action.” There are three Imperial Ministers in the cast, with the ridiculous names of Ping, Pang and Pong.
In Rogue Nation, Ilsa Faust is put through (but fails) three tests which would win her acceptance into The Syndicate and enable her to infiltrate it. In the opera, Turandot refuses to marry suitor Calaf even though he successfully answers her three riddles, whereupon he offers her a “way out” of her promise: if she can guess his name before dawn the next day, he is prepared to die at daybreak. In the film, after Faust’s three failed tests, Hunt and Faust discussed possibility of a “way out” for her to still infiltrate the Syndicate despite this. These and many other nuances are elaborated further in Jay Dyer’s excellent assessment of the film on his website http://www.jaysanalysis.com.
The climax of the action in the opera house is the famous aria “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep tonight”). Faust has the aria score with her, and has circled the high note at the very end of the aria, at which she is to assassinate the Austrian Chancellor. The word being sung at this point, significantly, is “Vincerò!” (“I will win!”), which would be another “win” for the Syndicate if it were carried out.
Other lyrics from the aria resonate in the film as well: “But my secret is hidden within me. None will know my name!”
Faust is of course being put to the test by the Syndicate, and they have their own trusty ‘back-up’ assassin, who has managed to sneak in his weapon, ‘cleverly’ concealed within a bass flute! Funnily enough, so many woodwind and brass instrument players get stopped at airport security checks by officials who are mystified by the contents of their cases on X-ray. A musician friend actually had to assemble her instrument (bassoon) and allay their fears at Mumbai airport! They then broke into smiles and enjoyed her playing.
The melodic material of ‘Nessun Dorma’ appears quite a few times later in the film, even being intertwined with Lalo Schifrin’s iconic “Mission Impossible” theme.
The concept of a “play within a play” goes back to Shakespeare, perhaps even earlier. And this is not the first time a spy thriller has used opera as a backdrop for an action sequence. I wrote about ‘Quantum of Solace’ and Tosca (also by Puccini, as it happens) in an earlier column a while ago.
From “operatives” (as in secret agents) to “opera” is not such a big leap after all.
(An edited version of this article was published on 6 September 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)