The iconography of movies is always a little unstable. The imagery and symbolism that are legible to an audience depend so much on the cultural, historic, and generic context. There are even entire academic subfields dedicated to studying it. The visuals we associate with certain themes or characters can be as simple as the Batman logo and as nuanced as Han Solo’s smirk. But there are also images so powerful that they immediately seep into the filmic bloodstream and soak into every nook and cranny of culture. Mission: Impossible contains one of these images.
Tom Cruise, suspended by a single cable, hanging over a computer console. His black secret-agent garb contrasting with the pristine white background. Utter silence. It’s almost absurd that it’s so simple. Directed by Brian De Palma, the 1996 adaptation of the TV series of the same name finds Ethan Hunt (Cruise) embroiled in the first of many scraps with the IMF. Ethan’s been accused of double-crossing, in a botched mission that found the rest of his team dead (or so he thinks). To clear his name, he must steal a list that reveals the secret identities of all operatives in the IMF and team up with a smattering of ex-agents to do so.
In truth, it doesn’t particularly matter what he needs to steal and who he needs to steal it for. This first entry in the Mission: Impossible film franchise spends a lot of time explaining the exact circumstances of the conspiracy. It’s something later movies will mostly abandon — we just get that Cruise has to hang off the side of a plane and we’re happy with that. In fact, the labyrinthine plot of Mission: Impossible contributes to the power of this single shot. The stunning immediate impact of the shot has all viewers forgetting briefly the scene’s narrative purpose and instead investing in the film emotionally. You’re too anxious to be concerned with the specific reason why we’re in this room.
Part of what builds this intense anxiety is the circumstances of the break-in. Alarms will be activated if any sound is too pronounced, a gauge notes the room’s average temperature, and the floor has a sensitive pressure sensor. Because of this, Ethan has to be suspended directly in the middle of the room. The way Cruise’s body breaks up the geometric design of the space adds a lot of visual interest and thematic weight. This bunker is designed solely to keep information in, the secrets of which Ethan must expose to get his life back. He descends into this hyper-codified, precisely organized space as a major disruption. It mirrors the way he disrupts the plans of his adversaries and even his status as a generally rogue agent in future movies.
What’s masterful about De Palma’s approach here is the way he implicates the audience in this shot. While many filmmakers emerging from the more-is-more school of thought might add the classic musical twang here, De Palma opts for silence. Ethan must be dead quiet so as not to trigger the alarms, and we realize that we must be as well. By extending the rules of the story world using sound (or rather a lack of sound), De Palma connects us more deeply to Ethan and his mission.
De Palma also ensures the camera’s slow descent into the space with Ethan leaves the audience hanging on for dear life. The camera never feels like it’s resting on the ground; it’s hovering. Our perspective is just as precarious as his. Ethan is our lifeline; he’s the only one who’s hooked into the cable. We’re forced to trust him. All of these techniques cause the throat-catching, breath-holding effect we’ve come to expect from the Mission: Impossible movies.
There exists a grand meta-narrative of the Mission: Impossible franchise, wherein Tom Cruise is the Ethan Hunt of Hollywood filmmaking. Cruise refuses to let his audience down; he comes back again and again even when we say we’ve had enough. No scandal can keep him down for too long; no box-office disappointment can force his retirement. He’ll hang off the side of a building or jump out of an airplane if he has to, whatever it takes to get his mission done. This film, and particularly this shot, help begin that dynamic.
Mission: Impossible was also the first film Cruise ever produced, and he’s clearly aware of the importance of his own iconographic effect in this movie. Cruise’s producing career includes the rest of the Mission: Impossible films, along with a couple of Jack Ryan films, and most recently, Top Gun: Maverick. These projects are a sign of self-awareness in Cruise; he knows what his audience wants to see and is willing to back it financially and creatively. Mission: Impossible cemented his status as a movie star as well as a major creative force in 21st century Hollywood.
Not every movie star would understand that his visual impact lies in being a spatial disruption. The image of Cruise’s body suspended in mid-air isn’t particularly macho or sexy. It simply signifies to audiences the most important part of his persona: he’ll never drop us. This shot sticks in our collective craw certainly because of the gorgeous construction and the utter silence. But even more than that, it establishes Ethan Hunt as the character willing to risk it all, and Cruise as the only actor who could ever convincingly play that. Mission: Impossible created the visual symbolism of Tom Cruise, and his impact will be forever meaningful to audiences because of it.