What do you expect of a Mission: Impossible movie? Stunts, of course -- amazing ones, usually involving Tom Cruise suspended over deadly falls, getting shot at while running, driving, or flying, leaping over abysses, almost getting caught at a moment of complete physical helplessness, and facing impossible choices with dire consequences no matter what he does.
So yes, that's a pretty good synopsis of Mission: Impossible -- Fallout.
It all comes down to this: From the first moment to the last, unrelenting urgency. And, from Tom Cruise, implacable intensity.
Now, throughout his career Tom Cruise has exhibited many traits as an actor. Charm is one of the main virtues driving his career -- he has a dazzling smile, and he can deliver a clever line so you believe he really means it. You can believe women falling in love with him in moments; you can believe tough cynical men being willing to follow him into hell and out again.
But even his charm comes down to intensity. It's what I've heard said about Bill Clinton -- if you're in his presence, and he zeroes in on you, he is so intense in his focus that you think you're the only thing he cares about.
I can't vouch for it with Clinton, because I'm not sure any amount of focus from him could get me to ignore the eely ooze of his hypocrisy.
But it's certainly true of Tom Cruise, with no slime attached: We've seen him in closeup so many times that we know exactly what it means to be under the spell of an extremely intense human being.
Tom Cruise's picture should be in the dictionary under "charisma," because in my opinion that's what charisma is. In real life, the people I've known who exhibit charisma are precisely the ones who hold nothing back. They commit completely to the moment they're in, to the purpose at hand.
It's why we want to follow charismatic leaders. We know that they mean it, and more than mean it: Whatever they're doing, they're doing it all the way. Sometimes that intensity can be turned to evil, as with Adolf Hitler. Sometimes it can accomplish much that's good, as with Winston Churchill.
And sometimes, it can create powerful entertainment, world wide, across every cultural boundary. Tom Cruise, dubbed or subtitled, is an effective hero in Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Italy, Myanmar, and Nigeria.
But even Tom Cruise can't make a bad script good. Which is why it's a darn good thing that writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has given Cruise such a powerful script, filled with dire circumstances, devious plots, deceptive enemies, and untrustworthy allies.
In fact, the script is so devious that at no point can you be sure what's actually going on.
Usually, that is the kiss of death. If we don't know what's happening, why should we care? How can we care?
Except that this is one of the most powerful factors in the success of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Nothing is ever what it seems, no one is ever who they say they are, and nothing can be counted on except for Tom Cruise's loyalty and intensity.
It's as if the whole franchise is the movie Charade or The List of Adrian Messenger on steroids.
That's why my "synopsis" at the beginning of this review is so right: It is impossible to tell you anything useful about the plot of Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, because nothing I could possibly tell you would be true, so that if I tried to explain the plot I would keep having to say, "but what was really happening was ..."
For about half the movie, it is nearly impossible to keep track of what's about to happen, what's actually happening right now, and what we're now supposed to believe about things that already happened.
The only constant and true things in this movie are: Tom Cruise looks out for his own people, even if it means mission failure; and there is some plutonium out there which bad guys intend to use to make nuclear weapons for terrorist purposes.
Now, the film visually represents this plutonium very effectively, as three six-inch spheres that can be placed in a padded suitcase and get tossed and kicked around, then set into an elaborate bomb apparatus which makes no physical connection with anything inside the ball.
However, this is one of the scientifically stupidest things I've ever seen in an adventure movie, and there's a lot of competition in that category.
First, weapons-grade plutonium is extremely radioactive. There cannot possibly be enough shielding in the suitcase to make it safe to be in the vicinity of those spheres. And yet the spheres are handled almost casually, sometimes with bare hands, and never with the level of shielding that we get when we're having X-rays taken.
The sequel to this movie should be called Mission: Impossible -- Dying from Savage Radiation Poisoning.
Second, the way nuclear bombs work is, when you suddenly push together enough fissionable material to sustain a chain reaction, then it goes boom. So the trick is to take the amount needed to create critical mass, but keep it in separate pieces, in two or three parcels that are each less than critical mass.
Then, at the time of detonation, you use conventional explosives to push the two parcels together at a high rate of speed, so that critical mass is achieved with great suddenness.
In the movie, if each of the three spheres of plutonium contained enough fissionable material to make a separate bomb, then they would already have exploded, or at least melted down. There is no possibility that any substance known to man could separate the critical mass contained in each sphere and shield the portions from each other.
At best, they would quickly create a meltdown that would make their location permanently uninhabitable for centuries.
And since each sphere contains enough material to create critical mass, and yet the mechanisms of the bombs do not penetrate the spheres at all, then all the significant works of the bomb must already be contained within that sphere, and it's impossible to guess how the bombs' wiring and mechanisms are able to trigger a nuclear explosion.
In short, it's dumb. Everything about the "plutonium" and the "bombs" is unfathomably dumb about physics, about radioactivity, about nuclear bombs.
Third, it is explicitly stated that each "bomb" has an explosive yield of about five megatons.
The yield of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was 15 kilotons -- the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. Its fissionable material was Uranium-235.
The yield of "Fat Man," the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, based on Plutonium, was about 20 kilotons -- 20,000 tons of TNT.
The "Little Boy" (or "Thin Man") design was discontinued after 1951, because of its relative inefficiency. And the "Fat Man" design was discontinued even earlier. Why?
Because, devastating as they were -- as much from the lingering radiation effects as from the initial explosive power -- they were toys compared with the thermonuclear fusion bombs that came later.
Working on a fundamentally different principle, the thermonuclear fusion bombs -- also called hydrogen bombs or H-bombs -- use a conventional nuclear explosion to cause a fusion reaction to start in a small chamber of heavy hydrogen gas (deuterium), which starts to fuse in the same kind of reaction happening under extreme pressure in the heart of every star, including our Sun.
There is no way the amount of plutonium conceivably present in all three of the spheres in Mission: Impossible -- Fallout could create a thermonuclear explosion with a yield of five megatons -- 5,000,000 tons of TNT -- without a chamber of deuterium inside each bomb, positioned so that simultaneous fission explosions compress the deuterium to a level that would trigger nuclear fusion.
While all deuterium is "created" by separating that isotope of hydrogen from naturally occurring water, it isn't cheap or easy to find, and unless parcels of deuterium were already inside each of the spheres of plutonium, there could not be yields measured in megatons.
In other words, those three spheres were not mere "plutonium." If anything said about them was true, then each one was a freestanding thermonuclear fusion bomb, on an impossibly small scale. Anything else built around them was nothing more than a detonator, which could not possibly do anything to the complex bomb inside each sphere because the spheres were never connected to anything.
They were just dropped into a socket in each "bomb" mechanism.
That's why, with a knowledge of how nuclear bombs work that I acquired in fourth grade in public school in 1960, when all this technology was still new, I had to laugh at the absolute ignorance of every aspect of nuclear bomb-making shown by the writers and designers of Mission: Impossible -- Fallout.
Does this matter?
Well, it doesn't interfere with the glued-to-the-seat entertainment value of the movie, because that comes from the human interactions. The plutonium spheres and resultant bombs are only maguffins, and so their utter unbelievability can be ignored for the duration of the movie.
But if somebody actually believes that plutonium could possibly be transported in a suitcase, with six-inch spheres each containing enough plutonium to generate a five-megaton explosion, then the movie may cause unnecessary real-world anxiety.
We've heard talk about "suitcase bombs" that might pose a terrorist threat, but nobody actually thinks you could put a thermonuclear device in a regular-sized suitcase.
In a truck, yes. In a shipping container, yes. But in a suitcase that a lone person could carry with one hand, or even roll along like a wheeled bag? Not possible.
Such a device would be spreading death by radiation poisoning to everyone who spend more than a minute or two near it, due to the impossibility of effective shielding in a device that size, and this includes anyone who built it or transported it. All dead, probably before it could be delivered anywhere.
The smallest nuclear device ever developed by the U.S., the W54, was small enough to fit in a footlocker-sized container, and weighed 51 pounds. But the yield of these weapons would have been well under five kilotons -- nowhere near a megaton.
Similar small warheads for use in ordinary artillery are called "tactical" nuclear weapons, designed for battlefield use to destroy a superior conventional army -- exactly the situation that NATO always faced in Europe, where Soviet conventional forces vastly outnumbered and outgunned Western military forces.
In such a situation, the only way to equalize numbers would have been with the use of WMDs like these tactical nukes. But since the Russians also had them, it's not clear whether they would achieve anything like equalization.
They would also have destroyed civilian populations anywhere near the fighting. Nor would any soldier near where such devices went off be likely to return home at war's end.
In short, while official U.S. military doctrine was to deploy such weapons and plan on our being the first to use them, they had all the drawbacks of battlefield use of poison gas -- blowback was bound to be about as damaging to the side using these nukes as to the side they were aimed at.
They were most effective as a deterrent to going to war in the first place. They would not have saved our troops or accomplished our objectives if we had ever had to use them.
For terrorists, such small-yield bombs would be a dream come true. But they would be hard to build, and they would have to be used fairly soon after building, because the combined mass of fissionable material is small enough that it would soon deteriorate beyond effective use.
From 1994 to 2004, it was illegal for the U.S. to build any nuclear weapon with yields under five kilotons, preventing the manufacture of footlocker- and artillery-shell-sized weapons. Whether we have a fresh supply of such warheads now is a question that remains shrouded in secrecy.
Israel is reputed to have weapons of that size, because, like NATO vs. the USSR, but more so, Israel is always under threat of a vastly asymmetrical war.
Again, however, it is the deterrent effect of such weapons (or the belief that your enemy has them) that is their most useful function.
It is quite possible that the governments of Iran, Syria, and other terrorist states believe, or suspect, that Israel may already have placed such weapons within their borders and near enough to their seats of government that any nuclear attack on Israel would be met with immediate decapitation-level retaliation, destroying the governments that made such an attack.
There are also rumors that hundreds of Soviet-era suitcase bombs have been lost or misplaced since the fall of the Soviet Union, any one of which might already have fallen into the hands of terrorist states. But Russian nuclear officials strongly deny such claims.
I'm not sure whether they deny that such bombs existed, or that they have lost any of them. Because, while it doesn't help any government to admit incompetence of their handling of nuclear weapons, it is very helpful in foreign relations to have it believed that they have such weapons.
In fact, thinking back on the run-up to the Second Iraq War, Saddam Hussein's behavior is exactly what we would expect if:
1. Saddam himself believed that he had or would soon have nuclear weapons (in other words, his scientists were lying to him), or
2. Saddam knew he had no nukes, but thought it was important to have his enemies believe that he had nuclear weapons, even though this ran the strong risk of causing the invasion of his country.
The prestige of being thought to have nukes was, in short, more important to him than forestalling an invasion by demonstrating, through inspections, that he had no nukes.
Mission: Impossible -- Fallout does get a few things right. For instance, because the "small nuke in a city" scenario has been played out in many movies, the filmmakers set the site of detonation in a remote part of the world, Kashmir, but made the threat huge by threatening to poison the entire watershed of the western Himalayas, which would have devastating effects throughout India, Pakistan, Myanmar, southern China, and a good number of nearby -Stans.
Whether this could be done by a single nuke in Kashmir is an interesting question, but it certainly was believable inside the movie, so more was at stake than the survival of Tom Cruise's team and the medical depot where the nukes had been assembled.
I think it's worth clarifying the scientific and technical possibilities if only to help the audience sort fictional from real threats. I'd hate to have our foreign policy influenced by threats depicted in movies.
Right now, especially, with a President who doesn't read books but will certainly see Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, I would hate to have him think for a moment that anything in this movie is scientifically or technically possible.
Meanwhile, Mission: Impossible -- Fallout is a vastly entertaining movie. Like the James Bond and Fast-and-Furious movie franchises, the actual plots are like ashes from a campfire -- they blow away from memory almost as soon as they're created.
But all that matters is whether the storylines work while you're watching, so that you come away from the movie eagerly telling your friends, It's a great movie, you've got to see it in the theaters where the images are huge on the screen and the sound effects make your theater seat tremble.
And that's what I'm telling you right now.
A word of warning to sympathetic acrophobes like me -- that is, people who become extremely upset when they see other people near the edges of cliffs or dangling from airplanes or helicopters.
For people like that, you're going to have to do a lot of squinting, eye-closing, and/or pants-wetting if you watch this movie.
It doesn't help to know that Tom Cruise is famous for actually doing almost all the stunts depicted in his films.
Yes, he has safety harnesses and wires attached to him during the filming, because no studio would spend millions on a film without guaranteeing the survival of the star for the entire duration of the shoot.
They came close on this one because, in a leap from one building to another -- which was real, of course -- Cruise managed to break his ankle.
If you want to understand Tom Cruise's intensity, you have to watch very closely the footage of Cruise climbing up from the edge of the building onto the roof and then running toward the camera.
Cruise, who has absolute control over these movies, understood completely that this shot could never be set up again. The cost would be too high. So even though he broke his ankle in that shot, he had to finish it because the audience had to see him running toward the camera in pursuit of the bad guy.
So he did it.
This wasn't a sprained ankle. I had a friend who once finished a basketball game for fifteen minutes on a savagely sprained ankle (he then wore a cast for most of a year). But Cruise had a broken leg. Cruise actually put weight on it and, though he was limping, he ran several steps until the shot was complete.
They had to stop filming then, of course, and finish it up six months later, after his leg got better. That was hugely expensive, too, but ... it certainly adds to Tom Cruise's mythic status in the world of film.
It's a status that Tom Cruise has earned.
Now, let me add that the fight scenes, where heroes and bad guys slug it out, have been permanently ruined for me by reading the Jack Reacher series. In every fight, author Lee Child explains that Reacher knows how impossible it is for someone to be smashed in the side of the head, then shake it off, stand up, and continue fighting.
In fact, in the most recent Jack Reacher novel I read, Make Me (whose title should have been "Mother's Rest"), he shows Reacher in a fight in which his opponent actually lands a couple of blows, including one to the side of Reacher's head.
For the rest of the novel, Reacher has to deal with the effects of that concussive blow. It interferes with his ability to aim a weapon, to think with clarity, to see far-off things, and to run without falling. It helps us understand why Reacher's whole theory of hand-to-hand combat is: strike the first blows and make them crippling.
Once you've absorbed and, vicariously, experienced street-fighting, Jack Reacher style, it is impossible not to be amused or disgusted by the absurdity of the way fistfights are usually staged in the movies. In most cases in the real world -- as in every Jack Reacher fight -- it takes little more than one blow or kick per opponent for the fight to be over. Nobody gets up and keeps fighting.
Now, as movie and TV fight scenes go on and on and on -- and not just in superhero movies -- I get more and more impatient. Lee Child is ruining such ludicrous fight scenes, and since I no longer believe what's happening for a moment, the fight scenes immediately become boring because of their utter unreality.
So maybe it's time for action-movie writers to stop relying on the endless fistfight in which the human participants would be unconscious or dead right from the start, and start telling stories where it isn't the violence but the human relationships that create our emotional involvement.
Still, Mission: Impossible -- Fallout actually does rely on human relationships to give meaning to the action, and the fights are slightly less ludicrous and tedious than usual.
Yet when Tom Cruise is victorious after a cliff-edge (and over-the-cliff) fight with Superman -- er, rather, the bad guy played by Henry Cavill, who played Superman in the one good Superman movie, Man of Steel -- he struggles back up to the top of the cliff and lies down to recover right at the edge of the cliff.
I found myself physically gesturing for him to roll back, get farther from the edge, because my anxiety as a sympathetic acrophobe was reaching critical levels.
And because I knew that Tom Cruise was probably really lying on the edge of a real cliff, since that's the kind of guy he is.
Objectified on Fox News is one of the most entertaining interview shows I've ever seen.
Part of the reason it's so good is the host, Harvey Levin, who apparently rose to fame on the strength of his work with TMZ, a website jointly created by AOL and Telepictures Productions.
TMZ stands for "Thirty Mile Zone," which refers to the area within thirty miles of West Beverly Boulevard and North La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Basically, it's the practical distance a TV station can send its on-location van -- or the practical distance defining what makes a news story "local."
But wherever he came from, Levin is a cheerful and intelligent interviewer, which only enhances the brilliant premise of this interview series on Fox News.
The idea is to build the interview around the artifacts that the interviewee has kept or treasured because they are significant in his or her life.
Though this interview series is now in its second season, the first and only episode I've seen so far is the recent interview with Alex Trebec. Trebec protested at the beginning that, since he keeps everything, the fact that he still has various artifacts does not mean they're all that significant.
The result, however, is a biography -- conducted entirely at Trebec's home, it seems -- that is replete with artifacts and stories, mostly told by Trebec himself.
Now I understand that when Trebec makes it a point to correct contestants' pronunciation of French words and names he isn't being pedantic -- he grew up bilingual in Montreal, Quebec.
While I've heard some Frenchmen sneer at quebecois French as a provincial debasement of the language, I'm quite sure that as a television personality in Canada Trebec schooled himself to use only the correct received pronunciation of French on the air.
It also gives me reason to forgive Trebec's butchery of foreign languages whose pronunciation I know rather well. He doesn't pretend to be expert in pronouncing any language but French.
But this is trivial. Objectified does a fine job of making the interview with Trebec vivid, informative, entertaining. I've now set our TiVo to record the whole series from now on, and I expect to enjoy watching.
Though of course I'll skip any episodes dealing with pseudo-celebrities (i.e., anyone named Kardashian), just because I don't have room in my head or hours in my days that I can afford to waste.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
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