Voices July 31, 2018
Risky stunts prepare audience for heroic moral action
Tom Cruise continues to do all his own stunts in the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise.
As it is for the fictional protagonist of the films, Ethan Hunt, whom Cruise plays, the result is nothing less than a thrilling series of risky adventures.
Just as the fictional superspy puts his life on the line to save the world, so too does the real-life movie star place himself in bodily jeopardy.
But what is Cruise actually doing to save the world?
Perhaps what art always does to save the world: to allow us to imaginatively perceive what is morally at stake for us in a world full of violent perils.
Certainly the movie star’s intentions are “good” in a way like those of every other celebrity who dangerously offers their own self as a sacrificial substitute: their entire being is offered to us for our entertainment.
The celebrity is entirely committed to serve our pleasure
The celebrity is entirely committed to serve our pleasure, and ultimately the audience decides whether they live or die to act another day. If they perish on set, it would simply be in the line of duty.
With its title Fallout, the new Mission: Impossible movie assumes an interesting philosophical dimension, contemplating consequences both nuclear and moral.
Hunt is warned about the impossibility of his predicament: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it. I wonder, did you ever choose not to? The end you always feared is coming. And the blood will be on your hands. The fallout of all your good intentions.”
These words could be interpreted as an admonition about the fate of being a celebrity. A star’s good intention is to please an audience.
But what is the fallout of this good intention? Cruise limped away from the latest Mission: Impossible with a broken ankle from a rooftop jump.
He didn’t even wait for it to fully heal before he went on to film a foot race in Paris, and then the film’s amazing opening airplane sequence.
Cruise jumped out of an airplane over 100 times to capture the perfect shot of him falling from 25,000 feet.
Cruise’s antics mirror the high-stakes world the audience inhabits
Yet Cruise’s antics seek to mirror the high-stakes world the audience inhabits. The world is filled with evil and malevolence, but the vivid spectacle of the hero navigating it bravely is ultimately meant to inspire us to act with moral integrity.
The mocking admonition to Hunt about “the fallout of all your good intentions” is a diabolical taunt. It makes an accusation about the futility of being good.
It is allegedly impossible to be a
good human being. So says the evil one.
On this point, Cruise’s efforts to be a heroically great star reflect in advance what the response of every human being should be in life.
Metaphorically, the mission we should choose to accept lies in not selfishly choosing pleasure for ourselves: “one life over millions” (to use another key phrase from the film).
Like the risk-taking movie star, we too should choose a road less travelled: a life of magnanimity, undertaken to benefit others, which in turn actualizes our own happiness.
Taken more literally, “one life over millions” indicates how Hunt rejects the killing of even one innocent person, even if that violent sacrifice would benefit millions of others.
Christianity defends the innocent victim, resisting the mob
Just like Hunt in a life-and-death situation, Christianity defends the innocent victim, resisting the mob that would sacrifice the innocent one.
This is a crucial insight, one that the French Catholic thinker René Girard emphasized in his brilliant life’s work.
Girard kept returning to my mind along with Mission: Impossible’s exciting chase sequences through the beautiful streets of Paris. Perhaps that is because I am currently reading the excellent biography of Girard by Cynthia Haven, Evolution of Desire.
But the movie does vividly portray the central truth that Girard recognized. The moral choice is always an embrace only of right action, even if saving an innocent person seems like foolishly prioritizing “one life over millions.”
Hunt battles against the terrorist’s violent creed: “There cannot be peace without first a great suffering. The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.”
But this is the violent lie found in all mythology, says Girard. Someone else is sacrificed in order to bring satisfaction to an angry, resentful crowd.
In contrast, Christianity countenances only the moral heroism of self-sacrifice, which in turn exposes the mythical lie of the world’s violent consequentialism.
This is your mission, should you choose to accept it. Or do you think a movie star can do it for you?