Director Brad Bird on Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
April 17, 2012
Last week, we were lucky enough go to our nation's capital, Washington D.C., to The International Spy Museum for the official DVD/Blu-ray launch of the nearly-$700-million-dollar grossing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth film in Tom Cruise's super spy franchise and the first live-action movie directed by Pixar vet Brad Bird (The Incredibles). Bird and several bonafide real-life former spies attended and were eager to talk about this hyperkinetic blockbuster and how it mirrored true espionage.
All speakers were introduced by Peter Earnest, a 35-year veteran of the CIA who spent the bulk of that time performing covert actions in the Clandestine Service. He has been the director of the International Spy Museum for the past decade. Over six-million people have visited the Museum since it opened, and we were treated to a tour that included historical glimpses of spy memorabilia, both from actual covert missions and the movies. We also went on a "group spy mission" via a guide taking us through the various steps (disarming security cameras, decoding audio, etc) involved in such operations.
Included on the panel was Jonna Mendez, a member of the Spy Museum board and former Central Intelligence Agency Chiefs of Disguise, who helped make masks and plenty of other field gear to help agents disappear. Also speaking were Oleg Kalugin, a retired Major General in the 1st Chief Directorate of the KGB, and his Cold War American counterpart Dave Major, former supervisory special agent in the FBI, the first to be appointed to the National Security Council as Head of Counterintelligence.
Those famous mask making machines have been a part of all four "Mission: Impossible" entries, and Earnest asked his colleague Mendez how grounded this identity-changing technology is.
"The cyberimaging machine they use for mask making is not really a new technology," said Mendez. "Cyberimaging has been around for a long time and its been used for many things. It can image any 3-D object. If you were an espionage agency and had hundreds if not thousands of officers traveling around the world wouldn't you at least consider storing their faces in a digital file somewhere in case you needed to do this or that for them? We certainly did, and this was years ago. The concept of using it in the way they did isn't bogus."
The Kremlin is virtually destroyed in one of the key early sequences that sets off the events of "Ghost Protocol," but Kalugin doesn't think that would actually happen in his home country.
"I was never involved in violence, and all these explosions that impresses people outside the real true world of espionage," stated Kalugin rather bluntly. "I don't take it seriously, it might encourage guys in current Russia to do the same! I was not particularly stirred."
Another major aspect of the plot of Bird's film is Cruise and his fellow agents becoming disavowed by the government after the Kremlin bombing is pinned on their agency. Dave Major said you would never find a field agent acting on their own in a rogue way as seen in "Ghost Protocol."
"In the FBI we were never disavowed," said Major. "I never saw that happen, so I think that's very much the fantasy of Hollywood, which is great that you can do that. I have seen secret operations where you were told that it can't become public. You had to do some things that were illegal but were also very secret. I've seen that a lot of times. I've even been told by managers "don't get caught" or "don't get compromised", but never the disavowing aspect that makes these people all by themselves and if they fail you know what happens. I've never seen that in the real world."
There's no question that the centerpiece of the film comes when Cruise's IMF Agent Ethan Hunt ascends and descends the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world at a staggering 2,723-feet. Of course, on the Blu-ray disc special features the stuntmen explain that a mere 50-foot drop would kill a person, so the extra digits don't really account for much if Cruise's safety wires had snapped. Luckily the stunt was a success, with Cruise pulling off the amazing feat of performing the climb himself.
"When we were first talking about it we imagined we were gonna do it mostly with special effects," said Bird. "Tom was determined to do it on the actual building, and then it was just about getting cooperation from the people of Dubai. I don't think there's another actor in the world who'd be willing to do the kind of stuff that Tom did."
When asked what compelled him to make this impossible mission, Bird said he was naturally drawn to the material based on his previous work.
The director continued, "Even though I'd never done a spy movie before, people could feel a spy vibe in 'The Incredibles,' where there was a lot of sneaking around and hiding in the shadows even though it was a superhero movie which is not the usual place for that sort of thing. I like secrets, sneaking around, and gathering information. I have to admit I'm seduced by the gadgets too, which I know are only a tiny part of the job! Still, there are some wonderful things on display in this museum that are very ingenious and I think that's one of the things that makes the world of spies so cinematic."