What can it mean that one of the bad guys in Mission: Impossible 2 is called “John McCloy”? John J. McCloy (in the movie his middle initial is “C.”) is well-known to students of postwar American history as the Wall Street lawyer who served as assistant secretary of war, high commissioner to occupied Germany, president of the World Bank, chairman of the Ford Foundation, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, chairman of the Chase Manhattan bank, and member of the Warren Commision. In 1962, a famous article by Richard Rovere in Esquire quoted John Kenneth Galbraith as identifying McCloy, with tongue only halfway in cheek, as the chairman of the American Establishment. Two decades later, a Harper’s profile by Alan Brinkley called McCloy “the most influential private citizen in America.” Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’$2 1986 book The Wise Men, a group biography of McCloy, Robert Lovett, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson, said McCloy “may hold the record for the number of Cabinet posts rejected by one man.” Kai Bird’s 1992 McCloy biography, The Chairman, identified McCloy as “one of the more admirable members” of an “elite club” that left a “questionable legacy.” (Click here to read McCloy’s 1944 letter explaining why he couldn’t authorize the bombing of Auschwitz. He was also criticized for the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans, in which he played a role, and for the postwar clemency he granted Alfred Krupp and a few other Nazi war criminals.)
It’s not possible that M:I-2 screenwriter Robert Towne, who mined the obscure history of California’s water politics for Chinatown, and the obscure history of California’s oil politics for its disappointing sequel, The Two Jakes, is wholly ignorant of the real McCloy, who died in 1989. Brendan Gleeson, the actor who plays “John C. McCloy,” even looks a little like John J. McCloy. Without giving too much of the plot away, Chatterbox can say that M:I-2’s “John C. McCloy” is a respectable Australian biotech industrialist who turns out to be ruthless and evil, though not half so ruthless and evil as the film’s main bad guy, a rogue “Impossible Mission Force” (IMF) agent named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott).
But what is Towne’s point in naming his biotech industrialist John McCloy? If he’s making some subtle argument about the real McCloy’s role in shaping the 1950s U.S. Establishment, Chatterbox is hard pressed to guess what that is. More likely, when Towne thinks “McCloy,” he thinks, simply, “Establishment,” and remembers the generation of Ivy league WASPS that followed McCloy’s–the so-called “best and brightest” who got us into the Vietnam War. Or, if Towne’s mind is attuned to more contemporary protest politics, perhaps he thinks of internationalist agencies like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (which also goes by the initials “IMF”–though Chatterbox thinks the old Mission: Impossible TV show, which long predates any left-wing/anarchist ruckus over multilateral lending agencies, also used the term “IMF”). Still, it’s not easy to figure why Towne would think contemporary internationalism evil and yet choose to write a movie glorifying his own IMF, an international supersecret spy team that is all-powerful and accountable to no civilian authority, but which happens to be personified by the extremely good-looking and athletic Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).
Chatterbox invites readers to e-mail two or three paragraphs untangling and elucidating M:I-2’s politics. The winning entry will be published here. (As usual, no prize; and please send entries to Chatterbox@Slate.com.)
(Click here to read David Edelstein’s M:I-2 review in Slate, which missed the McCloy angle but is otherwise on the money.)