Storyclock Research Log

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

By Ryan Polly

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

This week in the research log, we’re clocking MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL. We’ve used the Storyclock Notebook to visualize the film’s structure and plot points in the form of a clock. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read this blog post and forgive us for making this obvious joke.


Let's Break It Down

  • Opening Image: Agent Hanaway is a badass but is killed by a mysterious assassin who takes his stolen bag of Russian nuclear launch codes.
  • Normalcy: Ethan Hunt spends his days alone in a Moscow prison.
  • Normalcy Disrupted: Benji and Carter break Ethan out of prison in a successful mission. Ethan’s back out in the world. “If the Secretary wanted me out of there, it must be pretty bad out here.”
  • Herald: Ethan of course gets a Herald in the form of an IMF audio message. He’s given a mission to infiltrate the Kremlin and take files with information on the identity of “Cobalt”.
  • Rational Approach & Failure: The team infiltrates The Kremlin successfully and uses badass gadgets in the process. Their mission takes a turn when Ethan hears a mysterious man’s voice on his earpiece and realizes they’re being set up.
  • Acceptance and Break Into Act 2: The choice is made for our hero to break into Act 2 when Cobalt bombs the Kremlin and frames Ethan. The world has changed. The President of the United States has disavowed the entire IMF.
  • B Story Begins: Russian Agent “Sidorov” threatens the life of Ethan (“team leader”) and vows to take him out.
  • Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise: Ethan’s hospital escape. “Ghost Protocol” is initiated (foreshadowing our midpoint). IMF Secretary killed. Renner and Ethan’s underwater escape. The secret train base. The Burj Khalifa set piece (my personal favorite M:I stunt)! Teamwork!
  • Midpoint: The team almost successfully pulls off an intricate mission on their own without the help of IMF, but their cover is blown at the hotel and Hendricks escapes with the nuclear launch codes.
  • Things Get Worse: The team is in disarray, physically and emotionally beat down after their failed mission. Ethan and Renner butt heads.
  • Hero's Last Resort: Ethan meets with Bogdan and his arms dealer friend, who gives him a key piece of information to help him stop our Shadow.
  • Game Over: The team goes to Mumbai to get some satellite codes from an billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur Brij Nath. They heist the codes but are too late– Hendricks uploads a virus to the system. He launches the missile.
  • Breakthrough & Rebirth/Break Into Act 3: Ethan does what he does best: drive really fast in a vehicle in pursuit of the bad guy. He and Carter catch Hendricks and Henchman as they’re exiting the TV station and go hand-to-hand/gun-to-gun.
  • Hero Gains Upper Hand: Ethan fights Hendricks in an inventive parking garage sequence.
  • Shadow's Final Push: Hendricks sees his only successful way to win: by jumping off the top of the parking garage to his death with seconds left in the missile countdown. Only he underestimated our hero.
  • Ultimate Breakthrough: Ethan Hunt is a madman. He hops in a BMW and drives it straight down 100-meters to the ground to reach the briefcase in time. Benji defeats the henchman and Ethan shuts down the missile with milliseconds left on the countdown.
  • New Normalcy: The IMF is saved. Ethan chills with old pal Luther and the crew accepts their new missions.
  • Final Image: Ethan Hunt disappears into a wall of smoke off to another Mission: Impossible.

Stuff That Stood Out To Me

  • Man these movies' plots can get super convoluted. But you're so distracted by all the running. Such good running.
  • I was watching the behind the scenes of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION when writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (follow him on Twitter because it’s just as good as film school) said something interesting: they write these films completely around the big action set pieces. Looking at our clock, this fact makes total and complete sense. Below is some very loose symmetry in how the action scenes are laid out:
    • At the very beginning we have our prison escape. Mission accomplished.
    • At around 3 o’clock is our Kremlin shenanigans. Mission failed.
    • At around 6 o'clock is when the craziness of the Burj Khalifa sequence takes place. Mission failed.
    • At around 9 o’clock the team crashes a party and Benji/Carter/Renner try to heist the nuclear codes. Hendricks uploads the virus. Mission failed.
    • At the end we have our finale in the parking garage. Mission accomplished.
  • “Ticking clocks” keep the plot moving. In the Burj Khalifa sequence, just having Brandt regularly scream out the time adds a layer of urgency. As if having a guy climb the side of a building 130 floors up isn't urgent enough.
  • One of the main aspects of an Impossible Mission™ is the arsenal of cool gadgets, but one of the great things Brad Bird brought to the table was the idea of these machines never working like they're supposed to, and the tension we get as a result. The mask machine breaks. The sticky gloves stop sticking. They contribute to a running theme, and reinforce that our heroes are on their own. I love that.
  • Symmetricalish Moment: Ethan breaks Bogdan out of prison + Bogdan and friend give Ethan key info that contributes to him saving the entire world.

My big takeaway from this movie (and this whole franchise really) is that you shouldn’t be afraid to give your hero as many obstacles as possible. Ethan and his crew fail again and again and again but persevere to finish strong and accomplish their mission. It makes it that much more eventful when they finally do win. “Our hero needs put his face up to a retinal scanner to enter the secret base? Okay well let’s put it on a moving train. No that’s too easy. You know what? Let’s put annoying posts up every 10 yards so that he has to do that while simultaneously dodging metal beams. That’s better.” Such a simple action is made so much more entertaining, simply by throwing in a few basic obstacles.

That’s all I got. Buy a Storyclock Notebook and try clocking some movies yourself!

This blog post will self destruct in five seconds.*

*It won't.

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