Bureaucracy and Agency: Masking Identity in Mission: Impossible

In 1996, Jim Phelps self-destructed in 6600 seconds. Thirty years after his television debut, Mr. Phelps, the venerable protagonist in the espionage series Mission: Impossible, was sent to the grave at the hands of fellow agent Ethan Hunt for selling out American intelligence to the highest bidder.

In terms of movie plotlines, Phelp’s first and last big-screen adventure paved the way for Hunt to cruise his way to the box office and five (plus) sequels. Phelps’s demise, however, was more than just a “re-boot” of a worn baby-boomer TV show. While composer Lalo Schifrin’s catchy theme song attracted audiences with musical nostalgia, the action on screen subverted the memory of the Impossible Mission Force. Jim Phelps’s treachery not only betrayed Hunt and his country, it marked an end to a longstanding glorification of American bureaucracy and a faith in American institutions. The IMF reasserted itself by undercutting the values it was supposed to protect: American individualism.

Mission Impossible TV Series

The 1960s were the heyday of spy television. In a historical context, the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was fraught with atomic secrets, “blonde spy mistresses,” the Rosenberg executions, and subversive behavior. People, according to the spy mindset, were not what they seemed.

Not surprisingly, television cashed in on the craze. The industry had a long legacy to draw from. In the 1930s, Hollywood police procedurals exploited the G-man as an urban hero against gangsters like Al Capone, Ma Barker, and assorted public enemies. Movies such as Bureau of Missing Persons and From Headquarters were little more than training manuals for an unappreciative public, full of technical jargon, lengthy procedural demonstrations, and, of course, gunplay. For younger patriots, “Junior G-Men” proliferated in the form of paramilitary scouts who did their part.

World War II adopted the G-Man, turning him into a G.I. and then, for the Cold War, back again as commie-hunters. Films such as I was a Communist for the F.B.I. and Atomic City detailed the experiences of double agents leading multiple lives, sacrificing family and friends in the name of national security, and curtailing civil liberties with a wink towards the greater good. Symbolically, to turn into a government man, a G-Man became less of a human being. The “long arm of the law” required him to become an “agent” in the literal sense of the word. He traded his individuality to become a cog in the wheel of justice—not coincidentally dubbed a “bureau” of investigations. The citizen spy was the ideal bureaucrat.

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Bureaucracy has a negative meaning in America today. But in the 1950s, the “man in the gray flannel suit” was the ultimate team player. He pushed paper, adhered to regulations, and knew where he fit in the larger picture. Highly trained to specialize in one task, the bureaucrat became identified by his job. Working within a larger organization, these agents made the mission possible. Even James Bond, the quintessential super spy, was hardly unique in British intelligence. After all, there were at least six predecessors before MI6 got to 007, and, as the numbers suggest, there are as many as 999 versions of Bond. Even Bond himself seemed interchangeable throughout the decades, morphing from suave 60s ladies man to a rough-‘n’-tumble millennial.

Enter Mission: Impossible and Jim Phelps. Phelps was the quintessential government man whose life literally revolved around aiding his country. From 1966 to 1973, and again from 1988 to 1990, Phelps’s identity was persona non grata in the world of television. The shows revealed nothing about his personal life, what he did prior to his stint in covert intelligence, his family, or even a hobby. While actor Peter Graves developed some sort of unofficial character bible, such as a birth date of 1929 or that Phelps once worked for Pan-American Airlines, such details never appeared in on the air—and, even more important, were irrelevant to his character.

Phelps’s non-existent past fit in with the bureaucratic mindset of Mission: Impossible. As a team leader, Phelps organized his squad with each member specializing in a certain task. Together, they formed a working machine that got the job done. His original group consisted of “master of disguise” Rollin Hand, an all-purpose “Gal Friday” Cinnamon Carter, technowizard Barney Collier, and muscle-man William Armitage. None of these characters had back-stories. Rather, like Phelps, they came together only to get the job done and disbanded afterwards, leaving no trace of their activities. (The only exception was Collier, who had a son—never revealed on-air and was established for the short-lived 1988 series so actor Greg Morris’s son could play the new role). Indeed, their missions frequently consisted of negating any identities anyway; Hand and Carter frequently donned disguises; their lack of characterization making them perfect blank slates to fulfill whatever role the government wanted of them. When Hand and Carter left after three years, their successors, the Great Paris and Dana Lambert, had no problem stepping into their shoes. The team unit prevailed.

mission impossinle tv series

Indeed, Mission: Impossible’s true star was not the actors, but the ability to create new identities out of nothing. The IMF accomplished their missions by playing with the bad guy’s senses: thrusting the target into a false environment, imitating loved ones and acquaintances, and other means of sensory manipulation. The show’s famous gimmick, the latex mask, was the perfect means of identity erasure and replacement. Despite the advances in technology from 1966 to 1996, the latex mask remains the show’s signature piece and was carried over into every movie since. In the movie’s first scene, agent Ethan Hunt removes the mask and his team dissembles the faux environment from which they tricked a baddie to spill his guts, thereby confirming to audiences that, yes, this was Mission: Impossible. While civil rights watchdogs may decry this form of interrogation as cruel and unusual, the show’s 1960s roots encouraged the audience to trust the government. After all, when battling the commies, Americans were all on the same side, team players who each did their bit.

Until Watergate. The shattering of trust in the U.S. government had many causes, from Vietnam to COINTELPRO revelations. Tricky Dick not only ended his presidential administration with clandestine activities, he brought an end to the public’s faith in the government. In the 1980 television movie Mission: Impossible, a wrathful Congress and the American people accuse Jim Phelps of undermining American values aboard and at home, and the telemovie ends with Phelps sentenced to prison for six years. Although the 1988 TV show seemingly exonerated Phelps to carry on as before, the bureaucratic model wasn’t the same and the sequel series ended after two years.

As Ethan Hunt and the 1996 movie made clear, Jim Phelps was not only old, he was obsolete. The problem, Phelps said, was “No more Cold War. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself […] Then you realize, it’s over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage, and 62 grand a year.”

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Phelps’s soliloquy underscored not only the march of history, but his own development. Notably, Phelps symbolizes his “obsolescence” by revealing more about himself than he had in the previous thirty years. With no more secrets to keep, Phelps discloses his personal life. He has a wife (she makes lousy coffee), a good but inadequate salary, and he misses the good old days of the Cold War. In doing so, he defies the bureaucratic mentality of the IMF; no longer an anonymous government agent, Phelps has a personality, one in which he plans to employ in his retirement. Appropriately Phelps uses his newfound agency to destroy the government mentality that had restrained him for so long. He disgraces his protégé/successor Ethan Hunt, and steals the NOC list of agents, thereby blowing the covers on every agent in the field. Having discarded his cherished anonymity, he endangers everyone in the program he headed for so long.

When Jim Phelps defies the bureaucratic structure he championed for decades, the “system” strikes back to contain or eliminate him. Phelps’s backstabbing struck at the core of their organization because Phelps was the senior representative. An early scene in the movie establishes Phelps as the point man who goes on frequent recruitment drives, stays in four-star hotels, and he enjoys the perks of having devoted his life as an organization man. Ethan Hunt jokes the “man’s getting soft in his old age,” but he also respects the “old man” on the team as their leader, mentor, and role model.

When Phelps goes rogue, it is up to Hunt to bring him to justice. Fittingly, Hunt outdoes his former boss through the system. Hunt works with the “disavowed” agents (restoring one former agent back to the IMF’s good graces), uses the same gizmos and the tech-wizardry Phelps made famous (including the latex mask in a suspenseful climax), and shows he is a worthy successor for any planned sequels. Hunt deliberately avoids making the same mistake Phelps did; when Phelps’s wife, Claire, starts to develop feelings for Hunt, our hero reacts resists her. He knows indulging his emotions and establishing a personality befell the IMF’s greatest director, and he will not make the same mistake. When the FBI arrests his aunt and uncle on primte time TV, Hunt shrugs it off as no big deal. In contrast to Hunt’s cool and collected professionalism, Phelps loses control, murders his wife, and gets blown up in the finale. Hunts kills his former boss with the same secret weapons Phelps mastered in his long career.

Having proved he could out-IMF the late Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt becomes the superspy of the twenty-first century. As the movie series progressed, Hunt moves into the senior position occupied by Phelps. However, even as Ethan Hunt exemplifies the agent/bureaucrat, he was not immune to the human foibles that brought Phelps down. In the third installment, Hunt fell in love and became engaged in Julia Meade, a civilian. Julia survives the movie, but their relationship is doomed. In the sequel, Ghost Protocol, Julia becomes a phantom in Hunt’s life—the “protocol” in the title supposedly refers to a plot twist that dissolves the IMF. In actuality, it represents the standard operating procedure for eliminating agents who dare form a personality. Julia is “killed” and given a new identity for her protection, but rejects being enfolded in the bureaucratic system that dominates her husband (Hunt is sent to a Russian prison) and the couple breaks up. Americans, Serbians, Russians, and everyone under the sun prove to be deceitful, untrustworthy, and paranoid. In this world, the IMF offers stability through rules and mission outlines, but the espionage agency is also a cause of this to begin with. In the latest installment, Rogue Nation, Congress abolishes the IMF, but the agency is immediately brought back together again when a “terrorist” version threatens to take its place.


The post-Watergate era, with its distrust of American institutions, and government bureaucracy in particular, highlighted a conflicted American identity. Americans hated the bureaucratic, emotionless, impersonal system that the Impossible Mission Forces typified, but they could not exist without this bureaucracy in place. As the television and movies made clear, world security depended on the stability the IMF offered. Agents supposedly have, well, “agency”—they are free to “choose to accept” their missions, but they never turn it down. There would be no show otherwise—and even if they did, the team, already selected, would go on without him.  These agents, by definition, supposedly have free will and are adept at improvising. However, when they try to buck the system, as Jim Phelps did, they become “disavowed” of all their actions and existence. Although they serve a country that cherishes free will, any attempt to exercise those values becomes an impossible mission in itself.


Peter Lee

Peter Lee

Peter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.
Peter Lee