I am not sure I expected that watching “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” would lead to my deepest conversation so far with my kids about divorce.
Leave it to Tom Cruise.
Not long ago, Toshi was pushing for more movies about spies. Anything, really. He has been reading about spies since I showed him his first Bond film almost two years ago, and since most of that series is inappropriate for him, he's been chafing, desperate to see something new.
It was after screening it again just to double-check for any red flags that I decided to share “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” with them, and it was one of the best screenings we've had in a while. They're big Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton fans, and a big part of that fascination on their part comes from the idea that what they're looking at is “real.” They understand that most of the time, stuntmen replace the actors for anything truly dangerous, and that a lot of what they see is pretend, so any time they see a stunt that actually involves an actor, they are instantly thatmuchmore invested in what they're watching.
Needless to say, the scene of Tom Cruise climbing the outside of the Burj Khalifa was one of the highlights of anything they've seen in any movie this year, and we ended up rewatching the sequence a few times. Overall, the film was a big hit with them, and that led to questions about the rest of the series. We watched the first one and the third one, and we're skipping the second one entirely because I would hate for the first exposure the kids have to John Woo be the worst thing he's ever made.
Once we'd done those, it was clear that the kids had become Tom Cruise fans thanks to the movies, and they asked what else they could see with him in it. After some back and forth, we settled on “War Of The Worlds.” They've seen the George Pal version and they're fans, and they've been asking to see this one for a while. After all, it's Steven Spielberg, and they're already well aware of the value of seeing his name on a film. The combination of Cruise and Spielberg made this irresistible, and so on a recent Friday night, we turned all the lights out, bundled up together on the couch, and cranked it up.
Now, let me set the scene. Lately, when I pick up my kids from their mother's house, Toshi is the one in charge of their suitcase. They have things they carry back and forth, like Toshi's skateboard or Allen's Pokemon card collection or certain action figures, and they have a suitcase in which they bring these and other essentials. It's made me see Toshi in a new light as he's embraced some responsibility for himself and for his little brother. Allen is six, and he's still essentially just a little crazy person. Toshi's got to keep track of things for the both of them, and he does. It's been nice to see that change happen, even if the reason for the change is something as difficult as a divorce.
Although this past few months has been all about settling into this new life, we don't really talk about it directly. But as the opening scenes of “War Of The Worlds” played, there's Tom Cruise and there's Miranda Otto as his ex-wife, and they're dropping off the kids for a weekend, and Dakota Fanning's got her little suitcase, and sure enough, Allen pointed out her suitcase and Toshi backed him up with a chipper “Hey, dad, that's just like us!”
The film doesn't paint a particularly flattering portrait of Tom Cruise. He's got no food in his house, he is surly and disconnected from his kids, and I get why they do that. It gives him room to play out a full character arc as he and his children run from the alien threat. He becomes more and more protective, more and more capable, doing anything to protect his kids. I realized that I was uncomfortable with the way he's portrayed at the start of the film because that's how I feel like my wife imagines my time with the kids. It's safe to say she does not have much confidence in me as a father, and she still tries to micro-manage everything about their time with me. I accept that as who she is. She's not malicious about it. It's just how she's wired.
After the film, we ended up talking about different aspects of it for almost an hour. They were getting ready for bed as we chatted, and they both seemed to have really liked the film, although they were almost melancholy about it as we talked. It was finally Toshi who was able to articulate what had sent him into a contemplative mood. “So Tom Cruise made the right choice when he went to get his daughter, right? Because Robbie could take care of himself, right? And so everyone was safe at the end, right?”
I agreed, and he shook his head, exasperated. “So if Tom Cruise did it all right, why can't he stay with their mommy at the end?”
I didn't really understand what he was asking me at first, but it became clear that he and Allen both agreed. In their eyes, Tom Cruise had proven himself to be a good father by the end of the film, and they seemed to feel strongly that his reward should be to reunite with his ex-wife as a fixed family. That's certainly a trope we see in films, but that wasn't what they were building towards in “War Of The Worlds.” I told the boys that most people don't get back together once they reach the point of divorce. That's sort of the point. You need to build separate lives.
“But could you and Mommy be married again?” Toshi asked me. Huge question, right?
What started as a conversation about the mechanics of the machines the Martians used to destroy cities instead became a conversation about the mechanics of a marriage and how sometimes the thing that is best for the people in it is to set each other free. I told them how I'll always be glad I met and married their mom because it's the reason I have my sons, and how we'll always be a family even if we're not living in the same place because of these connections. It seemed to eventually make sense to them, but I could tell that they were still hoping that there was another possible outcome.
“What started you guys thinking about all of this?” I asked them.
“That's what happens in 'The Parent Trap,'” Toshi volunteered.
“We've seen that one a lot,” Allen said.
Asked to define “a lot,” they told me that they've seen it at least five times since I moved out in July, and that it's one of their mother's favorite go-to films now. My first inclination was to call her to follow up and ask her why this particular film is the one she's showing the kids repeatedly, but I stopped myself. If I'm going to be fair and treat her the way I want to be treated, I have to trust her to have whatever relationship she wants to have with the boys and the media they share. If I'm not comfortable with her having a vote on what or how I show them films, then I can't very well turn around and order her to stop showing them something just because I'm uncomfortable with a particular idea.
There is a very real anxiety that fuels “War Of The Worlds,” and seeing the film in the shadow of 9/11, it was easy to read it as an anxiety about having our world attacked, our peace shattered. But watching it with the boys, it became clear that there's another major anxiety running through it, the fear of a family beyond repair, and watching my boys finally open up so they could express that fear to me, I was so grateful for the way this accidentally triggered that conversation.
And if my wife and I each choose to share different media with our kids, each pointing at different viewpoints, that's fine. There is room for both optimism and skepticism, and as long as we're talking to the kids, being honest with them, and making sure that we don't just leave them to sort through all of their feelings about these things by themselves, I suspect we'll be fine.