We are celebrating the Christmas in July that is the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout all week long! Click on the image for all of the entries:
In my 30’s, I have come to accept that Tom Cruise is one of my very favorite actors. Not only did I grow up on his movies, but he is one of the only actors with whom I did so who is still making vital work. Because I am so familiar with his face and his onscreen persona, to me he is the ultimate cinematic symbol of comfort and reassurance. Yet as you look through his filmography, you might find that it is more than just his familiar face that makes him comforting. Throughout his career, he has always played the expert. Or you might call him the savior. The hero. The most knowledgable. The guy who will deal with the problems for us. The guy who knows how bad things really are, but he won’t let that stop him from getting the job done and saving the day. Or perhaps his victory is a more complicated, personal one. His victories often feel like our victories- because he always imbues his roles with a sense of comfort and reassurance. Regardless, he nearly always ends up winning in the end, and yet, the ways in which he becomes a winner have continually expanded.
He exploded onto the movie scene as the lead role in 1983’s Risky Business- and took that same good looking boy charm into Top Gun, where he received his crown as one of our ultimate movie stars. It was the first film where I came to know him as he was. He was the handsome young role model of Reagan’s America–mistrusting of the group, of ethics and rules, rebellious and a know-it-all (as was often true of protagonists in the 1980’s)–but so confident and committed that everyone would be better off letting him lead after all.
What keeps him from being merely a relic of that time, is that he has been adaptable to a changing America. In 2017, he played another pilot in American Made- this time, a former TWA pilot named Barry Seal (based on a true story) who ran guns and drugs for the Medellin Cartel, the CIA, the DEA and the Contras in the 1980’s, before he was assassinated by some of Pablo Escobar’s men. In the thirty years since Top Gun, fewer people than ever really think America stands up to the sparkly clean image presented there. It is one of the few movies in which he plays a character who dies- he becomes a pitiless martyr for rampant, unchecked capitalism. Yet in 2017, that just seems appropriate. The distance between Maverick and Barry Seal is about the same distance between how our own image of the country has changed.
But there’s a whole lot that happened in between. Following Top Gun, Cruise would continue to play roles where he was the absolute best at what he did. From being a young pool hall ace, and protege of Paul Newman (The Color Of Money), to being some kind of a master bartender (Cocktail), to being an ace NASCAR driver (in the spiritual Top Gun sequel, Days Of Thunder), you could feel satisfied that you were watching an expert do his work onscreen. Almost always with a beautiful woman by his side, as well- someone who was his equal, usually resisting him at first, but eventually falling for his irresistible charm.
Yet alongside these films, he was already beginning to break typecasting, and going for challenging, serious and dramatic roles, the kind that could get him an oscar. As Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July, he begins the film as a similar character to Maverick, or Risky Business’ Joel Goodson–an all-American boy, patriotic and seeking to serve his country–only to lose it all when he is wounded in Vietnam and paralyzed for life. Watching a cultural icon like Tom Cruise go from golden boy to a blackbout bender in a brothel south of the border onscreen was the perfect microcosm for Americans of what we lost in Vietnam. Nevertheless, Kovic ends the film as a new leader of the anti-war movement, protesting and speaking outside and inside the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Even though he hit rock bottom, he managed to pull himself up to the top. Through suffering unimaginable defeat and trauma, he eventually became a different kind of winner.
He took this same approach to the considerably more lighthearted sports agent dramedy, Jerry Maguire. At the beginning of the film, he basically plays himself- handsome, loved, rich, successful, a poster boy of capitalism with a gorgeous fiancee- before he eats “bad pizza and grows a conscience.” After writing a memo about how his business has lost its way and become more concerned about money than about good relationships with the players, he gets fired and hits rock bottom. Once again, though he struggles, he finds a path to redemption- this time through love, commitment, and faith that things will work out even when they are hard. It’s perhaps one of his first movies where everything that makes a Tom Cruise character appealing on the outside fails–it’s what’s inside him that ultimately saves the day. Once again, he claims victory- this time not through material success, but through love.
Nowhere does he play more of his protector role than in the Mission: Impossible series- the first of which came out the same year as Jerry Maguire, and the sixth of which comes out this week. He takes the same confidence he displayed in a character like Maverick but pairs it with excellent judgment, years of experience, intelligence, and complete awareness of the situation at hand. The Mission: Impossible films have challenged Cruise to better himself with each entry, also showcasing him as an increasingly more courageous risk taker when it comes to stuntwork. There are at least ten jaw dropping real life stunts he has pulled off throughout the series- the fact that he manages to dream up these setpieces as both actor and producer (meaning he really wants to put himself through these ordeals) is a testament to the ongoing fuse (hehe) of his characters to his real self. Ethan Hunt will do anything it takes to foil a madman’s plot and save the world, asking for nothing in return- and Tom Cruise will do anything it takes to entertain us and make us happy, asking only for the price of a movie ticket.
Halfway through that series came the role that most exploded our common image of Tom Cruise: Ray Ferrier in 2005’s War Of The Worlds. In Amy Nicholson’s brilliant and exhaustive book Tom Cruise: Anatomy Of An Actor, she points out that Cruise made the movie when he was 43, only a year older than his own father was when he abandoned their family. As Ray, Cruise plays a down on his luck working class dad living in North Jersey- perhaps the least flashy character of his career- who is having his two teenage kids visit for the weekend. Their relationship is tenuous at best, outright hostile at worst, especially regarding his son Robbie. It’s alarming to watch the scene where the two play a game of catch that grows angrier by the throw, as if it is about to break out into violence. This wasn’t the Tom Cruise we were used to seeing. We had seen him suck blood and kill people as an assassin, but somehow yelling at his son was even more disrupting to his image. Soon enough, the alien tripods attack, and Ray, covered in human ashes (in a not-too-subtle reference to 9/11) is left to flee his family to safety…yet even in their escape, the family still struggles to come together.
Ray is reactive, with a short fuse, cold and un-expressive, lacking all of the charisma that Cruise usually has in spades. Yet even with his flaws, his animal instinct is still to protect his family at all costs. In the film’s true climax, he has to let his son Robbie run off to join the fight, but not before using his tried and true strongarm dad tactics to stop it. Cruise, having been abandoned by his father at a young age, might try to do the exact opposite of what his father did and hold onto his son with a bear grip. But sometimes, doing the exact opposite of what your parents did means you are still tied to them. Letting Robbie go is the ultimate show of love, trust, and sacrifice that Ray had been lacking all along. His faith is rewarded in the end, in seeing that Robbie made it to his mother’s house in Boston after all. War Of The Worlds may be Tom Cruise’s greatest high wire act as a man who ultimately wins the day, not through charm, not through looks, not through special talents or knowledge, but through sheer will, determination, and luck. He was the right kind of hero for an America who had just had its sense of the known world shattered by September 11th. Remember when I said that Cruise was successful because he was adaptable? This film is all the proof you need.
There are so, so many more films to parse out- these are merely a few. I didn’t even mention any of his bad guy roles (Collateral, Interview With The Vampire), his 90’s legal thrillers (The Firm, A Few Good Men), his recent self branding (the Jack Reacher films), his historical epics, or perhaps the best movie he has ever made (Eyes Wide Shut). There are many shades of Tom Cruise, but much like the classic actors of the golden age of Hollywood, he is usually playing a version of himself. He is now 56 years old- but I have a good feeling he will continue to win, comfort, and reassure us with grace and maturity well into his 60’s and 70’s.