Tom Cruise is Here to Help

Paramount Pictures/Skydance
Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.”

Tom Cruise is about to blast back into our lives in “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” the first half of the seventh installment of the action-adventure franchise he launched in 1996. The movie was delayed four times. As it prepares to hit theaters on July 10, the buzz is all about Tom’s latest in a series of progressively more audacious stunts as super-operative Ethan Hunt, this one featuring him racing his motorcycle off a mountain top, then parachuting onto a speeding train to – what else? – save the day.

It’s all very on-brand for a film series built on can-you-top-that spectacle. But the most mythic element of what’s essentially a plot-point punch list – albeit an impressively executed one – is Tom Cruise himself.

Since making his brief screen debut in 1981 in the Brooke Shields movie “Endless Love,” Cruise has proved to be unusually durable as an on- and off-screen presence – perhaps not the “last” movie star, as some have dubbed him, but surely the most charismatic megafauna of the entertainment ecosystem.

We might be creeped out by the institutions that define his private life, puzzled by his relationships, skeptical about his sincerity, chronically curious about who he really is. But Tom Cruise merely absorbs our ambivalence and allows it to make him faster, stronger, more unreachably empyrean. Through it all, we’ve remained true to Tom Cruise, if only because of the universal yet deeply personal form of catharsis he alone can provide.

After “Endless Love,” Cruise played Reagan-era archetypes in a series of breakout roles: a rebellious military cadet in “Taps,” an all-American teenager in the brilliant comedy “Risky Business,” a cocky fighter pilot in 1986’s “Top Gun.” After long insisting he’d never make a sequel to that wildly successful military-industrial fantasy, he reprised his role last year in “Top Gun: Maverick,” which reinvigorated a theatrical movie business staggering from the coronavirus pandemic, streaming and rapid-onset irrelevance.

“Maverick,” a nearly beat-for-beat stylistic re-creation of the original, with Cruise playing a humbled, world-weary version of his obnoxiously hyper-competent title character, wound up grossing around $1.5 billion, making it Hollywood’s rarest rara avis: a global, trans-generational pop-culture phenomenon driven by a bona fide human being, rather than interchangeable actors buried under layers of Spandex and CGI.

“You saved Hollywood’s ass,” Steven Spielberg gushed to Cruise in a video clip that went viral during Oscar season. Arguably, Cruise saved his own ass, too. Or, more precisely, he proved that his singular hold on his audience hasn’t faltered and remains preternaturally – even inexplicably – strong.

The angular physical beauty has by now filled out and softened, and those look-Ma-no-hands stunts are approaching try-hard territory; the off-screen life may seem more strangely opaque than ever, with PR disasters dimly remembered, if at all.

Somehow, the Tom-ness of Cruise has transcended it all: the unique combination of all-consuming commitment, indefatigable work ethic, graceful physical chops, boundless enthusiasm and instinctive good taste that have allowed him to move beyond fame into another realm entirely. “It’s not enough just to be a great actor and to have star charisma,” explains director Doug Liman. “You need all of those qualities. If you’re missing one of those, you’re not Tom Cruise.”

Liman remembers when he first pitched Cruise on the sci-fi thriller “Live. Die. Repeat.,” later renamed “Edge of Tomorrow.” The actor was interested, but before he committed, he asked Liman not for script changes or co-star approval, but for ideas on concept art for the film. “[It was] like, what was the trailer for the movie going to look like?” Liman explains. “Because you can develop a great script, but if it’s not a movie people want to see, what’s the point?”

To Liman, Cruise’s request for concept art was just another way of asking the question that has consumed him above all others, and goes furthest in explaining his continuing potency: What does the audience want, and how can I give it to them? “He genuinely recognizes that he’s a movie star because people like his movies, and not the other way around,” Liman says. “It’s not like he’s anointed. He really cares about his audience and giving them their money’s worth.”

Cruise’s obsession with pleasing us – the clenched determination he puts into looking effortless – shouldn’t be confused with pandering. It’s more organic than that. And, whether that attunement is congenital or calculated or a mixture of both, he’s at the point where his sense of what a movie needs to succeed has become pure reflex.

Almost from the beginning, Cruise has made it a point to work with the very best, which explains a résumé that includes names such as Kubrick, Spielberg and Scorsese, as well as Oliver Stone, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Mann.

When he began the “Mission: Impossible” movies, he enlisted the legendary “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne to elevate otherwise rote procedural formulas; for the past 16 years, his chief collaborator has been “The Usual Suspects” writer Christopher McQuarrie. As a producer and a star, he’s a one-man quality-control department, fine-toothing everything from casting to visual effects (which, in the interest of production value, are usually practical rather than digital).

“People aren’t aware of just how holistically he works as a filmmaker,” observes Ben Stiller, who has known Cruise for more than 30 years, since they met while Cruise was filming “The Firm.”

It was Cruise, Stiller says, who told him and co-writer Justin Theroux that their script for the Hollywood satire “Tropic Thunder” needed an additional character. “He said, ‘You’re making fun of actors and you’re making fun of agents, but you don’t have a studio head,'” Stiller recalls.

Cruise wound up playing that character, a fatuous balding production executive named Les Grossman, who became the most iconic figure in the movie, largely thanks to Cruise’s eagerness to make himself look ridiculous. (Which exemplifies another first rule of the Tom-ness of Cruise: He is nothing if not 100 percent game. “Let’s do it!” the most famous actor in the world replied when Stiller asked him to appear in a goofy video that he made for his wife, Christine Taylor. “I love it!” Cruise cried when Liman told him he wanted to make him a coward in “Edge of Tomorrow.”)

Talk to people who have worked with Cruise, from the beginning of his career to the present day, and you hear about his genuine, almost giddy love for what he does.

While doing interviews for “Minority Report” in 2002, Spielberg wistfully remembered getting to the set first thing in the morning only to find Cruise already there, ready to play.

Liman recalls setting a call time for 8 a.m. for the cast of “Edge of Tomorrow”; Cruise got there at least 15 minutes early, asking where everybody was. “He’s like, ‘It should be like taking a flight, people should get here early and be ready to go,'” Liman says. “Sometimes with movie stars, you’ve got to get them out of their trailer. Tom’s like, ‘We’ve been given this incredible opportunity, and we need to use every second to get as much production value and performance on the screen as possible.'”

Those motivational speeches are a Cruise hallmark; only rarely do they become rants, such as when he lit into “Dead Reckoning” crew members for violating pandemic precautions in 2021. “We are the gold standard,” he can be seen shouting in a video that instantly went viral. “They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us. Because they believe in us and what we’re doing. I’m on the phone with every [expletive] studio at night, insurance companies, producers and they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies. We are creating thousands of jobs, you [expletive.] I don’t ever want to see it again. Ever!”

Few would dispute that Cruise’s outburst wasn’t the product of movie star pique as much as the laserlike focus and commitment that have defined him from the very beginning.

“I cannot reiterate enough how much Tom Cruise loves making movies,” says April Grace, who co-starred with Cruise in Anderson’s “Magnolia.” In the film, Cruise plays a misogynist self-help guru named Frank T.J. Mackey, whose buried past comes to light during an increasingly tense interview with a journalist played by Grace. Mackey’s character was a startling departure for Cruise, who had played flawed men before, but no one this angry or edgy. His scene with Grace is a taut, tightly calibrated boxing match of verbal feints and parries, as Cruise’s character goes from glib condescension to fear and, finally, aggression.

Grace recalls that Cruise worked with her even when he wasn’t needed. “I’ve worked with far lesser actors who would leave me to read with an assistant when they’re off-camera,” Grace says. “But Tom does not play that way at all. At one point, his face was literally smashed against the [side] of the camera, to get in my eye line as much as possible, even if I could only see the corner of his eye,” she says. “He was like, ‘What do you need, what can I do, how can I help you?'”

It’s easy to be cynical about Cruise’s messianic energy, his zealotry on behalf of an art form that, when he practices it, looks less like a profession than a holy vocation (is it any coincidence that he once contemplated becoming a Franciscan priest?). Tilt the lens, and even his most admirable qualities take on the contours of overcompensation: his obsession with satisfying the audience as an extension of him bringing joy and diversion to his mother and sisters after his parents split when Cruise was in sixth grade; reading everything in sight after overcoming dyslexia – with the help, he has said, of the Church of Scientology, which he joined in 1986.

The impression of Cruise protesting too much became queasier in 2005, when he professed his love for girlfriend Katie Holmes by manically jumping on a couch during an Oprah Winfrey interview. A few months later, he criticized Shields for taking medication for her postpartum depression, which led to an infamous interview on the “Today” show during which he defended Scientology and its anti-psychiatry stance to co-host Matt Lauer. “Matt. Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt. You’re glib,” Cruise said. “You don’t even know what Ritalin is.” Cruise looked arrogant, entitled, unhinged.

Many observers thought he would never recover. His relationship with Spielberg, whose movie “War of the Worlds” Cruise was supposed to be promoting, ruptured. (They still haven’t worked together again.) And it wouldn’t be the last time Cruise would come in for scrutiny, especially regarding his relationship with Scientology, which is officially recognized as a church but which many former practitioners and journalists who have investigated it consider a dangerous and abusive cult.

Like the Entity, the artificial intelligence program Hunt pursues in “Dead Reckoning,” Cruise learns, corrects, iterates. After the 2005 debacle, he assembled a first-class publicity team and largely clammed up, only making himself available selectively. (He declined a request to be interviewed for this article.) Constantly scraping his environment and audience expectations for data, he adjusts and improves, ultimately achieving the perfect Zen balance of mega-celebrity: near-constant ubiquity and inscrutable remoteness.

It’s just this ability to emerge unscathed that drives Cruise’s detractors crazy. “I happen to have a huge body of facts, particularly with regard to his and Scientology’s treatment toward women, that for me makes it very hard to excuse his continued adulation,” says Maureen Orth, who wrote a troubling article about Cruise’s relationship with the actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi for Vanity Fair in 2012. “Not just because of him alone, but [because] he’s the second most important person in Scientology, next to [church leader] David Miscavige. … The press has fallen down on its job, too. He always gets a free pass. He never gets asked about this stuff anymore.”

Indeed, by the time Golden Globes host Jerrod Carmichael made a pointed joke about Cruise and Scientology this year, the jibe landed but didn’t gain purchase. (Carmichael suggested they trade in the Globes Cruise returned in protest for “the safe return” of Miscavige’s wife Shelly, who has not been seen in public for several years.)

Ever the generational avatar, Cruise has become a vessel, not for our aspirations and wish-fulfillment fantasies, but for 21st-century exhaustion: with pandemics, with Trump-era political ructions, with the pressing demand that our celebrities’ private actions and beliefs align completely with our own. Sensing the wound in our collective consciousness, the Tom-ness of Cruise acts as both purgative and balm. Could anyone else have brought us together after the trauma, tribal hostility and enforced separation that has defined American life since 2016?

Cruise was pointedly absent at this year’s Oscars, despite the fact that “Top Gun: Maverick” was nominated for six awards, including best picture. The official excuse was a scheduling conflict, but he would be well within his rights to hold out for the respect he’s due, not as the Saver of Hollywood’s Ass, but as the consistently superb actor he’s been for more than four decades. Unbelievably, he’s been nominated only three times for his performances, in “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Magnolia.”

Jon Avnet, who produced “Risky Business,” has seen Cruise’s ability from the moment he read for the part of Joel Goodsen in that film, when Avnet recognized “a form of confidence – it wasn’t cockiness – but a form of confidence that for a 19-year-old was very unusual.” Even then, Avnet notes, Cruise was able to grasp the tricky tonal balance of “Risky Business,” which seems to be a teenage sex comedy before it becomes a darker, more layered critique of contemporary capitalism. “That combination of playing it straight while at the same time having a wry sense of humor, while still maintaining a level of innocence or lack of sophistication, he really seemed to inhabit that,” Avnet says.

As for why artistic recognition has eluded Cruise, Avnet explains: “There is a tradition in Hollywood that is cruel to people with certain gifts. … The pettiness comes out when you vote.”

By now, a new generation has grown up with Tom Cruise: the children of the boomers and X-ers for whom the “Mission: Impossible” movies are a family tradition.

But to understand Cruise’s power, they need to go to the back catalogue, to “A Few Good Men” and “Rain Man,” “Collateral” and “Minority Report,” “Magnolia” and “Tropic Thunder,” to experience firsthand what an uncommonly versatile actor can be and always has been. In trying to preserve theatrical filmgoing, he has gone all-in on the blockbuster. After the final Mission: Impossible installment next year, he’s poised to make history as the first actor to film a movie in the International Space Station.

After saving planet Earth, there are only questions. How far will Cruise go to exploit that boyish “Let’s do it!” energy in service to chases, stunts and hyperkinetic set pieces? “I’ve got 20 years to catch up with him,” Cruise recently told the Sydney Morning Herald, referring to 80-year-old Harrison Ford. “I hope to keep making Mission: Impossible films until I’m his age.” And wouldn’t a return to the midrange dramas and comedies that made him a star be a nervier trust fall?

“I feel like he’s smart enough to know that changing things up, or exploring an area that people might not expect him to go, is really exciting. People enjoy that, and I think he enjoys it, too,” says Stiller. “I also think that at this point, he’s done so much, he’s earned the right to chill out.”

The Tom-ness of Cruise allows for many things; chilling out, let it be noted, isn’t one of them. More precisely, it could be allowed, but only with the audience’s permission. Ultimately, Cruise’s hold on us is best explained by our hold on him. He’s still at the camera, his face as close as it can get, waiting to make his next move, waiting for us to tell him exactly what we need.