With “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” currently tearing up the box office and topping Rotten Tomatoes, three IndieWire staffers try to sort through their complicated feelings about the movie’s indefatigable star, an actor who continues to outrun our worst suspicions of what he might be responsible for off-camera.
DAVID EHRLICH: The movie business has always been a volatile beast, and the first decades of the 21st century have proven to be one of the industry’s most tumultuous periods yet. China! Netflix! MoviePass! It often seems like the landscape is shifting under our feet. But if there’s been one steady constant in contemporary Hollywood — one thing that multiplex crowds have learned to rely on no matter which direction the wind is blowing — it’s a man by the name of Tom Cruise.
At a time when franchises have come to command far more attention than the actors who bring them to life — a time when even the Avengers lose most of their audience the moment they strip off their spandex — Cruise has continued to be a brand unto himself.
And also, perhaps, in spite of himself. While the artist formerly known as Thomas Mapother III has managed to withstand several decades in the spotlight, he hasn’t always kept a low profile. On the contrary, his public image has been in the toilet for at least the last 10 years. There was never going to be any coming back from the Oprah thing — it was one of those moments that instantly changes your impression of someone forever. In the blink of an eye, or in the jump of a couch, Cruise devolved from “a prominent actor who happens to be a Scientologist,” to “a Scientologist who happens to be a prominent actor.”
While the secretive pseudo-religion would never allow its most famous prophet to step in the line of fire, it quickly became impossible to separate Cruise from his church. He was (and remains) the face of a glorified pyramid scheme that has been accused of isolating its members from their loved ones, coercing women into having unwanted abortions, and being responsible for “Battlefield Earth.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — we haven’t even gotten to the mystery of Shelly Miscavige, or all that stuff about Xenu (everyone’s favorite tyrannical ruler of the Galactic Confederacy).
But here’s the thing: People still love the guy. We can’t help it! He’s Jerry Ma-Fucking Guire! He’s Frank T.J. Mackey! He’s Risky Business! In an age when even casual moviegoers are hyper-aware of a celebrity’s misdeeds — when famous men are finally being held to account for their crimes — Cruise is still just the whacky smiling weirdo who got a little too excited by Oprah that one time. Of course, that’s only possible because the public knows so little about Cruise’s role in Scientology, and also because the actor has never been accused of any particular crime.
And yet, one could argue that — in his own strange way — Cruise is every bit as problematic as some of the other stars we’ve already forced into early retirement.
KATE ERBLAND: When I watch a Tom Cruise movie — and I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way — there’s always some kind of willful forgetting involved. Yes, I find it to be easier than watching, I don’t know, a Kevin Spacey film or a Woody Allen film or a Roman Polanski film, but that kernel of knowledge (or rumor or conjecture or possibility, whatever the case may be) does impact my perception of what I am seeing.
I can’t separate the art from the artist, even if that art is kickass stunts and the artist is a guy willing to break his ankle and keep running on it in service to said stunts, but I am still grappling with what that actually means. There are plenty of people and places I’ve chosen to boycott over the past few months in particular because of their entanglement with various #MeToo-related issues. Those have been my choices, and I’m not interested in beating up other people for their choices.
Which might be a way to just say, I still love Tom Cruise movies, and I especially adored “Fallout,” even while also simultaneously processing all the background noise associated with Cruise and Scientology. If he seems to have leaned into the public perception of his “insanity” or his “craziness” as a way to pump up excitement about his films while also directing attention away from his personal involvements, that’s both totally expected and a little chilling. It worked on me, though, and I suspect it works on a lot of people.
ANNE THOMPSON: First of all, Tom Cruise rocks one character, consistently, over the decades: Ethan Hunt.
He has suffered plenty of bombs throughout his career, which has been buttressed by this one steady franchise — for which Cruise is quite responsible. The Jack Reacher series is a modest success, with $217 million and $160 million worldwide, respectively. “American Made” and “The Mummy” were recent box office disappointments. “Edge of Tomorrow” and “War of the Worlds” did great. But it’s the “Mission” series that pops throughout his filmography.
And we have never needed Hunt’s “Mission: Impossible” world savior more than we do right now. In the Trump era, he suddenly seems, well, like someone with a moral compass, who avoids killing benign French cops and sacrifices for the rest of us. We want Cruise to work out like a madman to be able to perform these insane stunts in his 50s, so we don’t have to. He’s even beloved of two upright stalwart smart super-competent mature women who are not dumb babes, even if they are obviously easy on the eyes.
Over the years we have become inured to the off-camera Cruise’s off-kilter Scientology-driven sofa-jumping arranged-girlfriends persona. He’s not normal. We know this. John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss also belong to this crazy world. Something about Scientology seems to help actors stay on course.
I don’t approve of Scientology and what they do to families and children. (See Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”) But I want my Ethan Hunt. I don’t want to punish Cruise for his chosen religion, no matter how much I loathe it. I want him to keep chugging forward like the Energizer Bunny, defying gravity.