Why does one of the last movie stars want to martyr himself?
The age of the movie star is dead. We still have celebrity actors, yes, but their names and faces are less significant now than they’ve been in a century. Black Panther wasn’t a success because Chadwick Boseman was on the poster. The internet means that you can see your favorite stars whenever you want, no need to wait for their new film to come out. We’re in the age of the mega-franchise, where films themselves act as marketing for their fellows. The people in them are interchangeable and mostly irrelevant.
Of the top-ten actors with the highest grossing resumes, most are part of massive franchises with large ensembles. Samuel L. Jackson, with his parts in everything from the Marvel movies to the Star Wars prequels, sits at the top; Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson are present as well. Harrison Ford, who starred in Indiana Jones and Star Wars, ranks highly, though he hasn’t been a leading man for some time. Only two names on the list are currently working lead actors who work mostly outside of franchises. Tom Hanks is one. Another, rounding out the list at number ten, is Tom Cruise.
Tom Cruise is the person you picture when you hear the words “movie star.” He’s a conventionally attractive white man with a toothy grin and a rambunctious attitude. For years he played essentially the same character: The bad boy who’s not too bad, just dangerous enough to be exciting, the spitfire kid who just needs to get his act together. He was never the everyman, never relatable. You wanted to be like him, but more than that, you wanted to be better. In his review of Days of Thunder in 1990, Roger Ebert laid out the building blocks of what he called the Tom Cruise Picture, a cinematic blueprint which Cruise had adhered to in almost all of his projects. And aside from that handful of years in the late 80s and early 90s when he really wanted an Oscar, it was a blueprint he clung to.
But time went on, and Cruise grew up. You can’t play the hotshot young upstart forever. A change was gonna come. What would the adult Tom Cruise Picture look like? In 1990, he became involved in the Church of Scientology. Six years later, he starred in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. And history began.
It’s the Mission: Impossible franchise that best tells the story of Cruise’s strange spiral. Though it didn’t start out this way, over time the series became a vehicle for Cruise himself (not a stand-in) to pull off terrifying and death-defying stunts. In Mission: Impossible 2, he free-climbed a cliff without a safety net and allowed a knife to come within millimeters of his eyeball. In Ghost Protocol, he climbed the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. In Rogue Nation, he clung to the side of a plane as it took off. In the upcoming Fallout, he jumped out of a plane at high altitude over a hundred times. The series became a sort of stunt spectacular with Cruise as star performer, pulling off daring leaps and thrilling escapades. The draw was less Cruise himself than what crazy thing Cruise would try to do for the ostensible sake of “realism.” In behind-the-scenes interviews, Cruise often talks about how viewers can tell if something is phony. This, he explains, is why he has to do things for real.
In 2008, a video stolen from the Church of Scientology by 4chan users leaked online. As excerpts from the Mission: Impossible score play in the background, Cruise speaks enthusiastically about the effect that Scientology has had on his life. He’s using the same tone of voice as in those behind-the-scenes interviews to heap praise on “KSW,” which stands for “Keeping Scientology Working,” a sort of policy guideline for the organization. “When you’re a Scientologist,” he says, “you see things the way they are.” Cuts are accompanied by the sound of camera shutter snapping, suggesting his celebrity even in a private, internal video. He smiles that familiar smile, and laughs that laugh, and goes for the hard sell. “It’s rough and tumble, and it’s wild and wooly, and it’s a blast. It’s a blast.”
It’s important to note that the Church of Scientology tried their damnedest to suppress the release of this video. Cruise’s value to them was never as an out-loud pitchman. His was the front-facing position, the “all is well” smile for the outside world. He was meant to normalize Scientology for the pre-converts, but to do that he had to be casual and humble and a little hush-hush about his involvement. The video was meant to encourage and excite people who were already members by implying association with Cruise. He talks a lot about “we” in it, about “our” responsibilities. But he didn’t get famous by being relatable.
Information about the inner workings of Scientology is hard to come by, but it’s been suggested in the past that Cruise is treated as a key figure in the organization, to be shown the utmost respect and adulation. He’s been told again and again for decades that he has an important role to play in the ascendency of Scientology, maybe the most important role. Religions need prophets. They also need martyrs.
On the set of Rogue Nation, as he clung desperately to the side of that plane, exhaust fumes filled Cruise’s lungs. He didn’t tell anyone. Instead, as the plane landed, he gave a signal to the director that he wanted to go again and get another take. His disregard for his own physical safety is more than evident here. Getting the shot is more important to him than his own life. It used to be that Cruise’s existence was the film’s message. “Come and see the star” was the old way of marketing movies. Now you can see Cruise anywhere, whenever you want. Now Cruise is a vessel. The shot is the message.
Does Cruise have a death wish? I don’t feel too comfortable pathologizing him. That being said, he wouldn’t do these stunts if he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of dying for the sake of a film. He was over a hundred stories off the ground when he climbed the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol. Any more than a handful of stories, he said, and you’re dead no matter what. I don’t know if he fancies himself a Christ figure, but he sure seems to want to die for us. He likes to refer to the Mission: Impossible series as just “Mission.” Would that make him a missionary?
In some ways, Cruise is the perfect tonic to the post-movie-star world we live in. While he’s part of a large franchise, it’s one of the few that markets itself on something besides simple brand recognition. He’s figured out a way to attract moviegoers that isn’t just cynical regurgitation of recognizable images. To see a Mission: Impossible movie is to glimpse a better—not perfect, but better—modern Hollywood cinema.
Movie stardom is dead. Long live Tom Cruise.