Tom Cruise’s Late Style
By Andrew KeySeptember 12, 2022
Starring Tom Cruise by Sean Redmond
Cruise has never won an Oscar, and the current wisdom seems to be that he never will. This doesn’t seem to bother him, and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway. Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar either, and it didn’t do him any harm. Cruise is in search of acclaim of a different kind. With Top Gun: Maverick, he’s perhaps getting close to finding it. That film, released this summer with resounding box office success — the first Cruise film to make over $1 billion — has been met with a fairly rapturous critical response, the tenor of which has been along the lines of, “I know that I’m not supposed to like this kind of thing, but I loved it anyway.” The same caveats start almost every review before the author inevitably starts lauding the movie’s undeniable thrills. There have been very few responses to the film which read it against the grain; even the unsurprising news that it was produced in active collaboration with the Pentagon didn’t disrupt the closed circuit of reception, which is to say, critical skepticism overawed by the film’s sheer spectacle. The reviews all seem to contain the same questions: Is this a guilty pleasure? As a sophisticated cinephile, how could I be taken in by something like this?
On my first viewing of Top Gun: Maverick, I was moved to tears. Many men who I’ve spoken to about the film have admitted to crying while they watched it. I cried, despite my awareness that I was being aggressively manipulated by a work of vainglorious, sentimental, and stupid propaganda for the US military. This is the only Cruise film which has moved me in this way. Between the aerial stunts, Top Gun: Maverick is a film about coming to terms with the death of the father: Cruise’s Maverick finds himself stuck in the complex situation of grieving for his peer, Iceman (Val Kilmer), who had become his surrogate father-protector, while simultaneously navigating his own role as a surrogate father-protector to Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of the man whose death he caused in the film’s prequel. Kilmer is only two years older than Cruise, but in Top Gun: Maverick he is coded as older and wiser, almost a mentor, due to his seniority in rank. Cruise/Maverick’s peers have aged around him, but he remains stuck in perpetual adolescence. This is a recent example of a long trend: Cruise’s filmography is filled with troubled relationships between absent or disappointing fathers and the sons who suffer. There is certainly scope for speculation about the influence the difficult relationship with his own father has had on the roles Cruise chooses and shapes.
Cruise is a father himself and has on rare occasion chosen parts that explore his own paternal responsibilities, most notably in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). But, more often than not, he is the eternal son, seeking to win the love of paternal stand-ins. Even as he ages, he shows no sign of adopting the position of the paterfamilias, preferring instead to remain the hero who seeks acceptance from a society of other men, while always remaining just on the edge of male sociality. As Ruth O’Donnell points out in her contribution to a recent essay collection on the star, Starring Tom Cruise (Wayne State University Press, 2021), his character’s “demonstrations of masculinity are for an audience of men, with him craving acceptance from and admission into their circle.” (The mother of a friend emailed me after seeing Top Gun: Maverick, remarking with enviable wit, “I myself didn’t cry, but then, I’m not a man.”)
The contributors to Starring Tom Cruise try to grapple with the ambivalences of Cruise’s star persona as it’s developed over the course of his decades-long career. The essays explore the Cruise trajectory under three main themes: the polymorphous ambiguities of his sexual presentation, his work in and around the constraints of genre cinema, and his complex and anxious relationship to the inevitability of aging. The contributors work hard to unpick the tightly woven image that Cruise has cultivated over his career, seeking to reveal his repressed anxieties and trying to come to terms with the complexities underneath his desirability.
The most useful and interesting essays in this collection are those in which the writer tries to understand their own pleasure in looking at Cruise and his body, such as the opening contribution by anthology editor Sean Redmond. Redmond reads the Cruise image in terms of the star’s sexual ambivalence:
Gazing at Tom Cruise is very often meant to confirm his status as a heterosexual, Hollywood heartthrob, and a white salvific American hero. And yet, of course, gazing at Tom Cruise also involves a degree of perverse desire, particularly as his star image has shifted, since when looking at Cruise he seems so often to appear as too emotionally excessive, too plastic, and always as potentially queer.
By insisting on his masculinity and heterosexuality, Cruise’s performances work to undercut the very image he seeks to project; his image fractures under its own contradictory pressures, and his films flood “with possibility and potentiality.”
Reading this book, which was written before Top Gun: Maverick was released, I had the sense of how effective the recent strategy behind the Cruise publicity machine has been. And despite repeated discussion of the well-known low points of his career, many authors struggle to make sense of Cruise’s enduring stardom, his near indestructibility. As Redmond puts it, “There is nothing straightforward about looking at Tom Cruise,” but I started to wonder if there’s even that much to make sense of. Maybe the genius of Cruise — especially in recent years — has been how straightforward he has become, and if it is simply the viewer, duty-bound to find some meaning in these performances, who generates all the complexity and confusion.
Some of the later essays in the book analyze the recent Cruise in light of his refusal to slow down as he ages, cautioning Cruise’s fans to be critical of the discourse that produces his star persona. These often had the feel of glancing blows, revealing little about the experience of watching his movies. The more I read of these scholarly attempts to get to the bottom of the Cruise persona, the more I began to believe — as the hype machine around Cruise would want me to — that he is sui generis, incomparable and unique in his eccentricity. But I also started to recognize that a major part of the recent turn in his career, what I’m calling his late style, has involved a concerted effort to divest his persona of everything other than his so-called “authenticity” in terms of stunt work. From the erotically ambiguous target of polymorphous and perverse desire, which he occupied in his heartthrob years, Cruise has worked hard to become a body that exists for one thing only: action. Scholarly reflection just seems to bounce right off him.
The largely euphoric reception of Top Gun: Maverick has been the capstone on the concerted effort towards the rehabilitation of Tom Cruise which has been underway since his annus horribilis of 2005, when he appeared in a series of regrettable public appearances: the infamous Oprah couch moment, his vocal contempt towards Brooke Shields for using medication to manage her postpartum depression, his trenchant antipsychiatry espoused in the interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show. Those appearances, made in quick succession while he was supposed to be promoting Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, are inescapable in the discourse surrounding Cruise.
If he’d acted out in this way a couple of years earlier, these appearances might not have had the traction and effect on his career that they did, but Cruise’s timing was unfortunate. A couple of months beforehand, a video-sharing website called YouTube was launched, and Cruise’s erratic behavior was instantly accessible to everyone. It was widely circulated, watched over and over, impossible to escape or ignore. Combined with an effective satire on an episode of South Park, an embarrassing failed attempt to get the episode banned, and the beginnings of a broader public hostility and suspicion towards the Church of Scientology, these interviews trashed Cruise’s prestige entirely, and he became little more than the punchline to a joke. Paramount Pictures severed their 14-year relationship with the actor after Mission: Impossible III (directed by J. J. Abrams, 2006) drastically underperformed in the box office the next year. Cruise and his long-term production partner, Paula Wagner, took over United Artists, but they announced a professional split just two years later, in 2008.
This is the familiar story for anyone who has been watching movies for the past 20 years. What is less obvious is how exactly Cruise managed to pull himself back from being the butt of endless jokes to being the highest-earning movie star in 2022. In fact, even during the period of his disrepute, Cruise was working consistently, having appeared in, on average, at least one film per year every year since 1981. The longest gap in his acting career has been between Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022), but he was still working hard in those years: producing, rehearsing, and rewriting for his recent and forthcoming work. There have been less auspicious moments — 2007’s forgotten Lions for Lambs, 2010’s Knight and Day, 2012’s Rock of Ages — but he’s not exactly been kicking his heels.
Of course, Cruise has never been particularly interested in just being a jobbing actor or a producer. And in fact, for some time, Cruise hasn’t really been much of an actor at all. Cruise is always Cruise, self-identical, even when he’s playing a more outré role than he might otherwise. This has been the case since his breakthrough with Risky Business in 1983. He doesn’t do immersive character work. He doesn’t do psychological depth or profound personal transformation — maybe the last time he really tried this was in Magnolia (1999), one of the few anti-Cruise Tom Cruise movies, in which, by channeling his own experience of bitterness and grief towards his absent father, he delivers a performance of uncharacteristic emotional depth and intensity — one of the rare cases where a Cruise role seems to reveal something about the man himself. Otherwise, in most Cruise films, the best we can hope for is that, over the course of the film, he’ll change from a dislikable man to a slightly less dislikable, but more smug, individual. He’s the opposite of famously “Method” actors committed to embodying their characters, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Dustin Hoffman (who he appeared opposite in Rain Man). He’s never tried this kind of work, and he seems to be less interested in doing so than he’s ever been. Despite the occasional moments in his more recent films in which he expresses strong emotion or sentimentality, late Cruise has seen a turn towards doing rather than feeling. When he tears up at the death of Iceman in Top Gun: Maverick, it’s the critic in the theater who weeps — Cruise holds himself together, despite his pain. Late Cruise is a hole, one which the viewer is asked to try and fill with their own emotional investments.
Cruise’s star persona has been fairly consistent throughout his career, but there has been a turn recently. He is attempting, quite openly, to position himself as The Last Movie Star. This is made explicit in the opening act of Top Gun: Maverick, in which Cruise/Maverick is warned by a general (Ed Harris) that his kind — daredevil fighter pilots — will soon be made redundant by advances in drone technology. “Maybe so, sir, but not today,” comes the response. That this exchange is so readily interpreted as a reflection on Cruise as movie star with a divine mission proves just how effectively his publicity machine has entrenched the Cruise myth. The film demands that we read this moment again outside of the movie, that we reflect it back onto the image of Tom Cruise that’s been so carefully cultivated. At moments like this, the film exists to sell the persona, rather than the persona helping to sell the film.
Bolstered by a deep faith in his unique purpose, and perhaps by a certainty — stemming from his commitment to the Church of Scientology — that he’s immortal and has the option of conscious reincarnation ready to hand, Cruise has long given up acting in favor of entertaining. He’s an action hero and stuntman: he runs, fights, shoots, swims, flies aircraft, drives cars and motorbikes, scales cliffs, leaps, and so on. But for the last decade or so, his roles have increasingly been colored by a thrilling but hollow verisimilitude, a feeling that we’re watching Cruise finally try to just be himself — or be the safest, most functional version of himself there is.
Despite his commitment to larger and riskier stunts, Cruise’s late style can be characterized, ironically, by an increased caution. This claim may seem counterintuitive, even contrarian, but he has constricted his already narrow range of roles and genres over the last decade. As Adorno and Horkheimer put it in their essay on “The Culture Industry,” the machine rotates on the same spot. And Cruise is nothing if not a machine, one which exists solely to produce bigger and more vacuous spectacles of risk.
Beyond his on-screen displays of bravura heroism, Cruise and his publicity team have quietly worked hard to blend his on- and off-screen personas, and if the former eclipses the latter, so much the better. Since his embarrassments in 2005, and his public divorce from Katie Holmes in 2012, he has been a much quieter tabloid presence: less vocal about his faith, less available to the scrutiny of gossip columns. Now he appears in the press when he’s seen hanging out with friends like David Beckham, or when he eats two of the same meal back-to-back at an Indian restaurant in Birmingham. Or he appears on talk shows, armed with behind-the-scenes video clips of his stunt work, making sure that the public knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he actually did it all himself. Stunts are the medium through which he expresses his inauthentic authenticity.
After working earlier in his career with major directors, the kind that get called auteurs and have particular and recognizable cinematic styles — Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg — he has spent much of the last decade working closely with a select few: Christopher McQuarrie, Doug Liman, and Joseph Kosinski. Watching the Cruise films involving these three men, I struggle to distinguish between them. In terms of film style and auteurist studies, the figure of the director, after years in the critical spotlight, has taken a back seat. In the contemporary Cruise vehicle, the director becomes an enabler who exists primarily to realize the vision of the star-stuntman-producer. The role of the director is to empty the film of anything that might distract from the exhilaration of seeing Cruise risk his neck, to create an anonymous and disorienting cinematic vacuum out of which the star can shine.
Other critics have noticed the hollowness at the heart of the Cruise persona and have recognized that it’s been with him for his entire career, but it’s really only with his late style that the void at the heart of Cruise has leached into the films themselves. There is a suspect and disquieting politics behind this shift — though of course the current Cruise would never comment openly on politics. From at least Jack Reacher onwards, if not before, Cruise’s action films have had a reactionary bent: the world is chaotic, institutions are corrupt and failing, and only one man is capable of redeeming humanity from this looming catastrophe. The opaque, right-wing political resonances vary film by film, but — as is always the case — behind the guise of entertainment lurks something far from innocuous.
Writer-director McQuarrie has been the most prolific collaborator in the development of Cruise’s late style. His own career floundering after the success of The Usual Suspects (1995), which he wrote and for which he won an Oscar, McQuarrie first worked with Cruise on 2008’s Valkyrie, a historical thriller in which Cruise plays a “good Nazi,” inspired by the real-life officer who tried to assassinate Hitler. The two worked together again on Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in 2011 and Jack Reacher in 2012, and since then, they’ve stuck closely together: McQuarrie has been involved in Edge of Tomorrow (2014), The Mummy (2017), Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018), Top Gun: Maverick, and both parts of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning. Kosinski worked with Cruise on 2013’s Oblivion and Top Gun: Maverick. Liman directed Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow and 2017’s American Made, and they are currently in the production stages of a film project called Luna Park, set to be filmed — where else? — on the International Space Station, assuming space tourism ever actually gets off the ground.
These collaborators get recognition from Cruise, but what remains invisible in the discourse surrounding him and his allegedly authentic exploits is the labor of the actual professional stuntmen behind the scenes, the experts who figure out how to do the stunts practically and safely. Glen Donnar’s essay in the Redmond collection explores the tension that exists between the model of the trained professional and the reckless daredevil. Cruise’s self-adulation, Donnar tells us, emphasizes his own intense preparation for the stunts and conveniently elides the fact that behind the scenes is a team of people working to make the stunts both possible and safe: teaching Cruise the necessary movements, coaching him, figuring out exactly how the harnesses should be attached.
Despite the image he wants to project, Cruise is not a champion motorcycle rider, or a professional skydiver, or anything else. He is a performer who, regardless of his public declarations, still employs stunt doubles. Through asserting over and over that he really does it all himself, that Cruise is almost unhinged in his flamboyant risk-taking, Cruise and his costars and collaborators struggle to repress a fear of aging that sits at the heart of the Cruise persona. It belies a desperate need to deny the fact of his own abilities, his own inescapable mortality. O’Donnell links these assertions back to the behavior of a small boy, clamoring for his father’s attention while simultaneously afraid of being punished for challenging the father’s authority. For O’Donnell, Cruise’s famous need to be filmed running in almost every film “symbolizes the Cruise character’s preferred response to the threat of the figural father, which is to escape.” Cruise’s characters are stuck in a perpetual series of Oedipal conflicts, which become harder to justify the older he gets.
Late style, in Adorno’s conception — and Edward Said’s development of that idea — has to do with the refusal of cohesiveness in an artist’s work in the face of looming death. The works which express late style are furrowed, ravaged, catastrophic. In using this term to describe the recent turn in Cruise’s performances, I’m being slightly disingenuous. Cruise is only 60, and he’s in famously good shape. But, then again, he’s only seven years younger than Bruce Willis, that stalwart of the macho action film, who has been forced into a melancholy retirement since being diagnosed with aphasia. Willis’s last works, made over the last seven years, have been low-budget, direct-to-video action films shot mostly in Cincinnati, in which the star received huge checks for minimal screen time; he was often filmed from one side to hide the earpiece feeding him his few lines. Works of late style are rarely sleek explorations of bigger and more death-defying stunts.
I don’t think Cruise believes that he is confronting death when he does these things — when he climbs the Burj Khalifa, or hangs off the side of a plane as it’s taking off, or skydives over and over with a broken ankle. He’s doing his job, or what he understands his job to be: he’s entertaining us. You go to see a Tom Cruise film for the stunts, not for the plot or character, and if you get some emotional catharsis out of it, so much the better.
Cinema is changing, but it’s still a young art form — less than a hundred years have passed since the first sound film. And Cruise is not the last movie star. For that to be true, it would also need to be true that there have been other stars like him, when, in fact, he’s an outlier, an eccentric who has trodden a road for himself that nobody else could reasonably follow. It’s no mean feat to sustain a career for as long as he has, or to recover from such disastrous public moments in the way that he’s managed. It seems likely that, instead of allowing himself greater freedom and experimentation in his future works, he will continue along the narrow and lonely path that’s he’s made, pushing himself and his films further and further into spectacular structures that stretch the cinematic apparatus to its limits, trapped by his own need for adrenaline, barely breathing, until there’s nothing bigger left to climb and nowhere else left for him to go.
Andrew Key is a writer and film critic; his writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Point, The Quietus, and a number of other publications. He writes Roland Barfs Film Diary, a weekly Substack about every film he watches.
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