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A grand, unified theory of Tom Cruise movies

Tom Cruise is America. America is Tom Cruise. The policy secrets of his movies.

Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire” in 1996. (AP Photo/Andrew Cooper/Columbia Tri-Star)

This is part of our continuing “Not Springsteen” storyline, in which we discuss how policy is reflected in culture — just no Springsteen references. Ever. 

Ryan McCarthy: You came into the office a few weeks ago and proclaimed: “I watched ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ on a plane — and it wasn’t bad!” You seemed surprised.

That got me thinking: Tom Cruise has been making movies for over three decades. He’s one of our most enduring — and marketable — movie stars ever. If Cruise is on the level of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart or Clint Eastwood — at least in terms of the sheer career longevity — why don’t we think of him with that level of cultural importance?

What I’m saying is: We need a grand unified theory of Tom Cruise movies.

Cruise isn’t necessarily an auteur, but he has, by all accounts, carefully managed his image for decades. You can also argue, as Amy Nicholson did, that Internet culture has hurt Cruise’s popularity — or that the death of the monoculture dimmed his stardom.

You can also argue that his movies tell us something interesting about American society over the course of his career. My question is, what?

So I’ve broken up the Cruise Canon into a few groups, tied to what roles Tom is playing. What you have are three basic, sometimes overlapping Cruises:

The Hyper-Talented Maverick-Entrepreneur-Cowboy-Leader
“Risky Business” (1983)
“Top Gun” (1986)
“Days of Thunder” (1990)
“A Few Good Men” (1992)
“Jerry Maguire” (1996)
“Collateral” (2004)

The Working-Class Guy Caught in the Middle of Bad Institutions

“All the Right Moves” (1983)
“Cocktail” (1988)
“Color of Money” (1986)
“Far and Away” (1992)
“The Firm (1993)
“Born on the Fourth of July”  (1990)
“Jerry MaGuire” (1996)
“Minority Report” (2002)

The Cool, Unemotional Specialist Who Saves the Public
A Few Good Men”
“War of the Worlds” (2005)
All of the “Mission Impossibles”
“Minority Report” (2002)
“Knight and Day” (2010)
“Oblivion” (2013)
“Jack Reacher” (2012)

The Odd Balls
Rain Main” (1988)
“Last Samurai” (2003)
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
“Magnolia” (1999)
“Tropic Thunder” (2008)
“Lions for Lambs (2007)
“Edge of Tomorrow” (2013)

(Technical note: I’m ignoring a few minor early works in the Cruise Canon here: “Taps,” “The Outsiders,” “Losing It,” “Legend” and “Endless Love.” They’re all from the early ’80s before Cruise calcified into a celebrity persona.)  


Jim Tankersley:

It was surprising to me because I’d given up on Cruise after a) he went  batty on mental health issues (I still can’t forgive him for that) and b) he got himself cast as Reacher, which was just an affront to Lee Child fans / airport bookstore patrons everywhere.

But you asked what his movies mean, and that’s a complicated answer.

We should start with “Jerry Maguire,” for the simple reason that it is every Cruise rolled into one: serious Cruise, funny Cruise, awkwardly earnest Cruise, perfectly self-aware Cruise (“What IS this music?”). It is good at friendship, bad at intimacy, and really, my friend, was that not America in the ’90s?

“Top Gun” should be required viewing in every high school civics class, but it was a one-dimensional reflection of late Cold War swagger; there was no Ivan Drago depth there.

“Mission: Impossible” had all the cultural impact of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise.

“Jerry Maguire,” though, “Jerry Maguire” still makes America nervous. After the Berlin Wall fell, didn’t we all have a lot of Things We Think and Do Not Say? Didn’t we want America to have fewer clients, but more attention? Aren’t we all still a little worried that deep down, we might be Bob Sugar?

Now I suppose you’re going to rave at me about “Eyes Wide Shut.”


Before we discuss “Eyes Wide Shut” — which I love — let’s talk about Gerald Maguire.

Cruise is all things in this one: He’s well-trained enough to fix the sports agent industry (Specialist Cruise); he’s visionary enough to sling a sweet mission statement (cowboy-Maverick Cruise); and he’s constantly being dragged down by the bad agents of the world (Everyman Cruise).

What I think makes this movie work — at least, in our cultural imagination — is that it morphs the middleman into an upper-middle-class white fantasy about finding meaning in the dreariness of late capitalism. Unlike the seedy agent Bob Sugar,  Jerry Maguire cares for his clients. His value add is his heart! I mean, look at this clip:

“Help me, help you!” sums up the movie — and the era — more than “Show me the money.” It’s about being less craven about making money. It’s Fruitopia. It’s Lollapalooza.

So, basically, he’s a kinder, gentler middleman. (It’s worth noting how silly Jerry Maguire’s agency looks in the era when Jay-Z and Weezy have sports agencies). As a vision of capitalism, Jerry Maguire is soooo pre-crisis and utterly ’90s. Jerry Maguire, I’d argue, is the perfect late ’90s-early aughts version of the rentier. Can’t we replace Jerry Maguire with an app? An Uber for multiyear deals?

My question to you: If “Jerry Maguire” is the prototypical Cruise movie, what do his more recent movies tell us?


They tell us that America is having an identity crisis. Look at the last decade of Cruise movies – they splatter across your categories like frogs falling from the sky. We see less maverick, less trapped-in-bad-institution. A lot of oddballs.

Put another way: Who do you think has changed more since “Jerry Maguire” — Cruise or America? I say America.


Both! How’s that for a non-answer? One of the interesting things about my thesis of the three major Cruise movie categories is that it’s semi-chronological. He started as the devil-may-care Maverick of the 1980s, moved to a guy being held back by bad institutions and now is mostly the dry-cool specialist fighting aliens or disembodied stateless terror organizations.

Which is weird, right? In a time of relatively tame job creation, wage stagnation, income inequality and general economic negativity, shouldn’t we be seeing more of the guy getting held down by bad institutions? Why did the relatively happy ’90s featuring a leading man always being held down by society? Why are Cruise roles basically counter-cyclical?  I mean, I get why we no longer see this kind of ’80s optimism in Cruise’s movies:

But, I guess what I’m saying is that where’s the Cruise even trying to capture the zeitgeist? Why are all of our action leading men turning into Liam Neeson? Are movies not supposed to do this anymore? Is this what serial TV dramas are for now?


Why do we go to movies, Ryan? To reflect our deepest fears, or escape them, or just laugh them back under the bed?

Why does a man drop hundreds of dollars on cab fare to chase a mythical suburban orgy that may or may not get him killed?

“Eyes Wide Shut” is instructive here, I think. Three years after he had Renee Zellweger at hello, Cruise returns with a convoluted tale of fantasy and desire and upper-middle-class malaise. It’s a perfect reflection of how America feels about itself in the late ’90s: so economically comfortable that it focuses an inordinate amount of energy on bedroom angst. Cruise is the nation that binge-read the Starr Report. And what did it get him? A wife who’s willing to flush her comfort for a tryst with a military man. Which I suppose isn’t counter-cyclical as much as it was prescient.

This is a long way of saying I think you’re wrong about the zeitgeist. Cruise always captures it, if there’s one to capture. “Eyes Wide Shut” may have been the last time. Or it may be that the zeitgeist was what Cruise, Neeson and every other hell-bent leading man of the last decade was actually looking for. The enemies changed – the Bush war machine! the Obama surveillance state! Time-bending interstellar terror cells! But the quest was the same: Find something that actually binds us all together, and if you can’t, then let the quest itself do the binding.


I love Kubrick, and I love “Eyes Wide Shut.” You’re right — it’s all about upper middle-class malaise, which was the predominant theme of a whole swath of 1990s movies. But it also has incredible Sydney Pollack (R.I.P.) cameo as the Plutocrat Who Knows Too Much (About Orgies). Plus, secret societies in Long Island! And challenging notions of gender roles and monogamy! And who better to carry the classic Kurbickian is-this-funny-or-is-this-scary? dynamic than Tom Cruise.

There is something very Piketty about “Eyes Wide Shut,” by the way. It was ahead of its time in imagining America — and Manhattan  — as a gigantic private party for the 1 percent.

Speaking of War Machines, let’s talk about “Top Gun 2,” of which People magazine reports:

“Cruise, 52, is set to reprise his role as Naval aviator Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in a plot that reportedly will emphasize the relevance of pilots in the modern age of drone warfare.”

First of all, Tom Cruise is 52?!!!!! Second, I predict this will be terrible.


What “Top Gun 2” tells us is that America is out of new ideas. Or at least Hollywood is.

How have we gone 2,000 words without quoting from “A Few Good Men”?


I hate Sorkin’s work.




“The West Wing” gives me hives, for example. But I love that movie. I feel like it doesn’t really tell us anything about anything. I dunno, maybe it’s about America’s increasingly ambivalent approach to its military? Or changing views on manhood — like don’t beat people up? Didn’t we know that already? Skinny Kiefer Sutherland is just tremendous in that movie, though.


It’s about that distinctively American tension between absolute security and absolute adherence to your ideals. “A Few Good Men” dropped in 1992, with the Cold War (and “Top Gun”) a freshly resolved memory and the country searching to define itself in the absence of a great Red Menace. Jack Nicholson overshadows Cruise, of course, but it’s Cruise who is the embodiment of that search in the movie. In order to preserve what is right — the America of his ideals — he must break military protocol and risk a court martial. What possible good could come of that, Ryan?!?

The ’90s gave Americans, especially Gen Xers, the economic space to explore those questions. You could argue the 2000s took that space away, between 9/11 and two recessions and middle-class stagnation. But I’d argue those questions persisted, but we just didn’t know how to explore them because we were too busy grieving and getting by.

And so, what do we do? We pine for a simpler time. The Reagan Years or the Clinton Years or that weird period at the end of the ’80s when the most important question in the world was whether Rock Music would endure.

Yes, I am arguing that the meaning of Tom Cruise, in modern America, is that modern America is locked in an existential search for Meaning.

And yes, I just dropped “Rock of Ages” on you.

McCarthy:  I like your idea that the ’90s gave us the cultural space to explore important questions. And I think you’re onto something that we’re just kinda mopey and numb in a post-crisis, post 9/11 moviespace.

But I would argue that “Rock of Ages” is actually evidence of this cultural numbification. We so lack a Billy Flanagan, a Maverick, even a Gerald D. Maguire, that we have to repackage oldies into a narratively nonsensical melange of cultural jetsam.

That’s where we’ve come as a country, Jim. Boats borne ceaselessly into the past, “Here I Go Again On My Own.” “Don’t Stop Believing.”

But I’m DEFINITELY gonna see “Top Gun 2.”


We’ll see it together. You can be my wingman anytime.


So I’m gonna die on the way to the theater? (Not falling for that one, Jim.)