By now, you've certainly heard a great deal about Going Clear, the HBO documentary directed by Alex Gibney and based on the incisive book by Lawrence Wright. Some of you have probably already watched it or are texting your ex right now for their HBO Go password. The documentary explores Scientology with a deservedly harsh eye for damning reveals, leaving only a few stones unturned and certainly making no hero of Tom Cruise — the religion's unequivocal posterboy. If you've ever had the chance to (probably drunkenly) visit the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, then you are certainly aware that all of this is quite real indeed (though we could also say that of many other religions).
In spite of it all, the very specific type of celebrity that Tom Cruise has come to represent — i.e. the archetypal movie star that your parents keep saying is "dying out" — continues to be a type of public figure at once shrouded in mystique and exposed in documentaries like Going Clear. Unlike George Clooney or others in the same league of movie star, Cruise has doubled down on the maintenance of that mystique in the face of previous Scientology controversies. As a result, "Tom Cruise" still serves as colloquial shorthand for a one-man-brand of superstardom.
And what better way to re-explore this one-man brand than through five of his finest performances?
Though it's easy to point out Tom Cruise mega-classics like Top Gun or Risky Business as indicative of his incomparable skill at cinematic graces, those are far from representative of Cruise's full potential. I've also excluded the beloved Jerry Maguire, based purely on its status of endless cable broadcast; it's kind of ubiquitous to a fault.
Eyes Wide Shut (Directed by Stanley Kubrick; 1999)
Stanley Kubrick passed away just six days after showing the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut to Warner Brothers executives, and the film stands as a fitting sendoff for one of cinema's finest auteurs. Cruise adds an impressive thematic undercurrent to his portrayal of Dr. Bill Harford — an orgy infiltrator and marriage-doubting husband. Of course, much of the film's initial hype was built around Tom Cruise and costar Nicole Kidman's relationship, but don't let that dated reference deter you from a stellar erotic thriller.
Minority Report (Directed by Steven Spielberg; 2002)
Though the concept of PreCrime seems far more inevitable than it did in 2002, Minority Report still stands as a near-perfect Philip K. Dick adaptation. Every frame stands on the shoulders of Blade Runner while also reaching further into the creepy post-everything sensibilities such a reference implies. Spielberg allows Cruise to flex his usual action star muscle, but also pushes him to deliver a touching turn as a father in search of answers and some semblance of justice.
Magnolia (Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; 1999)
This, of course, is not Tom Cruise's vehicle. In fact, Magnolia isn't anyone's vehicle — it's a self-driven exploration of purpose and forgiveness. Interestingly, Cruise's turn as Frank "T.J." Mackey happened in large part thanks to Cruise's fondness for Anderson's Boogie Nights. I would say it's safe to assume that Cruise isn't as big of a fan of Anderson's more recent work, particularly the Scientology-critiquing The Master.
The first 30 minutes or so of War of the Worlds (Directed by Steven Spielberg; 2005)
Unfortunately, this film starts to derail as it nears the end of its first hour. However, Cruise is absolute dynamite in the first 30 minutes. Paired with Spielberg's reliably realistic portrayal of family dynamics, Cruise's turn as a deadbeat dad with good intentions is truly something to behold until, of course, the aliens arrive and all polished nuance is burned alive.
Vanilla Sky (Directed by Cameron Crowe; 2001)
Aside from Roger Ebert, this film tends to get an unfair amount of flack from critics. Though it's apparently no longer cool to praise the work of Cameron Crowe, I can honestly say that Vanilla Sky has retained its near-brilliance in the 14 years since its initial release. Like a great album, the individual scenes lose their power when viewed out of context — you have to dedicate the time to spin the entire record, and maybe even spin it again.