Acting isn’t about pretending. Bad actors think it is, and they try to fake their way through scenes, throwing up signifiers and tics that represent the emotional state they’re pretending to find. Acting is about truth, and it’s about discovering the truth in yourself and presenting it through a fictionalized lens.
Tom Cruise is a good actor, but I’ve always found it hard to see his truth in some of his most emotional scenes. Cruise is working at bringing that truth, but over the years I’ve come to the simple conclusion that Tom Cruise inhabits a world very different from our own. His truth is not our truth; the things he experiences are not what we experience. And I don’t mean this in some hacky class war way. I mean it in a spiritual way, and I suspect that Tom Cruise is the only guy for whom Scientology has ever worked.
I have met Tom Cruise, and he exists on a different wavelength than the rest of us. When he walks into the room he brings with him this energy that is palpable and exhilarating, and it isn’t a messy ball of energy, randomly bouncing about. The energy that Cruise carries with him is focused and disciplined, and he can point it at you in a way that feels how I imagine it feels to get a healing from a snake handling preacher. There’s an overwhelming sense of presence – I might even go so far as to say Presence.
Tom Cruise could have been President – his tragic flaw is that he fell in with a bunch of hucksters and scumbags and ended up being the only person to benefit from their scam system. In another world Cruise just got into meditation or something, and he’s out there negotiating nuclear deals with North Korea. But while that world may have global peace on the horizon, it doesn’t have Mission: Impossible: Fallout, so I call it a draw.
Because Cruise experiences the world differently than you or I, and because he has done so for nigh upon 40 years now, he brings a different truth to his more emotional scenes. Watching Cruise in a helicopter in Fallout being unsure of how to fly that helicopter – there’s no truth in there. Tom Cruise doesn’t not know how to do things. Tom Cruise just hasn’t learned something yet, and there’s a huge mental difference between those two concepts. Cruise doesn’t quite know how to be ignorant or insecure; perhaps he once was, but those moments are like distant memories he can barely access, even with all his Thetans cleared.
(This, by the way, is why the couch jumping was so searing when it happened. I think that was truly Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise, and we just couldn’t process the level he’s on. It seemed insane to us, but that’s just because he’s left behind so much of the bullshit we all carry around all day long.)
But when he runs… this is the truest look at Tom Cruise. This is the real Cruise on screen, naked and open. No actor has ever run with such truth and honesty.
This isn’t a joke. It’s not an ironic thing – I’m so sick of the ironic meme-ification of specific moments from movies – or a way to mock Cruise. This is honest. Let me explain.
Tom Cruise is ambition in human form. He’s the anthropomorphic embodiment of achievement. He’s work ethic made flesh. It’s not that things come easy to Tom Cruise, it’s that working for things comes easy to Tom Cruise. That disciplined energy that he has, he is able to harness it and direct it at whatever catches his fancy, a fucking Hadouken fireball of effort that he blasts at whatever he needs to do.
For cinematic purposes that ambition and achievement is best expressed in physical movement and action. That’s why the Mission: Impossible films have become Cruise’s own version of Jackass, a series of escalating and increasingly improbable stunts that will, eventually, end him (if he can, in fact, be ended). But those stunts – while astonishing and thrilling to watch! – don’t match the sheer power of Cruise running, which he does perhaps as well as he ever has in Fallout.
See, we’re all trained to understand that what we’re seeing on screen is bullshit, even when it’s real. There’s no way for me to watch Fallout’s HALO jump or the helicopter chase and know, 100% for sure, what I’m seeing. What little detail is CG’ed in? Who is standing just outside of the frame, holding a wire? The behind the scenes features about these stunts are, functionally, way more thrilling than the edited versions we see in the film because in those behind the scenes features we see the totality of the madness. We’re outside the artifice of editing and post-production and slick camera placement, and we see that Tom Cruise is risking his life for an effect that could, honestly, be achieved just as successfully with special effects.
(Sometimes I wish these movies would just break the fourth wall in these moments and offer us those behind the scenes looks at the stunts while they’re happening in the film, so that we can understand how much of it is actually real. Quite simply, I don’t know if a standard moviegoer without behind the scenes info would know that the HALO jump was a real HALO jump)
So when I watch these sequences, even though many of them are real(ish) and even though Cruise significantly injured himself in the shooting of one, I still feel at a remove. They exist in a liminal space between reality and fiction that is an exciting place to be on its own, but that doesn’t give me the same frisson I get when watching the making of.
(By the by, this isn’t me running down these incredible stunts. I love them, and what’s more I RESPECT them, and the effort that goes into them. I’m speaking simply about the most basic lizard brain reaction to them)
But when I watch Cruise running – that’s real. I know that’s real. Watching Cruise run is like watching an Olympic event, and I am seeing a finely tuned body working at peak performance, in real time. I am seeing truth.
The truth I am seeing is that anthropomorphized ambition. In the moments when he runs Tom Cruise is clearly in a state of singular focus, with all of his attention – all of that intense energy that swirls about him like electrical storms around a mountain top – beamed in at one spot ahead of him. This is the truest moment for Cruise, when he is all about achieving the next step, and then the next, and then the next. This is his soul on screen, a man aimed forward, launched like a missile, existing only for each pump of the leg, for each arm gracefully knifing through the air.
This is Tom Cruise reduced to his most primal element, to pure forward motion, sharklike and unstoppable. When you see Tom Cruise running at full speed in his movies, when you see him sprinting across the rooftop in Fallout, you are seeing Tom Cruise as he is, you’re seeing what it is like to BE Tom Cruise. He has no greater truth to share with the audience. When I see Cruise run I am filled with the same piety I feel when I see a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with Christ holding his own heart, aflame and encircled by thorns, out towards humanity. It is just as awesome an offering.
Once I mocked the running Cruise. Honestly, it’s because the sheer realness of it made me uncomfortable. I thought that Cruise ran in all his movies as an exercise in ego, to show off what a good runner he is. But the reality is the opposite – this is Cruise at his most vulnerable and real, shorn of all artifice and distance. That can feel weird when you’re an ironic snark machine like I was, a person who cringes at the display of purity. Cruise running is pure, it is complete, it is extraordinary. I was wrong.
Cruise brings this same realness to his other stunts, but they can never be quite as pure as his running. When he’s doing other stunts he’s thinking about hitting marks or timing, he is unable to unleash the fullness of his focus on one thing. When he runs he is able to put his all into one spot ahead of him and go for it, mindful and present, absolutely there without distraction. I imagine in those moments of sheer running Cruise transcends everything around him. All jokes aside, it’s what I have experienced for a few fleeting seconds after three days of a silent meditation retreat. He gets there in a heartbeat.
Other actors have brought this same reality to their performances, but rarely. Even the greatest actors don’t always find the space in scripts to bring something absolutely nakedly true. Tom Cruise does it at least once in every one of his action films. In our culture of irony and distance we have a hard time embracing this, and thus the endless jokes (which I have made) about Cruise running. Maybe it’s time for us to take a step forward and try to honor what Cruise is doing here, to recognize it and respect it, and to be more than a little thankful that we have the opportunity to go to the biggest screen in our town and witness such naked, honest reality amidst all the artifice.