About a week ago, a series of Tik Toks starring Tom Cruise went viral. These weren’t actual Tik Toks from Cruise, lest you believe Scientology has dipped into producing memes (though honestly, a perfect place to convert impressionable Gen Zers and bored millennials)—they were deep fakes. A deep fake is basically photoshop using video and AI and it has real world concerns beyond an actor impersonating Tom Cruise and then using technology to make himself actually look like Cruise. There could be political ramifications from this. In the era of your relatives believing everything they see on Facebook, actually putting fake words into a politician’s mouth could be incredibly dangerous. Then there’s the fact that most deep fakes are used to create revenge porn, placing celebs or normal women’s heads on the bodies of porn actors.
I assume that is why most people were jarred by the Cruise deep fakes but I was actually shook because I… like them?
It’s hard out here for a Cruise fan. On the one hand, he’s part of an evil cult. On the other hand, the majority of the films in his forty year career are masterpieces. I don’t mean that in the way people ironically call Picasso paintings masterpieces. I’m talking real works of art. Jerry Maguire. Interview with the Vampire. The Color of Money. Born on the Fourth of July. Magnolia. Eyes Wide Shut. Every single Mission: Impossible film except the third. Collateral. Vanilla Sky. American Made. Maybe even Knight and Day????? Who’s to say!
The people who pretend that Cruise has never made a good film and that he’s not great in them just because he maybe (probably) was involved in Shelly Miscavige’s disappearance are weirdos who love to win arguments with bad faith absolutes instead of nuance. Morally wicked people make great art all the time. Justified is a great album, for one.
Earlier in quarantine I watched Jerry Maguire for the first time in years. I always knew it was a fantastic film (Cameron Crowe’s best to me but I know Almost Famous stans would riot if such a thing were general consensus), but I was unprepared for how utterly moved I would be. I’m sure in was in part from a lack of human contact (it was before my best friend Royce and I moved in together) up until then, but I truly uncontrollably sobbed on my couch watching not just the “you complete me” scene but also when Cuba Gooding Jr. survives what appears to be a life-threatening injury in the third act and embraces Cruise after his victory. In comparison, the next time I sobbed like this watching anything it was last week bingeing all of It’s a Sin.
I’m aware how monstrous it makes me seem, however, to be a Cruise stan in 2021. But there is something absolutely mesmerizing about this short man who appears tall in his films and his perfect smile that seems to betray a near-psychotic evil brimming just beyond his porcelain veneers. For some, their unconscious uncoupling with Cruise began with him leaping on a couch during an Oprah interview. For others, it was the 2015 documentary Going Clear. But I’d argue that any true fan of Cruise has always seen him for what he is—a soulless cipher incredibly skilled at mimicking human emotion.
I was born in the ‘80s so my introduction to Cruise wasn’t via watchable garbage like Top Gun or Cocktail. He has an affable persona in these films, but he’s very much the epitome of a young, charismatic white male plucked out of obscurity by Hollywood to churn into a star of the moment. The ‘80s is full of those archetypes who don’t have the brooding melancholy of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars or the cynical realism of those who starred in Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and Sydney Pollack films in the 70s. The Rob Lowes, the Emilio Estevezes, the Corey Feldmans.
In a world where Cruise isn’t introduced to Scientology during his late ‘80s relationship with Mimi Rogers, he’d probably be the current star of an NBC television drama or staging a comeback on Showtime. But for Cruise to not only join but to become their poster child for success, in a way that John Travolta couldn’t even accomplish without becoming a punchline, there had to be some part of him that enjoyed the darkness’ seduction. The Firm and Interview with the Vampire are the first films where you see him in films with dark themes and he’s more electrifying than in any of the fluffy ‘80s films of his past. I’m not counting A Few Good Men, because that’s all Jack Nicholson and Aaron Sorkin’s beautifully overwrought dialogue.
Ever since then, Cruise has existed as essentially Dexter. His best work is when he’s approximating human behavior in a way that makes you think he’s learning how humans interact with one another, not merely observing and deciphering it like most actors. But he’s at his most sublime when he’s doing an approximation of how we perceive him. He’s playing his younger self in Jerry Maguire. He’s playing his most malevolent self in Magnolia. In Mission: Impossible he’s truly attempting to push the human body to its furthest breaking point.
But I get it, Cruise is probably (most likely) the devil incarnate. But he’s also like, a very sweet and lovable robot. If the future of deepfakes could create Tom Cruise and keep him acting for centuries, but without having to enrich the pockets of the Church of Scientology, then I’m all for it. He’s the flawed hero humans have been writing about since The Iliad. When his corporeal form becomes dust, the epic story of the man that Thomas Mapother IV became should be told for generations.
Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, by Amy Nicholson
Every Tom Cruise Movie Performance Ranked, by Angelica Jade Bastien