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Should We Separate Tom Cruise’s Scientology Beliefs From His Movies?

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, audiences have been put into the new position — if they weren’t before — of having to grapple with the relationship between the artist and his art. For anyone who’s enjoyed a Woody Allen movie, a Louis C.K. stand-up set or a Kevin Spacey performance, it’s no longer simply a question of reflexively excusing the performer’s questionable personal life to enjoy his terrific work. This isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy their work, but to pretend that the two realms — the creative and the personal — are completely separate moral spheres is naïve. I know, because I used to feel that way about problematic artists, and while I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all rule for evaluating creative work from such performers, I realized I needed to be more cognizant of the people who were taken advantage of by these artists.

But the way we feel about problematic artists isn’t uniform, partly because what makes them problematic isn’t. Case in point: This weekend saw the release of the summer’s best action movie — the best one in a few summers, actually — featuring one of Hollywood’s most reliable stars. Mission: Impossible — Fallout is an excellent film, and a lot of its pleasure comes from watching Tom Cruise do his own stunts, sprint with breakneck urgency and generally give 110 percent in every single scene. As Ethan Hunt, the seemingly ageless leader of the Impossible Missions Force, Cruise is compelling and inspiring. I love this franchise, I love this film and I hope it makes a trillion dollars.

But in an era where we hold entertainers to a higher standard — refusing to overlook what might be troublesome about them — why have the media, in the buildup to Fallout, hardly mentioned the fact that Cruise is a Scientologist? Why has his association with the controversial religion barely registered amidst the movie’s buzz?

Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon wondered the same thing, writing a piece this past week entitled “Why Is No One Talking About Tom Cruise and Scientology?” In his essay, Fallon makes clear that he loves Cruise’s movies, but he’s surprised that there’s been little recent acknowledgment (let alone criticism) of Scientology’s alleged history of harassment and abuse. As Fallon admits, press tours for big stars are often fawning affairs, “[b]ut that doesn’t make [Scientology’s legacy’s] erasure any less aggravating, the media complicity in fostering an inaccurate image of an influential member of a reportedly oppressive organization any less irresponsible and our collective willingness to accept all of this in the name of enjoying a badass movie any less damning.” Other performers have been scrutinized for their questionable acts, but Cruise apparently gets a pass.

Let’s first acknowledge that Cruise himself hasn’t been accused of harassment, assault or abuse. And so, on one level, blasting Cruise for his long, sometimes publicly passionate association with Scientology would be like condemning a movie star who’s Catholic just because of the Church’s history of hiding sexual assault. And yet, since Cruise is a highly decorated, high-profile member of Scientology, he presumably has more clout in how the organization conducts itself. It’s Cruise’s prerogative not to talk about Scientology if he doesn’t want to, but it’s the media’s (and audience’s) prerogative to criticize its behavior and hold him at least partly accountable.

Now that I’ve said all that, it’s time to admit my own complicity in these matters. I’ve read the reports from Paul Haggis and others about how toxic the Church of Scientology can be. I’ve watched Alex Gibney’s sobering documentary Going Clear. And yet, I find myself absolutely untroubled watching Cruise on-screen. I’ve already seen Fallout twice and am considering seeing it again. Why doesn’t it bother me that Cruise is a Scientologist?

I think my answer goes back to what I was saying earlier about why I like Cruise so much in the Mission: Impossible films. It’s not just that he runs and jumps and risks his life in elaborate, bravura action sequences — it’s that he exudes so much effort in the name of entertaining me. He suffers for my pleasure. And, in a weird way, I equate that with some form of penance on his part. He gives 110 percent because he knows he has to make amends.

BuzzFeed News critic Alison Willmore touched on this, somewhat, Thursday when she wrote about Cruise’s try-hard aesthetic. “There may be leading men with fresher faces out there in Hollywood,” Willmore observes, “but Cruise seems determined to prove with every second of screentime that none of them will ever work as hard as he does. Trying has become Cruise’s reason for being, or at least his reason for remaining famous.”

Central to Cruise’s appeal is that he gives off the impression that he cares more about entertaining the masses than his fellow stars do. It’s one of the reasons that he lets us know that he does his own stunts — with Cruise, there’s always a sense that he wants us to feel like we’re getting our money’s worth. And so, he puts his body in harm’s way. He breaks bones, like when he performed a Fallout stunt on a busted ankle. He spends years training to fly helicopters just for our amusement. He’ll do whatever it takes to hold on to our love.

There’s something about the rigor and arduousness of doing something physical — and doing it for our approval — that feels akin to a moral cleansing. In sports movies in which the underdog triumphs, part of the process of becoming the champ usually involves facing down some personal demon or deep insecurity — only by winning the big game in some grueling, demanding fashion do they prove (to themselves and to us) that they’ve conquered their internal obstacle as well. Comeback narratives are prevalent throughout society, but in sports they’re especially potent: In society’s mind, a fallen star like Michael Vick somehow redeems his past sins through amazing exploits on the field.

What does one have to do with the other? Nothing, but we’ve been conditioned to believe that hard, physical work ennobles us, improves us, emancipates us from our failings. No (physical) pain, no (spiritual) gain.

I don’t think Cruise consciously thinks about this when he’s mapping out his next gonzo stunt sequence, of which there are several superb ones in Fallout. More likely, he just lives for this kind of high-octane blockbuster — he feeds off the rush of his fans’ adoration. But while being wowed by his latest film, I found myself very consciously separating art from artist, glorious spectacle from troublesome individual. For all my talk of thinking about victims, I permitted myself to just enjoy the sheer balletic thrill of watching an incredible movie star do his thing more joyously than any other actor alive. I wanted to believe in him — and just forget everything else.

These are the decisions we have to make going forward with “problematic” artists. For some, we’ll be willing to overlook their failings because of the creative work they do. And even for those who can’t overlook some of those failings, if we’re being honest, we’re all pretty hypocritical when we make choices about which artists we’ll give a pass. It’s a complicated conundrum that not even the wily Ethan Hunt can escape.

Here are a few other takeaways from Mission: Impossible — Fallout. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. So, is the first ‘Mission: Impossible’ good or what?

It’s now been more than two decades since director Brian De Palma and then-budding producer Tom Cruise worked together to adapt the Bruce Geller television series that ran from 1966 to 1973. At that moment, Cruise was flying high, riding a series of diverse hits that included A Few Good Men, The Firm and Interview With the Vampire. As for De Palma, he was in the midst of a commercial swan dive, its zenith being 1990’s disastrous adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. As the director himself admitted years later, he desperately needed a hit:

I haven’t seen the first Mission: Impossible since it opened in May 1996, but I was curious to revisit it — particularly because some colleagues (many of them huge De Palma fans) swore by the film. I didn’t remember it that fondly: My memory was that it had a few great action sequences and a really confusing storyline. For my money, the recent M:I sequels were far superior.

But after watching Fallout, in which an arms dealer named White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) is revealed to be the daughter of Max (Vanessa Redgrave) from the De Palma film, I decided to give the original a fresh look.

So, had I been wrong all along about 1996’s Mission: Impossible? Well, it’s actually better than I remembered. De Palma’s stylish camerawork, cheeky theatricality and playful sense of paranoia make for a fun thriller. But, to my surprise, what really held back the first M:I was Cruise himself.

In the 1996 film, Cruise plays Ethan Hunt for the first time, and in this movie, he’s very much a cocky hotshot in the Maverick/Top Gun vein. Cruise was still in his early 30s, and back then, he radiated this noxious swagger that could be incredibly off-putting. He didn’t come across as confident — he just seemed like a twit. And having a twit at the helm of a Mission: Impossible film significantly undercuts the drama. Throughout, Hunt just seems too brash and callow to be fully sympathetic, and so, the stakes aren’t as high as they should be.

If anything, the original Mission: Impossible made me appreciate the older Cruise all the more. In the recent films, Hunt is haunted by the choices he’s made, and even though he still carries himself as an invincible warrior, he often fails and gets banged up — he’s remarkably human. Watching the De Palma movie again made me realize the subtle transformation that the character has gone on since the 1990s. In subsequent films, he’s had to let go of the love of his life, and he’s had to say goodbye to people close to him — time has changed him, and made him more interesting and compelling. And along the way, Cruise has become a better actor, more nuanced and emotionally measured.

So, my verdict remains that the first Mission: Impossible is just okay. The 10-minute vault heist, however, is still incredible.

#2. How believable are real-life masks?

The Mission: Impossible films have had a proud tradition of including tons of scenes where characters wear hyper-realistic masks and then, dramatically, rip them off. I can’t get enough of this trope.

The question, of course, is whether or not real-life masks are as flawless as the ones in the Cruise films. While it doesn’t look like you can create them as quickly as the IMF team can, we now have the technology to make scary-accurate silicone masks.

For example, artist and sculptor Landon Meier has a site called HyperFlesh where he shows off his “[d]isturbingly realistic masks that will terrify, confuse and excite the masses.” These masks of Trump and Putin are, indeed, deeply freaky:

The Denver Post interviewed Meier last year to learn about how he made his masks, learning his formula:

He’s a sculptor by trade, and used to push and pull his molds by hand out of clay. Now that he’s switched over to a 3-D printer, which helps him dial in pore-perfect likenesses, he clicks and drags on a digital ball of clay. For celebrities, he references the internet, scouring for photos of the same facial expression from different angles. After he’s shaped the facial structure on his computer, his 3-D printer (made by Loveland’s Aleph Objects) prints out a mold. Meier then fills the mold with silicon and painstakingly paints each freckle, blemish and mottled cheek by hand. In all, the masks take from 40 to 150 hours to complete.

The key to Meier’s creations is in the name. The skin is semi-translucent, the result of a proprietary blend of silicon, pigments and other top-secret ingredients. He’s constantly refining his mixture, and estimates he’s gone through 100 different combinations of skin recipes in his quest to create what he calls “accurate flesh.”

Meier told The Denver Post that some of his masks have gone for more than $14,000. And thus far, none of the famous people he’s depicted have sued for using their likeness without permission. “I haven’t run into any trouble yet,” he said. “If a celeb asks, I’ll make them one for free. And then we’re usually all good.”

It doesn’t appear that he’s made a Tom Cruise mask yet.

#3. Is ‘Mission: Impossible’ the best current movie franchise?

Yes. Yes, of course it is. Writing in The Washington Post, film critic Scott Tobias offered an explanation for why, arguing that the series isn’t encumbered by the elaborate world-building that’s become part of so many modern franchises, especially the Marvel superhero films. “Because there’s no interest in a larger mythology,” Tobias notes, “the only true mission the sequels have is to keep topping their predecessors.”

But I think there are other reasons M:I outranks the recent Star Wars movies, the MCU and any other current franchise you could name. Chief among them is that, for as popular as the Mission: Impossible films have been, they’re not so beloved in the culture that they’ve engendered the kind of insane, possessive fandom that’s ruined so many other series. Take The Last Jedi, a great movie almost totally ruined by the toxic nonsense of online fans who were angry that it “ruined” their childhood and dared mess with the formula. Too often, a new superhero film is just an excuse for diehard fanboys to wage petty wars while busily marking their territory. All of that vitriol makes moviegoing feel exhausting.

By comparison, Fallout is just another well-liked, well-made installment in a well-liked, well-made franchise. There’s shockingly little to fight about when discussing a new M:I movie. Were the stunts cool? Were there some fun twists? Was Tom Cruise awesome? Yes, yes and yes — end of story.

Fallout had the highest opening weekend of any movie in the series, but when you look at these films’ commercial track record, their worldwide grosses are relatively minor in comparison to other franchises. The biggest hit, 2011’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, pulled in just under $700 million worldwide. Eleven MCU films have done better than that. In fact, not a single Tom Cruise movie is in the Top 100 worldwide grossers. By blockbuster standards, Mission: Impossible is practically a scrappy indie movie. Fine by me: If it was more popular, fanboys might start taking notice and ruining everything I love about it.