Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation comes out this weekend and with it will be another round of people beating up on Tom Cruise. They make fun of him for his religious beliefs. They knock him for making overly commercial movies. They mock him because he was one of the first people in America to have the Internet kind of ruin his life. (In 2006, Sumner Redstone estimated that the Oprah-couch incident cost Paramount between $100 million and $150 million. He subsequently cut Cruise’s production company loose.)
But people are crazy for not loving Cruise. Okay, sure—Scientology. But when it comes to commercial movie-making, Cruise is the actorly-version of Stephen Spielberg—but without a fallow decade, like the one Spielberg had between E.T. and Jurassic Park. Which is to say: Cruise doesn’t make disposable cinematic garbage; he makes the most-interesting movies possible for the mass market. He makes them serially, one after another, without going off to cloister himself like an artiste. And he’s been doing it since 1986.
And about that thing where he jumped up and down like a crazy person on Oprah’s sofa? The GIFs lie—it didn’t happen. Not at all the way you think you remember it. The incident was the first mass-delusion of the Internet age. Really.
But enough defense—let’s play offense. Here’s why you should love Cruise:
(1) Alone among the leading men of our time, Cruise never mails in a performance. Not ever. Look around at his contemporaries. You might not remember this, but while Cruise was starring in Top Gun, Mark Harmon was considered the hottest actor on the planet. We all know how that worked out. Brad Pitt? Great star, but look at how he sleep-walked through Meet Joe Black and Ocean’s 12—which aren’t just bad movies, but offensive in how little care was put into them by anyone involved. George Clooney? You saw Batman & Robin, right?
And unlike Clooney, who wasted years of his career in small movies that were as pretentious as they were uninteresting—Solaris, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March, The American—Cruise’s career is one substantial movie after another. There are big, summer tent poles (The Edge of Tomorrow, War of the Worlds); there’s a small independent (Magnolia), there’s a fantastic, mid-sized Michael Mann flick (Collateral). And in every role in every movie, Cruise is working himself to the bone. Whatever you think about Cruise, you know that he never holds his audience in contempt.
(2) Cruise isn’t a great actor—he’s not Olivier, or DeNiro, or even Brian Cox. But he has the most winning combination you can ask for in a movie star: He has actorly ambitions, yet understands his limits. That’s why he often joins artistically promising, but commercially limited, movies—The Last Samurai, Valkyrie—and helps them get made. Which leads us to . . .
(3) If he had wanted to, Cruise could have made Top Gun-style movies for fifteen years. As it is, he only made two of them—Cocktail and Days of Thunder—both of which are reasonably entertaining. But after that he decided to grow up and become a real movie star. So he took on movies such as The Color of Money and Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. He started his own production company. And then he started initiating projects, too. Through it all, he has sought out the most talented directors to collaborate with—Spielberg, Kubrick, De Palma, Anderson, Pollack, Reiner, Mann—yet never indulged in the vanity of needing to write or direct himself.
(4) Go by the numbers and you realize that Cruise been at the center of more legitimately great movies than anyone else save (possibly) Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. And the greatness of the movies he’s in runs the gamut: Action (Top Gun), drama (A Few Good Men, Rain Man), thrillers (The Firm), hard sci-fi (Minority Report). The list keeps going: Jack Reacher is a sensational, hard-boiled noir. Jerry Maguire and Magnolia are so unique that they defy categorization. And comedy? His turn as the egomaniacal Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder is the funniest part of one of the funniest movies of the last ten years. Oh, and Cruise has powered what is arguably the best franchise in movie history: Mission: Impossible.
(5) I’m sure Tom Cruise has political opinions like everyone else in the world, but I defy you to tell me what they are. He’s not hosting Obama fundraisers or writing op-eds or churning out self-indulgent political vanity productions. He makes movies. And he thinks that’s enough. And God bless him for it.
In short, I’ll take Tom Cruise over any leading man of his generation. And maybe over any leading man, ever.