Summer of Cruise IV: The truth, and how to handle it

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As I discussed last time around, one of the most difficult moments in any young movie star’s career is what they do immediately after their sudden rise to fame. These days, we’re actually seeing several actors go through this stage, what with franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight reaching their end. When Top Gun exploded and Tom Cruise became a household name, he decided to respond by simply making as many movies as possible. He also helped himself by refusing to simply make Top Gun 2: Still Playin’ With the Boys, and instead tried out a bunch of different projects. Many of them may have had similar plots, characters and themes, but others decided to push his now-famous persona into more interesting places. This post covers three early attempts by Cruise to work on more prestigious fare, and in one case he was able to get his first Oscar nomination.

We’ll begin, however, with Rain Man, the smash hit that went on to be both the highest grossing film of 1988 and the winner of the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a film that lives on as a reference point to this day, however Cruise’s performance is rarely the first thing on anyone’s mind. Indeed, all the attention goes right to Dustin Hoffman and his memorable portrayal of autistic savant Raymond Babbit. Rain Man is so much Hoffman’s movie that I had forgotten who even directed the thing until Barry Levinson’s name popped up in the credits. It’s no coincidence Hoffman gets most of the accolades. In 2014, it’s still impressive to see an actor pull off such a difficult task. The film as a whole isn’t terribly complex, but it doesn’t need to be.

Cruise still does excellent work here, even if the character is your typical self-absorbed yuppie who goes on the exact, step-for-step journey you might predict from the opening credits. After the death of his estranged father, he meets Raymond, the older brother he never knew he had. The two of them set off on a road trip to California, and the resulting adventure is episodic, funny and touching. When it came out in 1988, the acclaim and appreciation was universal. If it were released today, I suspect most reactions would be more measured. It certainly wouldn’t be the top-grossing movie of the year, and I highly doubt it would win Best Picture. It’s just a really well done crowd pleaser, and it works because no one involved seemed to have awards at the forefront of their mind their mind. In fact, during production Hoffman was apparently convinced he was turning in the worst performance of his career. He was wrong, of course.

After watching everybody else win Oscars for Rain Man, Cruise decided it was finally his turn to go for it all, and he starred in Oliver Stone’s vicious anti-Vietnam screed Born on the Fourth of July. The main selling point of Cruise’s performance in the film is his transformation from typical, innocent American teen into a paralyzed, scraggly Vietnam veteran who feels abandoned by his country. He is indeed sensational in the film, but that’s because he doesn’t overdo it in his actual performance. The change in his physical appearance may be radical, but Cruise is sure to make sure his Ron Kovic is always recognizably the same person. You can’t exactly call it “subdued,” but he gives his character’s conversion just the right amount of touch.

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The same cannot be said for the film around him, which is hardly a surprise considering the man at the helm. Oliver Stone’s movies are unique and refreshing in that almost every one is trying to say something, but they’re also occasionally frustrating because he doesn’t have his films say these things as much as scream them at the top of their lungs. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, and Born on the Fourth of July has its fair share of both effective and groan-inducing moments. It begins terribly, since Stone decides to start off his story about the loss of innocence by bombarding the audience with deafening proof that The Good Old Days existed and were awesome. The most blatant example comes when a young version of Kovic hits a home run in a little league game, and we watch as Ron rounds the bases and his family celebrates in slow motion, all while John Williams’ score blares on the soundtrack. It plays out like an exaggerated dream sequence, but in Stone’s mind this is the way things were.

However, when Stone goes into full-on indignation mode, things start to get cooking. Much of his early filmography focused on this time and place in American history, but Born on the Fourth of July is less about the war itself than the impact it left on all who were involved. Unlike the jungles of Platoon, the Vietnam in this film is doused in a heavy orange that makes the soldiers seem as though they are visiting another planet. (Knowing Stone and his symbolism preferences, my guess he was going for a straight-up hell vibe.) Eventually Kovic comes back paralyzed, and we watch as attempts to understand everything that has happened to him. He wanted to be a hero, so why doesn’t he feel like one? Cruise has to recite some truly obvious lines as he goes along his dark and painful journey, but he sells them convincingly. In the hands of any other actor, this might have been more of a slog. Instead, the overall journey becomes a bumpy one, but ultimately quite poignant.

We now move from a film with truly lofty ambitions to one that aims slightly lower, though it does so quite successfully. A Few Good Men is the first of two collaborations between screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Rob Reiner. Ultimately, it is little more than a courtroom drama, but thanks to Sorkin’s first screenplay and Reiner’s efficient direction it’s a highly entertaining courtroom drama. It’s a film without much mystery, it doesn’t require a lot from the audience, and the first thing most people remember from this film is Jack Nicholson’s outburst of “You can’t handle the truth!” However, as I mentioned when discussing Begin Again earlier this week, I have a real weakness for films about well-meaning people teaming up to accomplish a common goal, and Sorkin has put together a long career based on this simple idea. I would have been happy to sit back and watch our three protagonists, played by Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak, lounge about in an apartment and talk about the case for three hours.

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Perhaps more than any other film I’ve discussed so far, A Few Good Men made me sad that Tom Cruise doesn’t do many movies like this these days. He seems to have gone into full-on action mode, and while he’s good at that, I think he’s even better when playing characters like lawyer Daniel Kaffee. He’s a bit too old to play another character exactly like this, but I think the political/courtroom drama is a genre that suits him. He’s always going to look the same holding a huge gun, but he has a special kind of charisma that allows him to walk around a set, make his case, and be utterly captivating in the process. The “You can’t handle the truth” moment is great not just because of Nicholson, who got an Oscar nomination for essentially two scenes of work, but because of the conversation he and Cruise had been having up until that moment.

If he ever wants to win that elusive Academy Award, Cruise may have to wind up taking these types of roles again. He obviously doesn’t need one to validate his career, and he’s sure to get some kind of honorary award at some point if he does come up empty, but I’m convinced he has one or two truly great performances left in him. He may be great in Edge of Tomorrow, but even there he doesn’t have to exert himself as an actor too much. Even so, he was able to get two more nominations after Born on the Fourth of July, and those are two of the four films we will discuss next time.

Next time: Cruise goes for prestige again, and makes some interesting, strange films in the process. Those include: Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia and Vanilla Sky.

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