Welcome to a new series here on Cinematical where we select an actor or actress and the role we think is their all time best.
There may be no other actor to have such an impressive resume of great performances in hit films, yet receive so little respect for his acting talent, than Tom Cruise. Starting with his breakout performances in Taps, The Outsiders and Risky Business, through his 1980s star turns in Top Gun, The Color of Money and Rain Man, then on to his 90's hits Days of Thunder, Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire, Cruise has held onto a solid fan base while still being seen as little more than a flashy set of teeth. He's one of the top box office draws in the world and, though he's made a couple of unfortunate choices (Cocktail, anyone?) he's never turned in a performance that's been totally eviscerated by critics ... yet people still don't think that the man can act.
Much of this can be attributed to his decision, early in his career, to follow the path of "movie star" rather than serious actor, playing essentially the same character in a number of films. In an early fling with serious thespianism -- and following a political and artistic epiphany inspired by his friendship with Paul Newman -- Cruise went all Method in 1989's Born on the Fourth of July, playing wheelchair-bound activist Ron Kovic. It was the first of several roles to be met with a surprised, "Hey, Tom Cruise is acting," a refrain that's still repeated every time he inches away from his standard action-hero persona. At the age of 47, with some 35 films under his belt, perhaps it's time to acknowledge that Cruise is actually very good at what he does.
Interestingly, his best performances aren't necessarily in the movies that have the most arthouse cachet. His work in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is chilly and guarded, and his much lauded performance in Magnolia is all frenetic flash, more energy than craft. There's good work in both films, to be sure -- but little on the screen to indicate that Cruise truly had to stretch his acting muscles to do those jobs.
No, Cruise's best roles came in the early 2000s, working for Steven Spielberg in Minority Report (2003) and War of the Worlds (2005). In two very different movies, playing two very different men, Cruise found a perfect director in Spielberg. Sadly, all of his management-firing, Oprah-couch-jumping, Scientology-promoting behavior during what should have been the publicity tour for the second of those films put the kibosh on future collaborations, at least according to a disgusted Spielberg. But then, there's no such thing as "never" in show business, so who knows.
Of the two films, War of the Worlds is the one that offers the most varied and impressive showcase for Cruise's skills. At the top of the film, it's not easy to accept Cruise as flaky, divorced, New Jersey dockworker Ray Ferrier, because Cruise is such an iconic presence on the screen and he generally plays characters who are dynamic in the extreme. His wheelhouse is that of the flawed winner, not the likable loser, and our difficulty accepting him as a blue-collar underachiever's a limitation created by the baggage that Cruise brings with him as a star, not by any weakness in his performance. His careless, sloppy demeanor as Ray is, in fact, perfectly rung. He's a charming, self-centered jerk. And despite his love for his children, it takes an extraordinary circumstance for him to become a good father.
That extraordinary circumstance is a sudden devastating attack on the Earth by aliens, which Ray discovers by the simplest of means: he walks out his front door. Suddenly, this man who's shrugged off responsibility for his kids must keep them alive in an inconceivable situation. Cruise-the-action-hero is given a layer of familial culpability that makes his choices far more critical than those of, say, Mission: Impossible's Ethan Hunt -- saving the world is a far more impersonal quest than keeping one's own offspring out of alien clutches.
Not every one of Cruise's moments in War of the Worlds is top drawer, admittedly, with the actor faltering during the film's quieter, more introspective moments. But no other film in Cruise's catalog to date has offered the actor a greater range of emotion to portray, and he deftly finesses the rest -- not just the more heroic running-jumping-battling-special-effects moments, but also his frenzy when his son runs off towards a battle between soldiers and the alien invaders, his unsuccessful attempt to hide his own terror so as not to further frighten his young daughter, and his naked fear that he won't rise above his own failures as a father to keep his family safe. Then, in a set piece that stands almost separate from the rest of the film, Ray's encounter with an unstable man who poses a threat leads him to make a terrible decision and take horrifying action. That this act is so far removed from what we expect from a "Tom Cruise character" and what we know of Ray's personality is precisely why -- along with Cruise's masterful playing of the scene -- it's especially powerful.
Certainly, Cruise has played roles that would appear on paper to be greater challenges. But to compare what was required of him in, say, Valkyrie with the broad range of acting he does in War of the Worlds ... the performances aren't in the same ballpark. Even Collateral, which is almost a pure acting exercise and offered Cruise the chance to play a rare villain, required less of his talents overall. And as much love as he received for his comedic turn in Tropic Thunder, that was, after all, just a cameo. To really see the full spectrum of Cruise's abilities, you need to give War of the Worlds a spin.