Mission: Impossible star Tom Cruise began learning the real meaning of a self-destructive message when he became Scientology’s couch-jumping, psychiatry-slamming poster boy in the 2000s. But amid increasingly insidious accusations against the church—and recent rumors that he’s ready to quit for the sake of his daughter, Suri—Cruise’s silent submission to the David Miscavige regime belies the principled heroes he plays in $100 million blockbusters.
So why, despite the scandalous allegations linking him to nefarious Scientology deeds in this year’s documentary, Going Clear, do audiences keep flocking to see him save the world as ’90s era superspy Ethan Hunt?
Call it wishful movie-going: They’re buying tickets for Tom Cruise’s soul.
The damning accusations in HBO’s Going Clear, based on Lawrence Wright’s expose of the same name, say that when Cruise distanced himself from the church between 1992 and 2001 at then-wife Nicole Kidman’s behest, Scientologists waged a covert campaign to split up their marriage. The scathing doc claimed Cruise himself suggested wiretapping Kidman’s phone, according to ex-Scientology officer Marty Rathbun, while the church ingratiated itself into Cruise’s superstar life by providing Sea Org slave labor and “re-educating” his adopted children to turn them against Kidman. According to the Alex Gibney film, the church actively recruited future Homeland actress Nazazin Boniadi to be Cruise’s girlfriend after his Kidman split, only to see Boniadi taken off assignment and punished for disrespecting church head David Miscavige. Yeesh.
Only a few decades ago the 5-foot-7 charmer with a marquee smile had bested Navy pilots, NASCAR champs, Jack Nicholson, and corporate America on his way to becoming Hollywood’s biggest box office star. Cruise also garnered three Oscar nominations and earned his art house stripes working with auteurs like Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick. On screen he was intense, flawed, mortal. Off screen he was humble, gracious, private.
Mission: Impossible, constructed from the ground up by Cruise, marked his first outing as a true blue action hero. Adapted from the TV series of the same name, it kept only the fun, tongue-in-cheek flourishes (gadgets, intrigue, that trilling charged-up theme song) while building a spy saga around Cruise’s heady trickster of a secret agent. It opened in May 1996 and went on to become the third-highest grosser of that year.
Unbeknownst to most fans, Cruise had even baked in a trailblazing backend agreement with Paramount on the first Mission: Impossible film, cutting a deal that made his first outing as superspy Ethan Hunt—and his first film as a producer—the first hit in a billion-dollar franchise that hinged solely on Tom Cruise, Action Star. (Shrewd Mission: Impossible dealmaking also netted Cruise a whopping $70 million payday.)
But Cruise’s rock-solid, twinkly-eyed, all-American star power took a hit—several hits, in quick succession—as his tabloid life encroached on his screen life and the specter of shadowy Scientology puppet masters became part of his brand.
At the multiplex, he’d been golden. Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire, both released in 1996, ushered in a year of classic Cruise. He followed those critical and commercial hits with Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, and Mission: Impossible II, the first sequel in his first franchise, which brought in $546 million globally. Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, The Last Samurai, and Collateral—his only truly villainous turn—each added shades of intrigue and complexity to the Tom Cruise that America loved to buy tickets to see.
But as the Aughts rolled on, Cruise allowed himself to be pushed to the fore as Scientology’s most iconic mascot. Post-9/11 attacks, he helped fund a controversial detox program for New York City firefighters pushing L. Ron Hubbard-devised treatments; overseas, he was deemed a “self-declared militant” by officials in Paris, thanks to his association with Scientology.
It wasn’t until the public saw Cruise drinking the Kool-Aid with their own eyes that the tide began to turn. Three years after a public split from wife and Eyes Wide Shut co-star Nicole Kidman was, according to Going Clear, allegedly orchestrated by the Church of Scientology, he jumped into the wackadoo whirlwind romance that would signal the end of Tom Cruise Cool.
This period of particularly unfortunate PR disasters kicked off ahead of his summer 2005 opener War of the Worlds. Cruise cracked the practiced yet humbled superstar façade that he’d built up through the ’80s and ’90s in one surreal May 2005 moment, bounding up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch like a madman to prove his love for Katie Holmes.
“If Cruise was hoping to fit into the zeitgeist by inviting fans into his intimate life, he misjudged the mark by miles,” writes LA Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson in her book Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor. “Instead, he came across as so human that he seemed inhuman. For decades, people had clamored for drops of personal information. Now they were doused with a bucketful, and they were agape with shock—and maybe schadenfreude."
At the time, doubters questioned if his motive was marketing. Both he and Holmes had movies to push that summer. Why not fake a romance? Later, rumors surfaced of Scientology handlers “auditioning” ladies for Cruise’s love life. Now ex-wife Holmes and their daughter Suri are just another part of Cruise’s Scientology saga.
In the grand scheme of things, Katie Holmes was a relatively minor development in Cruise’s headline-grabbing run as everyone’s favorite Scientologist. A month after his Oprah outburst, Cruise crossed Brooke Shields over her “irresponsible” use of antidepressants to counter post-partum depression and outed himself as a true believer in some of Scientology’s most controversial beliefs. The circus rolled on as Cruise faced off with Matt Lauer to defend himself, crowing, “You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”
Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds went on to debut at No. 1 and collect $591 million worldwide anyway—but by the next summer, Viacom head Sumner Redstone publicly dumped Cruise and his production company deal with Paramount, throwing shade at Cruise’s erratic public image. “As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal,” Redstone explained, per The Wall Street Journal. “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”
A few years later, in 2008, video of a black turtle-necked Cruise waxing fanatical about the teachings of Scientology hit the ’net, sparking infamous spoofers and sending the kooky Cruise image into overdrive. “I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist, and it’s something you have to earn. Because a Scientologist does. He or she has the ability to create new and better realities and improve conditions,” he raves over the sound of a cheap Mission: Impossible knockoff riff.
In the near-decade since hitting peak Scientology, Cruise made another 10 movies. But even the best of them—arguably last summer’s futuristic Groundhog Day actioner, Edge of Tomorrow—falls well below the box office mark of the four Mission: Impossible films when adjusted for inflation.
For Cruise-watchers, it is and always will be too tempting to dig into his sci-fi canon for Scientology parallels and autobiographical nods on the screen—to search for clues that Cruise isn’t just drinking that Kool-Aid, but dosing his audience with subliminal messaging. Those M:I films, however, remain among Cruise’s top-grossing films—partly because they offer a consistent version of Tom Cruise audiences know, love, and remember that’s devoid of all things Scientology.
Unlike Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow, whose Live. Die. Repeat. mantra could be read as analogous to thetan reincarnation in the teachings of L. Ron, there are no distracting alien mumbo jumbo sci-fi parallels to be found in Ethan Hunt’s near-death adventures saving the world on behalf of the IMF. There’s barely even a consistent personality in Cruise’s Hunt, since the movies tend to give way to the director du jour—stylized Brian De Palma, action romanticist John Woo, slick and overplotted J.J. Abrams, cartoon architect Brad Bird, and in this week’s fifth installment, Usual Suspects and Jack Reacher helmer Christopher McQuarrie, who brings a classicist undercurrent to Ethan Hunt’s pas de deux with an alluring femme fatale.
That means audiences can always rely on the Mission: Impossible movies for a few sure things: Over-the-top stunt sequences performed with committed flair by the boyishly handsome Cruise, who is now 53 years old but no worse for wear; a little international cloak-and-dagger to propel the action along; the cheeky trickery of rubber-face gags and ticking-clock set pieces. Who can wonder if Cruise wiretapped his ex when he’s clinging to the side of an airplane mid-air by his fingers?
But really, the more that Mission: Impossible movies keep getting made, the more they stay the same: sturdy action vehicles for ’90s-era Tom Cruise to keep saving the world, featuring just enough Cruise to root for without having to overthink about the man underneath. For every insane Scientological scandal that rocks Cruise’s now-carefully controlled image, these films will always harken back to the halcyon days of the ’90s, before he was exposed as a figurehead for the most controversial religious organization of today. For two-plus hours in the dark we put on those nostalgia goggles and get back the Tom Cruise we once knew unmarred by thetanspeak, Sea Org conspiracies, and couch-jumping mania, and we’re all transported back to a simpler time.
UPDATE: In response to this article, a Church of Scientology representative called this website “The Daily Bigot.” Then the rep sent over a long statement. It reads, in part: “Jen Yamato regurgitated several of Gibney’s most egregious falsehoods in her sophomoric, bigoted rant disguised as a film article…. Like Gibney she has no evidence of any of the allegations as not one of them is true.”