Breaking point: why Tom Cruise is living a mission impossible

Analysis: A leaked recording of the movie star yelling at crew on his latest blockbuster is not evidence of tyranny, but the extraordinary strain of keeping the huge undertaking afloat

It is a lonely business, being a Tom Cruise fan in 2020. The heel lifts, the way his arms pump when he runs (nobody runs like Tom Cruise), his Dorian Gray looks: I love Cruise for all of it, and yet I’m aware this is a deeply unfashionable opinion, and one I’m often called on to defend at dinner parties. And so it befalls me, as Cruise’s solitary champion, to step to his aid now, like Ethan Hunt in a tuxedo taking on a posse of earpiece-wearing hitmen, as behind him an orchestra plays Nessun Dorma.

Earlier this week, The Sun released leaked audio of Cruise berating the crew of Mission: Impossible 7, which is filming at the Warner Bros Studio in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, for breaking Covid safety protocols. “If I see you do it again,” yelled Cruise at two crew members he’d spotted standing within two metres of each other, “you’re fucking gone. And if anyone in this crew does it, that’s it – and you too, and you too. And you, don’t you ever fucking do it again.”

Cruise, who is producing and starring in the blockbuster, went on: “I’m on the phone with every fucking studio at night! Insurance companies! Producers! And they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies. We are creating thousands of jobs you motherfuckers! I don’t ever want to see it again. Ever! And if you don’t do it, you’re fired. No apologies. You can tell it to the people who are losing their fucking homes, because our industry is shut down. It’s not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night – the future of this fucking industry!”

Clearly Cruise lost his temper, and it was wrong for him to shout at the crew. But – and this is a pretty colossal but – Cruise is under a phenomenal amount of pressure right now, the sort of pressure that would get to anyone, even Hollywood megastars who audition their future girlfriends on private jets. Listening to the rant, what I heard was not a tyrannical producer who likes to bully his subordinates out of a sense of personal vindictiveness, but a man under a near-inhuman amount of stress. Although he used profane language, Cruise wasn’t derogatory: he didn’t call the crew morons, or scream personal insults. This wasn’t a racist or sexist rant: it was a stern telling-off from someone who goes to bed at night worrying about the hundreds of people whose jobs rely upon him.

When Cruise spoke about spending every evening on the phone to insurance companies, trying to keep the Mission: Impossible 7 set running, I felt sorry for him. The actor George Clooney, himself a director and producer, defended Cruise after the story broke. Speaking on The Howard Stern Show, Clooney said: “He [Cruise] didn’t overreact, because it [breaking safety protocols] is a problem … [He’s] in a position of power and it’s tricky, right?” Clooney added: “If production goes down, a lot of people lose their jobs. People have to understand that and be responsible.”

Hundreds of jobs … on location in Rome.
Hundreds of jobs … Mission: Impossible 7 on location in Rome. Photograph: Francesco Fotia/AGF/Rex/Shutterstock

Running a film set in the middle of a global pandemic makes rappelling down the Burj Khalifa (Cruise’s most famous stunt) look a breeze – I know which one I’d rather do, and I’m terrified of heights. Hardly any movies are filming right now, because it’s simply too expensive: the chances that one of the hundreds of people on set will contract Covid at some point, causing production to shut down, are too high. Every day a set is closed costs producers tens of thousands of pounds.

As Cruise rightly observed during his rant: “People who are losing their fucking homes, because our industry is shut down.” Industry bible Variety estimates that 465,000 people were out of work in Hollywood this year, owing to Covid; in the UK, the figure was estimated at around 50,000. In addition to these woes, Hollywood is reckoning with the existential challenge posed by streaming platforms, which has been accelerated by the pandemic. In a sign of which way the wind is blowing, WarnerMedia recently released its entire 2021 film slate to streaming services, to the consternation of The Suicide Squad director James Gunn, and Tenet director Christopher Nolan.

It’s only through Cruise’s superhuman will power, deep pockets, and personal clout that the Mission: Impossible 7 set is even running at all. Cruise reportedly shelled out £500,000 of his own money for two cruise ships to house workers safely during filming. “Tom is determined not to see any more hold-ups,” a source explained at the time to the Sun. In addition to keeping the Mission: Impossible 7 set going – providing employment to hundreds of people – Cruise has also been generous in support of other directors. In August 2020, he filmed himself attending Tenet at the Waterloo Imax in London, to reassure people that cinemagoing was safe. (Looking very fetching in a tight black jumper and colour-coordinated respirator mask as he did – only Cruise could make PPE look so manly.)

Before, Cruise has urged audiences to turn off the “motion smoothing” on their TV sets. (While he was in his Top Gun costume – I swooned.) Motion smoothing is a technique used to improve the quality of high-definition sport, which is now increasingly offered as standard in high-definition TV sets. It makes films look rubbish: naff, and like soap operas. Cruise is an old-school movie star, in the best possible way, and he wants to preserve the magic of cinema as an experience, even if audiences are watching his films at home, in their pants, on their brand-new tellies. Because if Tom Cruise is going to hang off a cargo plane while it takes off for your entertainment, the least you can do is fix the settings on your TV.

Cruise is, by all accounts, not a systematic bully. He does not usually tyrannise his crew. Few negative stories emerge about his conduct on set. Brett Ratner, he is not. Cruise can be challenging to work with – he is famously a perfectionist, as tough on himself as he is on others – but he is not cruel. Speaking to Vulture last July, his former co-star in Mission: Impossible 2, Thandie Newton, recounted an experience in which Cruise asked her to reshoot a scene dozens of times, because he wasn’t happy with her performance. “It was a real shame,” Newton says, “and bless him … because he was trying his damnedest.” Newton said that Cruise “tries super-hard to be a nice person. But the pressure – he takes on a lot.”

If you’re looking for a person who’s singlehandedly trying to save a movie business that’s on its knees, gun pointed at its head, Cruise is your man. But every man has his limits, and it seems that Cruise has finally found his. And who could blame him? Making a film during Covid – that’s mission impossible. Even Ethan Hunt has a breaking point.


Sirin Kale

The GuardianTramp

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