Tuesday, January 29, 2008

When we were boys and girls

Rewatched Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989) recently and marveled at a time when Tom Cruise was still a mortal human being and Oliver Stone made real movies. Before they both became near-parodies of themselves.

Last statement aside, I don't want to hop on the bandwagon bashing Cruise or Stone: Too easy. Nor do I want to go off on a big apologist rant: Too contrarian, SLATE-ish.

I just don't think their earlier accomplishments should be neglected/negated because of their later work/behavior.

"Born" is the sort of sweeping, majestic movie that Hollywood never makes anymore. The film looks absolutely stunning, thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson.

A large population of film snobs hate John Williams and fault him with overbearing scores that Mickey-Mouse the drama... but again, this is an Old Hollywood type of movie. A 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama juxtaposed with a 1970s back-from-Vietnam chronicle.

A beatific shot of Tom Cruise and Kyra Sedgwick dancing to "Moon River" at the prom in Massapequa, NY... cutting straight to that same boy, dropped in the middle of the Vietnam war.

As the movie progresses, the dreamy Sirk aesthetic begins to be replaced by something grittier. Cruise in a grimy, underfunded military hospital. Returning home in a wheelchair, vainly trying to hold onto the adolescent idyll he remembers. He visits his high school sweetheart at college, tries to conjure some of that old magic by singing a bit of "Moon River"... while she just looks uncomfortable. He's stuck in the first part of the movie while the rest of the world has moved on.

Toward the beginning of the movie, there is a high school wrestling match scene wherein Tom Cruise loses.

Tom Cruise loses.

He puts up a valiant fight but he gets pinned by his opponent and he fucking LOSES.

In the aftermath, there is this look of devastation on Cruise's face that is just incomparable. A uniquely vulnerable quality that you just don't see in his performances anymore.

Friends—concerned friends—wonder what I find so fascinating about Tom Cruise. It goes beyond his acting. His mission to "win" seems to permeate his filmography. He used to be fairly private, but in recent years he's pulled back the curtain and revealed this beastly competition.

He will stop at a car crash because he knows that he is the ONLY person who could possibly help. He carries the burden of Superman.

And therein lies his biggest hurdle. When you watch him in a movie now, it's hard to feel for his character because his celebrity has grown into some kind of Cloverfield monster.

But the real key to his success is his failures. His portrayal of failure. The kid who wants to win and gets knocked down.

Pre-1996's "Mission Impossible". The first stage of his career. That's where it's interesting. Perhaps more so in hindsight.


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