Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Going Clear" and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"

Oh yes, we're doing this.

I saw the latest "Mission Impossible" movie recently, and it's great fun.  Christopher McQuarrie picked up the reins, and sent the Impossible Missions Force members Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) off on another globetrotting adventure with lots of great action set pieces, lots of zippy humor, and all the usual spy shenanigans.  It's always a good sign when you can identify multiple sequences for praise, and here there were plenty - the opera house sequence, the underwater sequence, the crazy car chase, and so on.  Heck, the big airplane stunt that's been at the center of the film's marketing campaign happens in the opening pre-title sequence!  I don't think this was the best installment of the franchise, but it was a pretty strong one, signaling that there's a lot of life left in the almost twenty year-old franchise and Tom Cruise's career.  Rebecca Ferguson got a lot of good notices for playing double-agent Ilsa Faust, but Cruise is clearly still the main event.

And then I had to go and watch the HBO documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," directed by Alex Gibney, which strongly suggests that Cruise is complicit in some of the worst abuses of the Church of Scientology.  "Going Clear" is an excellent summary of Scientology's long and sordid history, from its origins as a self-help philosophy created by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard to the soul-sucking runamok cult it's become today.  For those already familiar with Scientology's antics the documentary doesn't offer much new information, but it backs up a lot of the most important claims with riveting interviews with former Scientologists who were high up in the organization, and experienced the insanity first hand.  Some of the most disturbing images came from the Church's internally distributed promotional videos, several of which featured Tom Cruise essentially being worshiped as a Scientology deity - and set to the "Mission: Impossible" theme music no less!  That certainly put a dampener on any enthusiasm I had for Tom Cruise's resurgent career.   

So "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is now the latest sad, stark example of good media coming from distasteful talent.  Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby are the usual names we should bring up in these conversations, of course.  The individual viewer can (and should) draw their own conclusions from the material presented in "Going Clear" as to how much responsibility Tom Cruise has for the amount of power and influence Scientology currently enjoys, and whether they want to keep supporting his movies.  Personally, I don't think that he should be condemned for simply being friends with people like David Miscavige, but his status as Scientology's most famous promoter suggests that Cruise is either condoning the abuses or has been manipulated to the point where he's essentially a puppet figure.  Either way, Tom Cruise is clearly a troubled man who is in way too deep with a pack of dangerous zealots and con-artists.  Though he's not particularly vocal about being a Scientologist these days, he's not exactly doing anything to distance himself from them either. 

However, Cruise personal failings don't change the fact that he's still an excellent actor and is a big part of why "Rogue Nation" is one of the better summer action movies this year.  As a producer he was directly responsible for the hiring for McQuarrie, who Cruise also worked with in 2012's "Jack Reacher."  From interviews, it's clear he also had a big part in casting, writing, and all the stunt work.  I've never had trouble compartmentalizing in these situations, and considering the art separate from the artist.  Some of my friends can't bear to watch Bill Cosby's old work anymore, and I sympathize.  However, when I've gone back and looked at old "Cosby Show" episodes, I see Cliff Huxtable, not Bill Cosby.  It's the same with Cruise and "Mission: Impossible."  I look at the film and see Ethan Hunt, not Tom Cruise.  He doesn't remotely resemble the Tom Cruise in the "Going Clear" videos, who looks like he was going through some kind of extreme psychological crisis at the time they were made.

Is there any way to resolve the cognitive dissonance?  Not easily, no.  I can try to justify watching "Mission: Impossible" as supporting all the hundreds of other people who worked on the film, but honestly without Cruise it probably wouldn't exist.  Supporting Cruise's isn't directly supporting Scientology, but the organization still benefits from counting a big movie star among its ranks.  Cruise seems to have become more self-aware at least and has clammed up about Scientology in public, but there's still something off about him.  He appeared on the Nerdist podcast last year and sounded like a guy who had been stuck in press tours and junkets for far, far too long.  Being a movie star is about maintaining an illusion, and Cruise is still very good at it.  But we've seen him lose his footing before, and he probably will again.  "Rogue Nation" was a high point for him, but I have to wonder how many more he's got left.

As for the Church of Scientology, its days are surely numbered.  "Going Clear" is damning, but it's also notable for how much it left out of the narrative, for all the terrible, well-known stories it didn't tell.  In popular culture, Scientology has been a laughingstock since the "South Park" guys introduced us to Xenu, and a much easier target for criticism since the Internet got involved.  What resources the organization has amassed will ensure its vestiges stick around for a while, but its power is quickly dissipating.  And if Tom Cruise or John Travolta or any other major star made any visible efforts to help them at this point, they'd probably go down with them.