Analysis & Comment

Opinion | My Life With Tom Cruise

The other night, after the dishes were washed, the coffee machine set, the dog let out and the kids asleep, I planted myself on the couch with the TV remote in one hand, scrolling, and my phone in the other, scrolling. Settling on the bigger screen, I clicked on “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” to find Tom Cruise dangling by his fingertips from a Russian cargo plane while sporting a business casual suit.

I thought: He looks great up there — how old is that guy with the superhuman grip strength?

Turns out he was exactly where I am now. Not hanging by my fingertips, but newly 53. Mr. Cruise’s birthday had just passed when “Rogue Nation” premiered in 2015.

Getting all reflective, I thought about how Tom Cruise is one of the few actors to keep my — and our — unbroken attention for so long. And in this sequel-laden era, he somehow manages to age agelessly between installments while keeping those new chapters feeling fresh. I thought about how, just shy of a decade older than I am, Tom Cruise really has been at my side for pretty much my whole life.

I’ve been watching his films religiously since 1981, back when you could only see a first-run movie in a place called a theater. Though the messaging in many of the films would play way differently in our current moment, as in the madcap insurrection flick “Taps” or the Ray-Banned high school brothel romp that is “Risky Business,” they were huge in a way that is hard to explain in this era of limitless new content and when we carry access to most every movie ever released in our pockets.

So many of those Cruise films felt so much like events that I can still remember the theaters in which I saw them, from “The Outsiders” on a field trip at 13 to “Born on the Fourth of July” when I was newly 20 and traveling abroad. In my early 30s, I remember watching “Vanilla Sky” on the Upper West Side. In a meta-moment, Tom Cruise’s car onscreen raced past the Manhattan street outside the theater where I sat in the dark.

That theater went out of business, disappearing from my life like so many things since those early blockbusters began to roll in. It’s hard to fully catalog what’s vanished since that first “Top Gun”: phone booths and subway tokens, most of the Great Salt Lake and the bankable movie star.

So how does Tom Cruise still do it? How can one person manage to keep the public gaze for more than 40 years?

How does he keep mine?

It might be something to do with vanity, something about getting old together. Mr. Cruise offers a much more heartening way to see oneself mirrored onscreen than most of the hyper-realistic Hollywood representations of aging with which I was raised.

You want to know what a person in their 50s looked like 50 years ago? Try Walter Matthau in “The Taking of Pelham 123.” I’m not saying Matthau wasn’t a dreamboat. I’m saying he reflects a life well lived in the company of gravity and pastrami, with a bottle of sunscreen nowhere within reach. There are wrinkles on top of his wrinkles. There are the jowls and the puffy eyes I know so well from the mirror. There’s also an air of weariness to an exhausted middle-aged archetype whose indigestion you can see from the outside.

Just conjuring Matthau sends me dizzily back to the Hieronymus Bosch tableau that was my childhood, when every evening around 6:45 a train would pull up, the doors would slide open and not one but hundreds of Walter Matthaus of varying shapes and sizes and identities would stream out into the darkened streets of a suburban night. This was the expectation of what growing up and growing older would be.

Not only does Tom Cruise defy the sort of wear-and-tear that most of us call “existing,” he does it without seeming ridiculous. The best example might be the most current: Mr. Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick,” which is vying for an Academy Award for best picture on Sunday night.

For those who haven’t seen the “Top Gun” sequel, it’s about an old man (Tom Cruise), the sole member of a squadron of collagen-rich pilots at their Hollywood peak who has the skill to save America from — from whom? Your guess is as good as mine.

The enemy has no flag, no ethnicity, no religion or style of governance. It would be a classic jingoist film, but today — like school lunches and peanuts — it is jingo free. Which highlights the ability of Mr. Cruise, a producer of “Maverick,” to pivot with the times. And to me, that capacity to read the current moment and step confidently into a role is a far better and more appealing way to stay young than whatever is gained by passing on every slice of buttered toast or never stepping, brimless, into the bright light of day.

I think it’s more the internal youthfulness than the external that keeps me watching, that solid self-assurance — or at least the fantasy of it — that Mr. Cruise continues to deliver that delivers for me. I know we’re talking about a public persona more than a person, but the insane kind of certainty he radiates is reassuring and so different from the internalized terror and second-guessing that fiction writers like me feed on. And it doesn’t feel like he’s still making movies to cash a check, big as they are.

Maybe that’s the true joy of watching him. Because he’s forever geared up and ready to go. In charge of the situation. Always smooth. And not in a wrinkle-free way but in a way I equate with smooth writing. In that we only ever experience creative endeavors as deft and effortless when they cover up discipline and hard work.

As I age, I guess I really just like engaging with people who are aging along with me and still appear to love doing what they do — artists who look as hungry as they were on Day 1. When it comes to fiction, the only projects I want to commit to are the ones that, like a million-piece Lego model dumped out on the floor, seem dizzyingly impossible to put together. It’s only fun if it’s terrifying, if it’s going to take all you have to get it done — and knowing it, and you, still might fail. It’s never about the reception, it’s about the craft.

Going on 25 years from my first book, I honestly still feel that hunger, still feel like I’m just getting started, just learning how everything works. Yet, with a lifelong writing practice, there are still so many days at my desk where, to quote Claire Keegan’s triumph of a novel “Small Things Like These,” I’m convinced I’m not “getting anywhere or making any kind of headway” and “sometimes wonder what the days were for.”

It’s good at those times to see someone who keeps his nose to the grindstone and, yes, the carbohydrates at bay. It’s that all-in attitude and seemingly inexhaustible energy that makes Tom Cruise look natural hanging off the side of an airplane with an AARP membership tucked into his back pocket. His job is to do that for us, for our entertainment. Which he’s the first to acknowledge.

At the end of his speech at the 2023 Producers Guild Awards last month, Mr. Cruise said, “I want to thank all the audiences for whom I serve first and foremost for allowing me to entertain you.” With 40 years behind us, I’m planning to stay along for the rest of the ride.

Nathan Englander is a fiction writer and playwright. He is the author, most recently, of the novel “” His story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted by Mr. Englander for the stage. He is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University and can be found on Instagram @nenglander.

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