Russell and Duenes

Tom Cruise: Always Living in His Father’s Shadow

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One of my all-time favorite movies is A Few Good Men, and while I had a bit of free time tonight, I was watching it again. Being in law school adds to its charm for me, and it’s an eminently quotable film. But something else struck me in watching it as well, namely, that Tom Cruise’s characters are often living in the shadow of their fathers, trying to live up to the father’s reputation, and gain the father’s approval, even the father who is no longer alive.

One sees it in A Few Good Men, where Cruise’s character, Navy trial attorney, Colonel Caffey, is working constantly under the pressure of living up to the talent and prowess of his father, Lionel, who Caffey’s assistant attorney, Lt. Weinberg, brands, “the best trial lawyer ever.” At a crucial point in the film, Caffey asks Weinberg if he would put Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson’s character) on the stand. Weinberg says he wouldn’t. Then Caffey asks him: “Do you think my father would put him on the stand?” Weinberg says he doesn’t think so, but he tells Caffey that if he were the defendant in the case and had to choose between Caffey and his father Lionel to represent him, he’d take Caffey “any day of the week and twice on Sunday.” So Weinberg says, “Neither I nor Lionel Caffey are the lead attorneys in the matter of the United States v. Dawson and Downey. So the real question is: Would you [put Jessup on the stand]?” What son can imagine himself in Caffey’s position, having a father who was the best at something, and not feel a certain sense of yearning and pride to think that one had lived up to his father’s billing?

It’s the same story in Top Gun. Cruise’s character, Lt. Mitchell, call sign Maverick, is a great pilot, but finds his confidence shaken after an accident which costs the life of his co-pilot, Goose. Maverick goes to see the head of the Top Gun program, Viper (Tom Skerritt), to find out what his options are. Viper tells Maverick: “The fact is, you feel responsible for Goose’s death, and you have a confidence problem.” Why does Maverick have a “confidence problem?” Because Maverick’s father was also a top pilot, one of the best, whose name was besmirched in some way, and thus, Maverick was always trying to live down his father’s reputation. So Viper says to Maverick: “What I’m about to tell you is classified; it could end my career. Your father was in one of the worst dog fights I’ve ever seen, the bogeys were all over the sky like fireflies. His plane was hit, he could’ve made it back. But he stayed in it; took out three planes before he bought it.” Maverick replies: “How come I haven’t heard this before?” Viper says, “It’s not the kind of thing the state department likes to talk about when the battle happened behind the wrong lines on some map.” To which Maverick says: “So he did do it right.” Viper: “Yeah, your old man did it right.” Again, this is the pinnacle of the film, the palpable sense of pride and release that Maverick finds now that he knows his father “did it right,” and that Maverick is, in Viper’s words, “a lot like he was, only better…and worse.” It easily eclipses Maverick’s love interest in the beautiful flight instructor.

Finally, I’ve written before about Cruise’s role in Magnolia, the raw, brutal film that shows the power of the patriarchal relationship as few others I’ve seen. Unfortunately, the power of the fatherly relationship is seen through the wreckage that two morally horrific fathers foist upon their children. The central relationship is between the character played by Jason Robards (father) and his son, played by Cruise. Cruise’s character is so traumatized by his vile father that he has convinced himself that his father is dead. Cruise has gone on to be a disgusting “self-help” guru who basically makes money off seminars designed to teach men how to have sex with any woman they want. Cruise’s character is a filthy, disgusting man, and his father is lying in a bed dying of cancer. Yet his father wants to see him. Seeing the father’s desire to make a final peace with his son, the father’s caretaker (played brilliantly by James Seymour Hoffman) tracks Cruise down before the father dies. Reluctantly, Cruise comes, and when he sees his father, the power of the relationship becomes clear. Cruise aims invective after invective at his father, even as he breaks down crying, saying at the end to his father, “Don’t leave!”

I’m not saying that Cruise takes these roles because he has some unresolved “father issue.” I know very little about Tom Cruise, or his motivations in taking movie roles. What I do know is that films illustrating the relationship between a father and his son are powerful and compelling because, try as we might, we cannot rid ourselves of the fact that a father’s impact on his son is powerful and compelling, even where the father is a vile wretch, or is dead. We tell ourselves that fathers don’t matter and that children can be raised perfectly fine without them. Our laws create the sense that a father’s utility goes not far beyond being a mere sperm supplier. But Tom Cruise keeps putting the lie to such ideas through his filmmaking, for which I am truly grateful.



Written by Michael Duenes

August 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Rain Man. Days of Thunder. Both apply here.


    March 3, 2013 at 7:20 pm

  2. Brilliant on Rain Man. However Days of Thunder doesn’t count – it was just Top Gun on wheels….
    And you bring up a great point – I can’t think of ONE Tom Cruise movie where he has a decent relationship with the father character


    July 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm

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