Ethan Hunt Saves Tom Cruise: Using ‘Cinematic Empathy’ to Overcome Personal Fallout

Curator's Note

When Mission: Impossible - Fallout released in July 2018, Richard Brody compared the film to a “behind-the-scenes reel,” stating that “Tom Cruise’s readiness to perform his own. . .stunts conjures, to the public, a sense of satisfaction regarding the pains that a fabulously rich and famous person is willing to take for their pleasures.” As Cruise’s body has increasingly been put on-the-line for our entertainment, the discourse around his star persona has shifted.

Frequently overlooked are a series of public dents to the vaunted reputation he held earlier in his career. The most viral incident is arguably the most laughable, with the actor leaping off of Oprah’s couch into the Meme Hall of Fame. But then there are less amusing moments, too, like his reported use of Scientologist funds and member labor for his own benefit or his public tirade against psychiatry and anti-depressants.

Though his career seemed to be spiraling like Ethan Hunt without a parachute, the M:I franchise has almost single-handedly regained him widespread adoration (look at the response to his Covid outburst). I argue that shift parallels the franchise’s promotion of Cruise as a daredevil. As the franchise has evolved into a kinetic action spectacle, the stunts - and Cruise’s body undergoing them - have become the attraction and means for obstructing his personal debacles.

Adriano D’Aloia has written about the phenomenological connection the viewer has – through the film – with the lead character on-screen, a sort of “cinematic empathy. . .that connects the sensory-motor and the psycho-affective dimensions of the viewer’s perception” (190). The more the M:I franchise blurs the line between Cruise and Hunt’s bodies, the more we worry for him, grimace in pain with him, and breathe a sigh of relief when he can walk (or limp) away from a stunt. Most notably, during the press tour for Fallout, production footage of Cruise breaking his ankle was bandied about. Through the cinematic empathy D’Aloia describes, the ankle snapping on-screen (as the footage was left in the film) becomes our ankle; we forget about the persona behind the body and instead feel for it in an affectively vicarious way. Where previously we judged and mocked Cruise, we now feel for/with him. In using this basic phenomenological characteristic of cinema, Cruise has done the impossible, rehabilitating reputational peril through physical peril.

Works Cited

D’Aloia, Adriano. “The Character’s Body and the Viewer: Cinematic Empathy and Embodied Simulation.” Embodied Cognition and Cinema, edited by Maarten Coëgnarts and Peter Kravanja, Leuven University Press, 2015, pp. 187-199. 

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