In 2004, in an impossibly ornate room in a Castle just outside of Sussex, England, the International Association of Scientologists awarded Tom Cruise with its first and only Freedom Medal of Valor.
After praising Cruise for several minutes, Scientology leader David Miscavige cues a video montage celebrating him. In a voice out of a movie trailer, a narrator exclaims that “every move” Cruise makes amounts to “countless impressions,” that he is one of a “rare few in history” with his level of influence, before cutting to clips of Jay Leno, Oprah, Barbara Walters, and Ellen, introducing Tom Cruise to their audiences, often as “the biggest movie star in the world.” Lights flash, cuing rapid fire clips of Cruise walking red carpets, waving to fans, talking to photographers.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the Mission: Impossible theme begins. Cruise appears dressed in a black turtleneck and speaks passionately and at length about Scientology, while the iconic theme song continues to play. We are seeing, as the narrator puts it, “Tom Cruise on Tom Cruise Scientologist.”
The tribute focuses intently on Cruise’s celebrity, interspersing clips of the actor walking across a stage in a spotlight, or descending from a private jet, with the narrator’s declarations of Cruise’s enormous impact on the growth of Scientology.
[E]very minute of every hour someone reaches for LRH technology or steps on to the bridge simply because they know Tom Cruise is a Scientologist…combined with all else he contributes, he has recast the future for whole generations.
Footage from promotional tours on which Cruise discussed Scientology transitions to footage of magazine covers plastered with Cruise’s face via a simulated camera flash. The Mission Impossible music returns to accompany a triumphant declaration of Cruise’s role in spreading Scientology. There are shots of a man’s silhouette against flashbulbs and Cruise walking slow-motion in a spotlight, before his name slides onto screen in the Mission: Impossible font.
It is repeatedly made clear that Cruise is valuable to Scientology due to his fame. Here’s the narrator again discussing Cruise’s contributions:
And given all else he’s carved out across this world, you’d had to have lived in a cave not to have heard about it. Tom Cruise isn’t just at the cutting edge of Scientology as a cultural trend, he’s the blade. And it registers on every cultural barometer. For at least two decades he’s defined what’s hip. And as of 2004, what’s hip is Scientology…Across 90 nations, 5,000 people hear his word of Scientology every hour. Moreover, every minute of every hour, someone reaches for LRH technology, or steps onto the bridge, simply because they know Tom Cruise is a Scientologist.
Tony Ortega, a journalist and former Village Voice editor who has covered Scientology since 1995, described the Freedom Medal of Valor video in HBO’s Going Clear:
They called it the freedom medal of valor and they put together this 35 minute video. In it they just pump up this idea that Tom Cruise is the ambassador of Scientology to the world. They even did a calculation where they figure between his films, and all the “opinion leaders” he had met and all the travel he had done…[footage of clip stating that Cruise has introduced LRH technology to over a billion people]. No question he has been a huge asset to them.
When the tribute video ends, we return to the gilded banquet hall. Yet again, the iconic sounds of the Mission Impossible theme plays. Cruise rises from his seat to meet Miscavige on stage. He’s bestowed with a comically large medal. They salute one another, and later, salute a larger than life-sized portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The Church of Scientology sells Tom Cruise, and it does so with a particular emphasis on Tom Cruise as the star of Mission: Impossible. It trades on the sounds, images, and even fonts of the franchise to lend itself appeal, grandeur, celebrity, and influence.
In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief Lawrence Wright argues that Scientology is dependent on “The Hollywood celebrity machine.” The cultivation of famous adherents was a prominent aspect of Hubbard’s grand design. According to Wright, a year after the church’s founding in 1954, an editorial in a church-affiliated publication encouraged Scientologists to recruit celebrities. Hubbard described celebrities as “very Special people” with “comm lines that others do not have and many medias [sic] to get their dissemination through (Flag Order 3323, May 9, 1973). In other words, Hubbard believed that celebrity promotion of Scientology would allow for “rapid dissemination” of the religion. By the end of the sixties, Scientology had established its first facility aimed at providing celebrities with specialized, first-class treatment. The declared purpose of these Celebrity Centres is to “expand the number of celebrities in Scientology” and expand the reach of Scientology via “celebrity dissemination.”
The Church of Scientology also publishes a magazine called Celebrity that highlights successful Scientologists in the entertainment industry. Interviews with celebrity Scientologists detail the career-advancing benefits of Scientology, including explicit questions about how Scientology has helped actors and musicians get work and gain fame.
To this end, Scientology promises aspiring young actors not only the skills necessary to succeed, but access to a purportedly vast network of Hollywood elite eager to help fellow Scientologist. Wright details such efforts in Going Clear:
In the Hollywood trade magazine Variety, Scientology offered courses promising to help neophyte actors “increase your self-confidence” and “make it in the industry.” Scientologists stood outside Central Casting, where actors sign up for roles as extras, passing out flyers for workshops on how to find an agent or get into the Screen Actors Guild. Courses at the Celebrity Centre focused on communication and self-presentation skills, which were especially prized in the entertainment industry…Many actors, at once insecure but competitive by nature, were looking for an advantage, which Scientology promised to give them.
Exposure to fellow celebrities is also promised. Celebrity Centres, in particular, promote the idea that Scientology serves as a spiritual refuge for celebrities, and that membership in Scientology can lead to stardom. Celebrity Centre courses are open to any Scientologist, which furthers the myth that Scientology facilitates unique networking opportunities with Hollywood’s elite. Though as Lawrence Wright discovered, “in practice, the real celebrities have their own private entry and course rooms, and rarely mix with the public.”
Celebrity members are actively used to improve the reputation of Scientology. According to Wright celebrities are constantly pressed into service, asked to sign petitions, appear at workshops, or allow their image to be used on posters alongside the logo “I’m a Scientologist.” Their fame is thought to “greatly magnif[y] the influence of the church.”
It should come as no surprise then, that when Tom Cruise began dabbling in Scientology following the release of Top Gun, church leaders leapt at the chance to recruit him. Cruise was introduced to Scientology by his first wife, actress Mimi Rogers, in 1986. Rogers’ parents were “squirrels” or people who practiced Scientology outside of the church. Cruise’s link to Roger’s parents worried church leaders, who hoped that he could take on a lead role in promoting Scientology. In 1989, David Miscavige invited Cruise to Gold Base (the heavily guarded, confidential compound in the desert South of LA that serves as Scientology’s de facto headquarters). Top officers were assigned to audit him (scientology’s distinct combination of therapy, confession, and a lie detector test).* When he decided to divorce Rogers, Scientology senior executives were involved. Mark Rathbun, a former senior executive of The Church of Scientology, recalls going to Rogers’ home with a Scientology attorney carrying divorce papers, “I told her this was the right thing to do for Tom, because he was going to do lots of good for Scientology.’” Cruise married Nicole Kidman on Christmas Eve, 1990, with Miscavige serving as best man.
The same year, a tabloid revealed Cruise’s involvement in Scientology. Around this time he began struggling to field questions about Scientology while remaining appealing to mainstream America. Cruise hired a new publicist, Pat Kingsley to help him tackle the challenge. Kingsley was a master protector of clients. She threatened media groups with access to her big name clients, and Cruise sued those who disobeyed.
Kingsley was key in helping Cruise distance himself from Scientology following one of the greatest public relations catastrophe’s in the churches history. A scathing 1991 cover story in Time exposed the church’s enormous financial holdings, aggressive litigation of critics, and the possibility of racketeering charges being brought against it, and alleged that it blackmailed celebrities to stay. Following the Time article, Miscavige appeared on ABC’s Nightline in an awkward interview that revealed some of the church’s wildest beliefs (he hasn’t given a public interview since).
In the following years Cruise distanced himself from the church in his personal and professional life. According to Marty Rathbun, Cruise was “not really active in Scientology from 92’ish all the way up to 2001.” He began to re-engage with the church during his divorce from Kidman in 2001, and Rathbun, his auditor, was ordered by Miscavige to “get him back in.”
For years, Cruise had successfully remained one of the most inscrutable stars in Hollywood. Then, while doing press for The Last Samurai in 2003, he became unprecedentedly vocal about Scientology. His longtime publicist Pat Kingsley told the Daily Mail that she suggested that Cruise “cool it” with the Scientology talk.
Scientology is fine. You want to do a tour for Scientology? Do a tour for Scientology. But Warner Bros. is sponsoring this tour.
Cruise fired Kingsley in 2004, replaced her with his sister and fellow Scientologist Lee Anne DeVette, and carried on passionately promoting Scientology. When a Rolling Stone reporter followed Cruise for a day in 2004, he took the reporter on a tour of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in LA, and had harsh words for anyone who criticized his religion:
Some people, well, if they don’t like Scientology, well, then, fuck you.” He rises from the table. “Really.” He points an angry finger at the imaginary enemy. “Fuck you.” His face reddens. “Period.”
The same year, he donated $3 million to The Church of Scientology. By 2004, Tom Cruise was one of the most well-known and fervent Scientologists in the world, and David Miscavige was eager to recognize him for his efforts. This brings us, finally, back to the Freedom Medal of Valor.
The 2004 celebration of the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) drew heavily on Mission: Impossible to celebrate Tom Cruise as a Scientologist because much of Cruise’s value to Scientology comes from him being both the star of Mission: Impossible and a Scientologist. This shouldn’t be surprising given the group’s historic reliance on celebrity adherents. More surprising is the fact that at the exact moment that the IAS was using Mission: Impossible’s iconic theme as the soundtrack for its celebration, Scientology was poised to end Cruise’s involvement in Mission: Impossible.
Around the time of the IAS ceremony, Tom Cruise had been divorced for three years. Though he had dated several fellow celebrities, they had reportedly balked at becoming more involved with Scientology. The Church of Scientology, however, was m happy to become more involved in Cruise’s love life. Under the direction of David Miscavige, church employees actively recruited and evaluated women for Cruise. Lawrence Wright reports in Going Clear that potential love interests, including Katie Holmes, were invited to the Celebrity Centre to audition for what they believed was a role in the next Mission: Impossible film.
By May of 2005, Cruise was jumping on Oprah’s couch declaring his love for Holmes. YouTube was a week old, allowing the clip to become one of the first to go viral. Later that month, Cruise engaged in a bizarre, heated argument with Matt Lauer on the Today show about psychiatry after critiquing Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants.
In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in late summer of 2005, Cruise continued to speak openly about Scientology.**
SPIEGEL: Do you see it as your job to recruit new followers for Scientology?
Cruise: I’m a helper. For instance, I myself have helped hundreds of people get off drugs. In Scientology, we have the only successful drug rehabilitation program in the world. It’s called Narconon.
SPIEGEL: That’s not correct. Yours is never mentioned among the recognized detox programs. Independent experts warn against it because it is rooted in pseudo science.
Cruise: You don’t understand what I am saying. It’s a statistically proven fact that there is only one successful drug rehabilitation program in the world. Period.
SPIEGEL: With all due respect, we doubt that.
Cruise went on to call critics of Scientology hateful and intolerant, declaring that if someone didn’t like Scientologists, they didn’t have to go to his movies, “I don’t care.” He was, as described in the NYT, in “full scientology mode.” By the time Mission Impossible: III opened in theaters, Cruise’s Q score (the appeal of a celebrity, brand, or company to the public) had dropped by 40%. Mission: Impossible III became (and remains) the lowest grossing film of the franchise.
Following all of this of erratic behavior, Paramount blamed Cruise for M:I 3‘s lackluster earnings. In a highly unusual move, studio executives publicly fired Cruise rather than simply allowing his contract to expire. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount’s parent company Viacom told the Wall Street Journal:
[W]e don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot…His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.
Redstone announced that Paramount planned to end it’s 14-year relationship with Cruise and his film production company, basically firing him and kicking him off of the studio lot. Since Paramount owns the rights to Mission: Impossible, this also meant firing Cruise from the Mission: Impossible franchise, or ending the franchise entirely. According to The Wall Street Journal Redstone “was clear about the reason: Mr. Cruise‘s public antics and incessant stumping for personal causes, notably Scientology, have become intolerable and have been a drag on ticket sales for films like Mission: Impossible III.”***
When Paramount eventually welcomed Cruise back to Mission: Impossible it was thanks in part to advocacy by J.J. Abrams, and on the condition that they introduce a character who would eventually take over the lead from Cruise. Here’s Mike Sampson from ScreenCrush explaining the un-firing of Tom Cruise from Mission: Impossible:
There was still some hesitation within Paramount about Cruise and the Mission: Impossible franchise, but Cruise made it clear he wanted to star in a fourth film. He had an ally in J.J. Abrams, who had made his feature directorial debut on Mission: Impossible III, and was now a rising star at the studio. Abrams had recently directed Star Trek for Paramount and was working on his follow-up film, Super 8, with Steven Spielberg. Paramount greenlit a fourth film with Abrams producing alongside Cruise, but with one small condition: they wanted to groom a new actor to take over the franchise.
Perhaps still wary of Cruise’s star power and the flagging box-office receipts of Mission: Impossible III, the studio looked at Ghost Protocol as a soft relaunch of the franchise with an all-new team, and a hot shot new IMF agent that would be groomed as Ethan Hunt’s replacement. Enter: Jeremy Renner.
So The Church of Scientology has benefitted enormously from and threatened the existence of Mission: Impossible. It is also fundamentally linked to what makes the series great – Tom Cruise’s intensity bordering on insanity. Here’s Marty Rathbun, Cruise’s former auditor, describing his interview in the Medal of Valor video:
That video of him in the black turtleneck sweater? He’s as arrogant and as untouchable as could possibly be, at the same time he looks like an utter crazy paranoiac.
If that isn’t also a great description of Ethan Hunt, I don’t know what is. The same intensity that makes Tom Cruise sound so profoundly nutty while talking about Scientology, that makes him such a passionate, dedicated defender of the group, is also what makes him great as Ethan Hunt. When Cruise tells Scientologists that “there’s nothing part of the way for me, it’s just…” and makes a karate motion and sound effect, he’s talking about Scientology and his insistence on leaping off of moving trains (M:I 1), free-climbing cliffs (M:I 2), scaling the tallest building in the world (Ghost Protocol), and hanging off of a moving plane (Rogue Nation). He’s explaining why he insisted on using a real knife in M:I 2’s knife to the eye stunt despite it scaring John Woo, why he insisted on being dropped so fast that he hit the ground in M:I 3’s Vatican break-in. Cruise himself credits these kinds of stunts and the fact that he does them himself with getting the audience to “lean forward and have a visceral reaction.” And I’m not the only one to see the links between Cruise, Scientologist and Cruise, master action-hero. Here’s Mike Sampson of ScreenCrush discussing Cruise’s Ghost Protocol stunts:
For all the people who laughed in 2005 saying, “Tom Cruise is crazy,” there was now a new chorus of people saying the same thing, but for all the right reasons.
Mission: Impossible is Cruise channeling his crazy into something we love.
Placing M:I in the context of Cruise and Scientology can also help us understand Ethan Hunt, who can come off as somewhat of a two-dimensional hero. Hunt isn’t complicated or dark, he doesn’t have a past, tortured (Bond) or forgotten (Bourne). He doesn’t crack jokes (John McClane) or drop one-liners (everyone). He’s never unsure of what the right thing to do is. He doesn’t doesn’t have any politics to speak of, and his enemies rarely have any real-world political significance. Hunt’s defining traits per our M:I roundtable are that he exhibits an extreme force of will (characteristic of Cruise, Scientologist) and is superhumanly good at everything he does (also characteristic of Cruise, Scientologist).
Progressing through Scientology courses as Cruise has is believed to drastically improve one’s mental and physical capabilities. Hubbard claimed to have cured himself of blindness and injuries he had sustained in WWII through Scientology. There were rumors that he could move clouds, stir up dust, and make someone feel as if they were being poked from across the room. Hubbard himself asserted that he could open the shutters in his room through sheer mental power. More generally, Scientologists believe that anyone who advances to the stage of “going clear” erases their unconscious mind and becomes “totally alert” and “totally capable.” This can be accompanied by dramatically improved IQ and eyesight.****
Hunt’s superhuman capabilities really come into relief in the last two films, but we see shades of them in earlier films – including M:I 2 in which Hunt smiles, hanging by his fingertips from a cliff while on “vacation.”
M:I 3 features far fewer death-defying stunts but it does find Hunt MacGuyvering a defibrillator out of spare parts in an abandoned Chinese warehouse, showing his wife how to kill him to save his life, and grabbing a gun immediately upon resuscitation. By Ghost Protocol Ethan Hunt is so leaps and bounds ahead of everyone he works with – including the character played by Jeremy Renner, who was supposed to replace him – that they’re making jokes about it in the film.
While Hunt scales the tallest building in the world with malfunctioning equipment his teammates, safely ensconced inside the building ask “Where’s Ethan?” Just as he makes his way back into the room after Cirque-De-Soleil acrobatics and releasing his harness to leap for the window, Benji (Simon Pegg) returns bragging about how difficult it was to complete his mission – changing the numbers on hotel room doors. In the span of mere minutes in Rogue Nation, Hunt holds his breath underwater while fighting a current to replace a memory card in an underwater supercomputer, drowns, is resuscitated, drives in a car chase, intentionally violently crashes the car, climbs out, jumps on a motorcycle for another chase and then intentionally crashes again to avoid hitting someone. It’s easy to see this determination and superhuman capacity as a sort of default, depth-less action-hero, but in the context of Cruise+Scientology it looks like something more substantial.
So while Scientology didn’t make Mission: Impossible it has used it for self-promotion, profited from it, used it to audition girlfriends for Tom Cruise, threatened its existence, prompted the inclusion of Jeremy Renner, and quite possibly shaped the development of the film’s core and driving force, Ethan Hunt. Which is all to say that if you’re talking about Mission: Impossible without also talking about Tom Cruise and Scientology, you’re missing out.
And because I couldn’t resist, check out the Rogue Nation trailer dubbed with audio from Cruise’s Freedom Medal of Valor interview.
*Auditing is a core practice of Scientology through which a person is cleared of negative influences known as engrams in order to heighten spiritual awareness and access currently untapped mental potential. Auditing sessions involve two people: the person being audited and an auditor, who asks the audited questions, often deeply personal questions, while taking notes and purportedly observing their mental state via a crude, discredited kind of lie detector called an “e-meter.”
** Though it enjoys tax-exempt status as a religion in the U.S., in Germany Scientology has long been under federal surveillance, and is considered “an exploitative cult with totalitarian tendencies.” In fact, German politicians called for a boycott of Mission: Impossible because of Cruise’s ties to Scientology.
*** Since he began working with Cruise again, Redstone has suggested that he actually fired Cruise because his pay was too high.
****The estimated cost of the courses required to go “clear” is $128,000.