1) Born on the Fourth of July
I’ve tried to order these roles loosely by rank but honestly, any of the numbers could be interchangeable, so screw it. The first one I find worth mentioning though, and maybe Tom Cruise’s best performance, came back in 1989 in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. He had rose to prominence thanks to Top Gun, gained some further credibility in Rain Man the year previous, but he found some real balls working with Oliver Stone, back when Stone was in his element, making movies informed by his experiences in the Vietnam War.
Cruise played Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who is inspired to join the Marines, has some traumatic experiences in Vietnam, and returns home permanently constrained to a wheelchair due to wounds inflicted in the war. We see him change as the world around him changes, and as he experiences it, and the change is fascinating for the character and for Cruise’s wide-ranging emotional performance. It’s a heart wrenching film that is absolutely devastating at times, and Cruise is the anchor of it all, struggling with pain of all kinds for years before finding a way to channel that pain into action that is intended to help prevent others from experiencing the pain he has undergone. He goes from naïve to disillusioned very quickly, and he masters these transitions and complicated emotions like we had never seen Cruise master before, and perhaps since.
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