"We could have made this a three-hour movie," says Cruise. "This could have been an entire Stauffenberg biopic. It could have been an Olbricht biopic. We worked seven days a week on this thing. From the moment we started, rarely was there a day that went by . . . "

"That we didn't see each other," says Singer.

"Or talk on the phone or go location scouting," Cruise continues. "And Bryan would take all this information, all of these pieces, and he kept always going back to the structure of the story — the film that he wanted to make. This is, at its core, a suspense thriller."

Yet, even as Singer kept things focused on the essentials, both director and star felt the burden of historical responsibility that came with telling a rarely told story from a war that (if this fall movie season alone is any indication) continues to cast a long shadow across the landscape of popular culture.

"You had to swear to God to one man," says Cruise with audible disgust about the oath — heard over the opening titles of the film — that even non-Nazi German soldiers were obliged to pledge to Hitler. "You couldn't think for yourself. It was not about country."

"And that was something that Stauffenberg found intolerable, and so did the other conspirators," Singer adds. "And they felt that very early on. [German Gen. Ludwig] Beck resigned in '38 in protest, and a lot of these guys would go to Beck or complain to [field marshalls Erwin] Rommel or [Erich von] Manstein. A lot of them hated Hitler, but they were part of a system and they were constantly trying to find a way out of it, or a way to confront Hitler or bring him down. And with the years and with Hitler's security and the war, it grew more and more difficult. It was by virtue of Stauffenberg's injuries — it has almost allegorical proportions — that he was delivered to this place where he had the access and could do this thing that was already on his mind to do."

"The thing that I felt confident about was Bryan as a filmmaker, and the script," says Cruise.

"And the fact that the guy's trying to kill Hitler!" says Singer. "Who, as a kid, doesn't . . . ," he begins to ask.

"Who doesn't want to kill Hitler?" says Cruise, flashing that blinding smile. "I was, like, 'I want to kill Hitler!'"

So, what can I tell you about Tom Cruise that you don't already know? Probably nothing, unless you've been living in a media-free hyperbaric chamber for the past 25 years (and if you have, far be it from me to disturb your peace). For although the 46-year-old Cruise (née Thomas Cruise Mapother IV) first appeared on movie screens in 1981, with a bit part opposite future tabloid sparring partner Brooke Shields in the teen romance Endless Love and a more substantial supporting role as a military cadet in Taps, it was exactly a quarter-century ago that he came into his own as a matinee idol with four consecutive 1983 releases. That was the year Cruise secured his membership in the nascent "brat pack" as the greaser Steve Randle in Francis Coppola's impressionistic rendering of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders before moving on to top billing as a horny SoCal teen headed for Tijuana in Losin' It, a genteel 1960s roustabout farce directed by future L.A. Confidential Oscar winner Curtis Hanson. Next, Cruise slid across the hardwood floor of a suburban Chicago living room and shot to the top of the box-office charts in Risky Business. By year's end, he had delivered a disarmingly earnest dramatic turn as a blue-collar Pennsylvania high school footballer angling for a college scholarship in the tough-minded sports drama All the Right Moves.

Collectively, it was enough to put Cruise on the radar of ascending über-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who were then looking for a lead for their Top Gun — the role, passed on by many a bigger name of the day (including Mickey Rourke, Matthew Modine and, yes, Scott Baio), that would cement Cruise's status as the pristine embodiment of sky's-the-limit, Reagan-era masculine ethos. As has been said of many of film history's greatest movie stars — and make no mistake that Cruise is one of them, which is different from (but by no means exclusive of) being a great actor — women wanted to be with him, while men wanted to be him. Just as the sight of a bare-chested Clark Gable in It Happened One Night had, a half-century earlier, caused a financial crisis in the undershirt industry, so Cruise's turn as fighter pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell did wonders for the sales of Ray-Bans and leather bomber jackets — to say nothing of the U.S. Navy, which reportedly saw its biggest uptick in new recruits since World War II.

The variables are not that different today. Sure, Cruise is older now, but if he so much as changes his hairstyle, the effect on the nation's barbershops is analogous to the butterfly that flaps its wings in China and causes a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. The interest and innuendo surrounding the arrival of his first biological child, Suri (born to Cruise's third wife, Katie Holmes, in 2006), may be unrivaled by any such birth since that of a certain carpenter's son in a Bethlehem manger. So to talk about Cruise is really to talk about the nature of celebrity — the status it grants the bearer, the influence it exerts on the beholder, and the ways in which celebrities, wrapped in their carefully spun cocoons of prosperity and perfection, become vessels for our own fantasies, ambitions and desires.

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