Just now I googled “Tom Cruise best roles”, “Tom Cruise worst roles”, “Tom Cruise best movies” and “Tom Cruise worst movies”, partially because I’m interested to see where his role as Mitch McDeere in The Firm lands and partially because my boredom has reached carrying capacity. I found, unsurprisingly, that the internet does that thing where it reaches consensus about certain things being “good” and certain things being “bad”, which in this case is sometimes inarguable (A Few Good Men = “good”, Far and Away = “bad”) but sometimes weirdly unearned, as with the endless praise heaped upon Edge of Tomorrow or Cruise’s role in Tropic Thunder. The former is a fairly fun movie and the latter is a fairly funny movie, but to say that these number among Cruise’s best seems a stretch. Again, the common consensus surrounding mediocrity doesn’t exactly come as a shock.
What was surprising, though, is that not a single article or top ten list included Mitch McDeere or mentioned The Firm at all. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, sure, and you might even suggest that the overarching opinions of the internet’s burgeoning culture commentary is at fault for this, too, as if to say “those other guys didn’t claim The Firm to be a great Cruise movie, so we won’t either.” But not a single one mentioned The Firm. No outliers buried in a list to satiate the unconfessed desire of a film blogger, no mention of Mitch McDeere even in reference to another role. It’s like The Firm never registered as a Cruise flick. Putting aside common consensus and inescapable truth (Far and Away = “bad”), that just seemed strange.
Through the lens of the director rather than the lead actor, The Firm stands out a bit more. Sydney Pollack was hot off the Oscar-winning Out of Africa but then cold off Havana, his meandering 1990 effort, and so Firm was a return to form for him. It allowed him to go back to the city setting that he captured so masterfully in Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie and also allowed him to work with a fresh face in Cruise. All due respect to Robert Redford and the creative partnership he and Pollack maintained — seriously, all due respect — but the distinct efforts of Tootsie (featuring Dustin Hoffman), Bobby Deerfield (Al Pacino) and Absence of Malice (Paul Newman) number among his most unique films. Thus does The Firm seem both completely at home and completely out-of-place among Pollack’s late filmography. One wonders who would have directed the screenplay in lieu of Pollack and what kind of Firm that would have been.
Indeed, the cast is such an impressive lineup of familiar faces that you kind of expect Redford to saunter out at any moment. Roger Ebert makes a fantastic point about Pollack’s use of recognizable actors in his films and particularly in The Firm, and his original review from ’93 can and should be read here. He notes that Hal Holbrook playing the firm’s director immediately signifies something hidden beneath the surface. Gene Hackman seems like a villain but, hey, it’s Gene Hackman, so unlike Ol’ Hal he’s probably a good guy underneath it all. Ed Harris, David Strathairn and even Gary Busey make the most of bit parts, and Pollack makes the most of the fact that you’re going to instantly recognize most of these people. We don’t need long to figure out what kind of a guy Gary Busey’s character is because we made up our minds about that right when we first heard the name Gary Busey.
But what about Cruise? The Firm is almost perfectly mid-career for the actor, which might help explain Mitch McDeere’s absence from the Best and Worst lists. Risky Business, Top Gun, Rain Man and A Few Good Men were all behind him; Interview with the Vampire, Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire, and Minority Report were all coming up. In a way Mitch McDeere bears similarities to Cruise’s characters in many of these films (again, as noted by Ebert) in that his character is young and brilliant but also very trusting of others. “Convincing” is the word that Ebert uses, and that’s a perfect descriptor for Cruise’s time in McDeere’s shoes. Pollack’s brilliance lies in the fact that we know Holbrook isn’t as respectable as he seems, we know Hackman is more respectable than he seems, we know Harris is going to fight to the bitter end, we know Busey is going to succumb to vice — and although Mitch McDeere doesn’t know any of this, his instant trust never seems contrived or makes his character seem overly naive. He’s as sharp as they come, but it’s still believable that he’d miss these crucial personality traits. Cruise makes this convincing where it could easily have been phony.
And heck, maybe Mitch is naive in spite of his intelligence, or maybe he doesn’t miss those traits so much as willingly overlook them. He thinks he knows how to impress the firm but soon discovers that they’ve seen it all, going so far as to engineer his interviews at other firms in order to reel him into their own. Mitch’s formidable resume and honed character make the titular firm all the more intimidating: if this company can pull the wool over Mitch’s eyes, then there’s probably no one they can’t commandeer. This in turn serves to further enlighten characters like Hackman’s, who was more than likely in Mitch’s seat in his own youth.
As a film The Firm is a bit on the lengthy side, but the murderer’s row casting is enough to keep one interested. Notable (as he was in Absence of Malice) is Wilford Brimley, who once again manages to shine while in the same room with the likes of Holbrook and Hackman and Cruise. The latter, though — he deserves more recognition for The Firm. Mitch McDeere has a sincerity that matches his intellect, and while a number of actors would be able to pull that off (Matt Damon leaps to mind for a similar role in another John Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker) Cruise has sort of made a career out of it. Is he more interesting in Rain Man or Magnolia or Tropic Thunder for being a bit of a d*ckhead? Absolutely. But those are his against-type roles, and among his in-type roles Mitch McDeere is one of the finest. Take that, internet!