There are a lot of Tom Cruise roles from his Hall-of-Fame stretch from 1983-1996 that I cherish, many of which I even identify with. Ambitious, smart, hard-charging, a little bit of a chip on his shoulder as a short man in a tall man's world, thinking he's more of a hit with the ladies than he really is...too much of it feels a little too familiar compared to my own adolescence and young adulthood. I would never consider myself a Maverick, but a Joe Donnelly from Far and Away? A Danny Kaffee from A Few Good Men? Sure. Of all these, though, the one that resonates the most is Mitchell McDeere from the 1993 film adaptation of Grisham's The Firm.
Mitch McDeere was the bright kid desperate to leave middle America behind and climb the ladder of financial and professional success. Graduating at the top of his class at Harvard Law, he had his pick of the shiny legal firms and chose a lesser-known practice in Memphis, seduced not just by money but by the promise of a lifestyle, a kind of aristocratic old-world genteel sense of arrival, of legitimacy that escaped him as the son of a coal miner. Of course, The firm turns out to be a bunch of white-collar criminals (including his wonderfully besotted and utterly debauched mentor Avery Tolar, played with perfect lecherous charisma by Gene Hackman) laundering money for the mob. The book's plot is more convoluted than the movie's, but it remains one of my favorite films - McDeere has to match those highly-touted legal wits against the firm's brilliant and morally bankrupt leadership to figure out how to extract himself from their illegal enterprise. The FBI puts the heat on him, the firm lures him into a sordid affair they use for blackmail with his trusting wife, and things generally fall apart for McDeere. But he wriggles free (even kicking the crap out of Wilford Brimley at one point - always a bonus), and in the end manages to redeem himself in the eyes of the law, his wife, and even himself.
Mitch McDeere is brilliant but deeply flawed - ambitious, desperate for validation and status, vulnerable to the less-wholesome ethics of those he would admire. He wants a perfect life, a straight line up and up, with all the trappings of success, and yet his first steps out into the world ensnare him in the worst parts of the world and expose the equally ugly parts of himself. Only his better angels can save him, and when he relies on those, when he returns to his fundamental decency, courage, and raw intellect, he's able to realize his potential. Once we realize that it's never a straight line (and it's rarely up), those of us who were sold and eagerly bought that bill of goods about our own potential are finally able to stop seeking the perfect and recognize the good and even the awesome in our imperfect lives.