In Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, Tom Cruise plays Ron Kovic. Failing to win a critical wrestling match, Kovic looks to enlist in the military as a means of reasserting his masculinity and redefining his standing in his small suburban neighborhood. It’s the beginning of the Vietnam War and Kovic looks to fulfill the narrative that defined his forefathers - to defend a national ideal that he loves. His identity is tied to his family, his neighborhood, and the perpetuation of a cultural embrace of the patriotic. But his identity is compromised when, after a paralyzing injury, Kovic feels like an outsider in his home and country. The film’s central narrative, where a man embraces the ideals of one particular identity only to see it compromised, is also explored in Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow - a Tom Cruise vehicle of unexpected gravitas.
This time around, Tom Cruise plays Officer Cage. He’s a media relations coordinator who attempts to rationalize a Normandy raid against an alien foe that could result in massive international causalities. He’s successful in gathering the public trust, though is advised by his commanding officer that he will be on the front lines. Cage is not an especially likable figure from the start: he attempts to weasel his way out of the situation through blackmail. But those efforts are largely unsuccessful as he’s detained and thrown into the battlefield. With no experience manning a newly developed military body suit, his first trip to Normandy is an exercise in visual and audial digestion; he looks upon the chaos of war with the same sort of terrified reserve that we saw him employ as Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July when combating enemy forces.
The primary narrative conceit to the Edge of Tomorrow sees Cage relive this day of combat. It’s a genuinely terrifying exploration on the nature of death in relation to the battlefield, though it grounds the physical horror amid a more lax humanistic perspective. That’s to say, this isn’t quite as cerebral as one would expect, opting instead to observe Cruise’s celebrity as more of a figure of growing human integrity. Cage interacts with Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier who once had the same ability to relive the day. She aids Cage in developing as a soldier, ultimately helping him progress on the battlefield.
Edge of Tomorrow’s screenplay, from a triad of Liman and Cruise regulars adapting Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel, avoids overanalyzing its mechanics, opting instead to treat the material with a measure of good humor. The film tinkers with methods of exposition and how it’s expressed to audiences. For example, a farmhouse sequence between Rita and Cage is offered a measure of unexpected sensitivity when it’s revealed that Cage has already relived this specific day; he’s simply looking to make the day last a little longer with a partner that he’s grown attached to. The audience is placed in Rita’s position: we were unaware that Cage had lived this day previously and are taken aback by what Cage knows about the day. Other sequences, such as when Cage retreats from the base camp and takes to a tavern in London, expands the narrative scope by capturing the depressed and haggard mental state of its perpetually dying main character as well as seeing how his actions can carry significant weight outside of the battlefield.
Cruise is critical in the central role. From his initial reluctance to his acceptance of fate all register as convincing moments of self-revelation. His performance recalls the physicality of Buster Keaton and the humanistic warmth of Charlie Chaplin - it’s one of Cruise’s most accomplished efforts. The film’s final sequence, a final relived moment, borrows from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. It’s an unexpected but appropriate final scene that exists according to its mantra: learn from your past.