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Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden: The Heroes We Want vs the Leaders We Have

We are a storytelling species who wants heroes (Wikipedia)

Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner are having a moment.

So are Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but in a different way.

The juxtaposition of these two pairs provides an opportunity to compare the people we admire as heroes with the actual leaders we have. The difference exposes the challenge to America today and in the next two elections this year and in 2024.


Tom Cruise has unexpectedly rocketed to a billion dollar gross in his new “Top Gun: Maverick” movie. Movies have suffered during Covid. Attendance plummeted. Movie studios wondered if people would return to the theaters, to the experience of seeing movies in-person with up to hundreds of other people. Maybe the next one would the blockbuster would be the one…. Maybe the one after that.

Then along comes the Tom Cruise move. BOFFO AT THE BOX OFFICE to use an old Hollywood term. Seemingly out of nowhere, this generation-later expansion of the original Top Gun movie startled everyone with its power. What gives?

One major difference is that the movie is a Tom Cruise movie. It is not a Roman numeral movie. It is not the latest incarnation of a super-duper movie reflecting Hollywood’s unending ability to crank out ever more new costumed beings. There are no dinosaurs in the movies or aliens of any kind. The story is not set in some mythical world in the past, present, or future. It isn’t even a special effects movie as many of the scenes that ordinarily would be special effects instead were real people learning how to fly.

In this regard, Tom Cruise represents a form of nostalgia to the good old days. You go to see (or not see) a Tom Cruise movie because it is a Tom Cruise movie. Do you really know the names of the characters he has played in his movies? Do you really know the name of the characters John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper played? No! You saw the movie because it starred John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Stewart.

Similarly Tom Cruise is larger than his movies. In almost every movie he plays himself or at least what we imagine him to be like off screen. We didn’t care what Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Cagney was really like. Even in one of the great Star Trek episodes where Kirk travels to the 1930s past, Joan Collins says her man (Kirk) is taking her to a Clark Gable movie. The title is irrelevant.

As a country we like the Maverick character of Pete Mitchell and flock to the multiplex to see it.

Kevin Costner also is having a moment. It is on the small screen and has been building for years. He has had an iconic career in movies starring in classics in American mythology. Perhaps it is coincidence but Durham began its most recent growth spurt with the movie “Bull Durham.”  Who would have thought that an actual corn field in Iowa split among two owners would become a tourist site where fathers could have catch with their sons.

Costner like Cruise performs in human roles. Generally, he lives in the present or the real world. In that sense he is always Kevin Costner. The Lakota Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member. As a result of his performance with Whitney Houston in “The Body Guard,” he was one of eight speakers at her funeral giving by all accounts a very moving eulogy. Name another actor with that kind of intimate cross-cultural acceptance. Name a politician.

But the real impetus for his success today is an outgrowth from a different movie, “Dances with Wolves.”  As with the TV series “Yellowstone,” Costner is the driving force behind both productions. In the movie he is John Dunbar; in the TV show John Dutton. In the movie, he encounters a wolf; in the TV series, his son has a vision quest with a wolf.

“Yellowstone” has snuck up on people. It is not one of those edgier shows that draws the attention of media critics. It is not gritty. It is not urban. It isn’t even about twisted tortured souls although that might not be true in all cases. It is not exactly the Ponderosa either. Times have changed. The fictional Broken Rock Indian Reservation and people are an integral part of the continuing story line.

So here we have two athletic male heroes with charm, good looks, and ease of appearance. And then there is the real world.


Only one week ago on July 5, I wrote SCOTUS and Hutchinson: The Howard Baker Moment Has Arrived. I claimed that it was all downhill for Trump from that point forward and that was exactly right.

Not only did a minion witness tamper with Hutchinson, but it seems that Trump himself tampered with a witness not yet revealed. Indictments forthcoming.

Foxhub has bad-mouthed some of the Trumpican candidates as unworthy of being elected. It remembers the debacle of the 2010 Senate races when Republicans lost sure-fire pickups by nominating nut cases. It does not want to see that happen again even if they are loyal to Trump.

Polls suggest Republicans are increasingly tired of Trump-shenanigans and it is only going to get worse. They are ready to move on if he will let them. Relitigating 2020 may be Trump’s only priority but it is not that of Republicans.

Polls show that even against the near-dead Biden with horrendous approval ratings, the Loser would lose again.

At some point soon, even closet Republicans in the Congress may be ready to stand up and be counted.

Of course, Joe Biden is having a rough spell himself. His is visibly aging and tiring in a way that cannot be hidden from the voters … even the ones who support him.

There is no end in sight for gas prices or Ukraine.

He was not a bold leader even in his prime and now he is past his prime.

According to a focus group reported on in The New York Times full-page in the Sunday Review on July 10 print, people are hungry for leadership. They want leaders who are willing to tell hard truths, go against the grain, and stand up for something unpopular. These were qualities found in leaders in the past like Churchill, suffragists, and Moses. But they also had a good explanation for why we do not have such leaders – if politicians today are not brave and courageous, it might be because We the People are not brave and courageous either.

As one CNN title put it:

Americans may get the one presidential race the country doesn’t want in 2024

In 2016, Democrats nominated the one candidate Trump could beat.
In 2020, Democrats nominated the one candidate who could beat Trump.
In 2022 Democrats need Trump to suck the oxygen out of the campaign with his revenge campaign, indictments, and 2020 fixation.
In 2024 Democrats need Republicans to nominate Trump again and may even secretly fund that effort.

When the movie “January 6” is cast there will be no roles for Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner. On the other hand, woman will clamor for the opportunity to play Liz Cheney.