In spite of or perhaps because of his recent self-imposed sabbatical, the Tom Cruise of 2008 is able to operate above the entertainment industry. He’s MI-free—liberated from having to save the day, get the girl, or be Tom Cruise. If he wants to decry political apathy about the war in Afghanistan (and play alongside Meryl Streep and Robert Redford), he can slip into the role of an oily, scheming senator in Lions for Lambs. If he’s in the mood to mock Hollywood, he can take an unbilled cameo as a balding, ball-busting studio exec in Tropic Thunder. “When I was working with Ben Stiller, I said, ‘I want to play this character, but I’ve got to dance,’” says Cruise. “I haven’t danced that much since Risky Business!” And if he wants to make you see the good in something that the whole world views as monolithically evil (that’d be Nazi Germany—not Cruise himself), well, he can do that, too.

Do you really doubt he can pull it off? To get Valkyrie made, he had to win over a country that’s moved to outlaw his religion—one German official called him “the Joseph Goebbels of Scientology”—and refused to let him shoot at the army’s historic Berlin headquarters, the Benderblock. The tabloids feasted and the nabobs of negativity nattered every time it seemed Cruise’s comeback vehicle had blown a tire, but the star prevailed. “That was always just a small group,” he says of his German critics. “When there was finally dialogue between us and they realized what it was we were doing with the story, they relented. This was a hard movie to make on many levels—but that was just one challenge.”

He won’t go into the other hardships; appearing to ask for sympathy would be . . . un-Cruise-worthy. But he clearly felt a connection to Stauffenberg, his crisis of conscience and his conflicting loyalties. “Certain decisions at points in my life . . . I absolutely related,” he says. “Stauffenberg went from saying, ‘Someone should shoot that bastard’ to realizing, I’m the only one who can do it. You can’t really know until you’re under that kind of pressure. I’m not saying this in some chest-pounding way, but I do feel I’d have that kind of courage.”

It’s the sort of Cruise-ism that sounds so true-blue it can’t be anything but heartfelt. “It’s about the power of him looking at his children and saying, ‘How do you want them to be raised?’” he says. “And then, years later, them realizing, My gosh, my father was a hero. He’s someone who deserves to be admired.”

No one would or could script this but Tom Cruise. “It’s about doing the right thing,” he says, “but also about finding out what the right thing is. You know what I mean? I do feel that this movie was the right thing to do . . . I love movies. Yeah, man, I love movies!”