In 1986, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, director Tony Scott, and star Tom Cruise hit paydirt with the blockbuster success of Top Gun, a drama loosely based on the real-life magnet program for the US Navy’s most talented aviators. It was the highest-grossing film of the year and propelled Cruise into the Hollywood A-list, where he has remained ever since. The other big winner was the Navy itself, who offered the production the use of their aircraft, pilots, and facilities in exchange for creative input into the story. The Pentagon and Hollywood have always made arrangements like this, but Top Gun was an unprecedented triumph for both institutions, leading to a noticeable recruitment boost for the Navy and assuring that movie studios would eagerly pander to military approval in exchange for access to impressive-looking settings and technology. Films that were critical of the US military became comparably more expensive and therefore less appealing to financiers.
Not coincidentally, Top Gun isn’t even really a war movie, and neither is its new sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, once again starring Tom Cruise and directed by his Oblivion collaborator, Joseph Kosinski. Neither Top Gun nor Top Gun: Maverick are about celebrating or glorifying war, only the tools of war and the people who operate them, as if these things can truly be separated from each other. Because the thing is, fighter jets, just as pieces of technology, are rad as hell. They’re pretty, they go insanely fast, they’re incredibly difficult to fly, and if you get close enough to them, they will make you rad, too. This is the point of the movie, what makes it so fun, and also kind of sinister. Top Gun: Maverick puts its actors, its cameras, and the audience itself as close as possible to the radness of top-shelf military aircraft, and it rules. It’s such an exhilarating celebration of powered human flight that you can almost forget what it is we actually use it for.
America’s Most Impressive and Expensive Piece of Engineering Made Another Movie About Airplanes
Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is a legendary US Navy aviator, a pilot so skilled that he has managed to keep his commission despite over thirty years of reckless, insubordinate behavior. In some ways, Maverick has grown up since we last met him in Top Gun. He’s no longer a daredevil with something to prove, like young Tom Cruise; Now he’s a daredevil who takes irresponsible risks because a lot of jobs depend on it, like present day Tom Cruise. When we find Maverick at the start of this film, he’s a test pilot for an experimental manned aircraft which the military establishment (represented first by Ed Harris, then by Jon Hamm) wants to bury in favor of the drone program. If he can’t push this plane past safety limits to meet the deliberately unrealistic expectations of the brass, all of these engineers will find themselves out of work. (My heart bleeds for Lockheed-Martin!) There’s a clear analog between Maverick as the savior of manned flight and Cruise as the protector of brick-and-mortar action cinema, committed to doing ever-more dangerous stunts to save the medium and so that when one finally kills him we talk about that instead of whatever other crazy shit comes out about him after he dies.
In other ways, Maverick hasn’t changed a bit. He’s unmarried and childless, content to fly free and unwilling to put anyone through the emotional stress of his dangerous career. He’s resisted promotion so he can remain in the cockpit, and is protected from on high by his former wingman, Admiral “Iceman” Kazansky, who countermands any order to punish him for buzzing towers and wrecking aircraft. He’s also still haunted by the loss of his co-pilot “Goose” Bradshaw, who died in an accident during the events of original film. So, when Maverick is called upon to train a new class of elite pilots for a potential suicide mission and learns that Goose’s son “Rooster” (Miles Teller) is among them, he’s torn between the mandate to prepare him and the desire to protect him.
As much as on the IMAX footage of real F-18s performing death-defying feats of aerial agility, Top Gun: Maverick relies heavily on Tom Cruise’s ability to toggle between “invincible movie star” and “vulnerable middle-aged hearthrob” on a dime. When the film is in the “Danger Zone,” he’s five and a half feet of pure dynamite. When it’s in “Take My Breath Away” mode, he’s vibing with everyone, effortlessly magnetic. His romance with old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly), while as excisable from this film as the romance in the original, is a shallow but charming portrayal of two adults with adult problems who make each other feel young again. (Original romantic lead Kelly McGillis was not invited back; Connelly is 13 years her junior.) Cruise and Val Kilmer’s Iceman share just one pivotal scene together, but good god they’ve still got the smoke. Even without nostalgia for the original (and I have very little myself), it’s a powerful and affecting two-hander. When he needs to play the estranged uncle to Rooster, he and Miles Teller feel natural together, especially in their more comedic moments. All of the above are barely characters, but within the confines of their scenes with Cruise, they become real.
Just Like Beggar’s Canyon Back Home
Isolated from Cruise, however, the pilot ensemble of Top Gun: Maverick ia scarcely more detailed than the sports animé protagonists of the original. Rooster is theoretically complicated, but is mostly an obstacle for Maverick to bounce off of. Rival joystick Hangman (Glenn Powell, Hidden Figures) is a selfish square jaw with a shit-eating grin and no regard for his teammates. Phoenix (Monica Barbaro, Splitting Up Together) is the team’s only woman and therefore not afforded the luxury of a personality beyond being “one of the boys,” and the rest of the crew is even less distinguishable from one another. For all intents and purposes, most of these characters are just cool helmets. And that’s appropriate, because their mission is conspicuously similar to the Death Star trench run from Star Wars, the god-king of using cool helmets in place of actual character.
Which brings us, at last, to the only thing that really matters about Top Gun: Maverick, the aerial stunt show. You’ve seen the trailers, you’ve heard the early buzz, and I will contradict none of it: watching F-18s do daring, precise, low-altitude maneuvers on the big screen is cinema gold. The film is sold as being as close to real as possible, using almost exclusively real footage of real aircraft doing real crazy shit, and the effect is magnificent. The exterior shots of the jets pulling steep climbs and hairpin turns are matched only by the close-ups of the pilots in flight which are, improbably, filmed inside the real aircraft in flight with the actors experiencing the actual G-forces involved. So much of the film relies only on this practical footage that when it arrives at the action climax — in which the danger to the characters is more real — the illusion becomes strained by the necessary addition of visual effects. (You’re not going to fire real surface-to-air missiles at Miles Teller.) The storytellers have chosen to lean into the unreality of Maverick’s final fifteen minutes by making them incredibly silly, which is probably for the best. If you were watching a movie about a volleyball team and suddenly they were dropped into a war zone, you’d have to go pretty broad to make that work, too.
Still, the sense of awe upon which Top Gun: Maverick relies also may be contingent on the big screen experience. In the theater, the reality of the flight sequences is palpable, thrilling, essential. It’s hard to say how well this feeling will hold up at home, where it will live indefinitely after the theatrical run ends. Will its heavily publicized authenticity be enough to keep that “wow” factor intact for future generations of viewers? Or is it one of those experiences for which you really had to be there?
The Big Game
What makes Top Gun: Maverick feel like harmless fun is that, like its predecessor, it’s really a sports movie. A bunch of highly skilled, cocky athletes are gathered to test themselves against each other in a contest whose only immediate stakes are their pride. Their skills, endurance, and attitudes are tested, team dynamics form and crumble, and it’s up to the Coach Maverick to bring the best out of the young talent. The only distinction is that for what the hot shots are competing, which is the right to fly a dangerous mission over foreign soil and drop a couple of bombs. Who is the “enemy?” We aren’t told, and it doesn’t matter. Our heroes’ target is an “unsanctioned” uranium refinery under the control of a “rogue state.” Rest assured, you will never see their faces, hear their language, or witness any of their deaths.
A painstaking effort is made to keep the circumstances of this mission as palatable as possible. To begin with, the target is a weapons-grade uranium refinery, and viewers on both sides of the aisle can agree that’s no good. The ticking clock on the mission comes from the desire to take it out before the radioactive materials arrive, sparing the surrounding region from nuclear contamination. In the flight drills that punctuate the film’s second act, the bomb site is represented by a plain, gray, 3-meter cube sitting alone in an empty field, which turns out to be almost exactly what the real thing looks like. Because the enemy base is underground, you can easily imagine that nobody will be down there when it blows sky-high. Dogfights also allow for our Good Guy pilots to score unqualified wins while also giving the Bad Guy pilots (whose visors are opaque black, of course) the chance to eject. From a cinematic standpoint, about as bloodless as military action gets. And this isn’t just the US bullying some impoverished nation of the Global South — no, no, the bad guys actually have the technological advantage in this conflict, complete with “5th generation fighters” that outclass the Navy’s F-18s. (Better not cut that massive military budget any time soon!) The narrative has nothing to do with the politics of the mission. Instead, it’s about the competition and cooperation between the pilots, and between human beings and technology.
No one is totally immune to propaganda, but you should get your annual booster before seeing Top Gun: Maverick. I don’t say this to guilt anyone for enjoying it — I had a great time myself — but it’s important to acknowledge the film for what it is, and for what the original Top Gun was: a really expensive recruitment film that promises a thrilling and glamorous life in the military, gamifying combat and hiding its cost in blood. They have done a tremendous job this time around. It is practically impossible not to find Maverick and company’s aerial escapades appealing, and it feels great to let that excitement wash over you in the theater. It also sucks to know you’re being manipulated for the purpose of enticing more young people to sign up to drop bombs on human beings from thousands of feet in the air for reasons as obfuscated and sanitized as those in this film.