Aces and Americana — A Review of Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick”
“The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.”
— Admiral Cain
I was less than enthused at the prospect of a sequel to Top Gun. Having seen what they did to Luke Skywalker, I fully expected Hollywood to “deconstruct” Tom Cruise’s iconic Pete “Maverick” Mitchell following their usual playbook. However, when people like YouTube’s Critical Drinker and our own Mark Granza and Amanda Milius came out in favor of it, I thought I’d see it for myself. I was pleasantly surprised.
When we meet up with Maverick after all these years, we find he is a test pilot pushing the envelope; a demon akin to the one lurking at the sound barrier for the boys from The Right Stuff now hides around Mach 10, and Maverick has gone out to the high desert to chase it. Soon though, new orders come down and he must return to where it all began and teach the next generation of pilots.
Right off the bat, the movie addresses how much technology has changed in the almost forty years since Maverick went tear-assing around in an F-14 Tomcat. In an administrative cat-and-mouse game between Maverick and Admiral Cain, played by Ed Harris, the bureaucrat bluntly informs the flyboy, “The future is coming. And you’re not in it.” Drones have become a battlefield staple and countries are working on weapons systems that may render aircraft carriers obsolete. Given these developments, it would appear the arsenal of tomorrow’s wars could force fighter pilots to tread the same path as the horse cavalry they replaced. The flyboy has the last word, however: “Maybe so. But not today.”
This conflict concerning the means of battle is echoed later as Jon Hamm’s Admiral Simpson enters the picture. The by-the-book, career-minded Simpson is a protégé of Maverick’s old rival-turned-friend, “Iceman” Kazansky, now-Commander of the Pacific Fleet, and makes it clear that while he admires his mentor with the utmost respect, he has nothing but contempt for Maverick’s outdated loose-cannon ways. We come to see that while Iceman, as the wise senior officer, grasps the need for the wild human boldness and ability to adapt and overcome, Simpson has been warped by the military bureaucracy. As a result, he cannot see (or create) the kind of possibilities a man like Maverick can. He runs the numbers and will send his people on a suicide mission without further thought, whereas Maverick will try to find a way to do the impossible and bring his people home.
Iceman’s decision to assign Maverick back to Top Gun is precisely due to these qualities. I don’t know if the people who made the movie intended this as anything other than a plot device, but I thought it a fine metaphor for much of what ails us. Things that look good in a book or on PowerPoint can be found to be wrong or stupid when a unit goes downrange, and there are times when Maverick’s adage “Don’t think. Just do” is damn fine advice. The managerial tools favored by the establishment have their uses, but left unchecked lead to technocratic stagnation and they are no substitute for the old American pioneer magic of “Hold my beer and watch this shit.”
Once in the saddle, Maverick tries to help the young pilots understand this. He throws the F-18 manual away, explaining if there is to be any chance for success in the mission before them, they will have to push their machines and themselves past the limits of what they think they are capable of. And he is going to see they do it. This element of the movie resonated with me. Top Gun is set in the military, and for all of its sins and shortcomings, this attitude has been one of the service’s great strengths. It has had legions of cadre over the years who demanded that those who would join its ranks be worthy of the privilege. Such men refused to accept failure as an option, would push themselves and those under their charge, and dared you by their actions to be half as badass as they were.
For all the talent, skill, and youth of the new batch of hot-shot pilots, they are humbled by Maverick. Once in the sky he dominates them, but does so not as a bully, but as a leader who has mastered his craft and is trying to break through their ego and show them how good they could be. This paternal, masculine quality was a breath of fresh air to see again in a protagonist, and I hope this movie is a harbinger of its much-needed return.
Top Gun: Maverick isn’t a perfect movie. There were a number of plot conveniences, particularly toward the end, that brought me out of it at times and felt more reminiscent of something from James Bond. (However, those tricks set the stage for great pay-off where things that had gone wrong long ago could be made right.) The supporting characters appear to be carefully curated to feature an appropriate quota of diversity. Naturally, the female of the young pilots was front and center (though thankfully she wasn’t too obnoxious or a Mary Sue), and the cockiest guy among them had to be cast as a blonde Chad. The music didn’t feel as charged as the original, but thankfully it leaned on high-energy old-school tunes when possible and brought out the original Top Gun theme when it wanted to remind you of why you were there.
For all of that though, it delivers. The use of actual aircraft lends an air of realness that is sorely lacking in modern movies. The performances are all on point and the supporting cast has the bearing of military types. Miles Teller, who plays Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (the son of Maverick’s best friend, who dies in the original movie), genuinely looks like he could be the son of Goose. I had no idea Val Kilmer had been ill, however, they found a way for him to bring Iceman back again in a way that carried a dignity and weight.
Tom Cruise also surprised me. He seems like such an affable and intense man that these qualities always follow into his roles much in the same way Cary Grant or John Wayne seemed to be playing themselves whatever the character. And yet, while he is still the cocky fighter-jock who pulls out a win against the odds, there is a real range there. Cruise puts this on display in what was for me one of the most powerful moments in the movie: Maverick is thrown out of a bar as part of a joke just as we see Rooster take to the piano. Soon he lights into “Great Balls of Fire” just like his dad used to, and all Rooster’s friends and peers gather around, feeding off his energy and reveling in the joy of being young and on the threshold of a great challenge. Meanwhile, Maverick can only look on through the window from a distance and remember; for his time in that golden moment has passed, and it now belongs to them. He is the elder man bearing the weight of responsibility and his purpose must be to get them ready for what’s coming. He doesn’t say a word, and yet you can see all of this play out from a brief look on his face.
These interactions with Rooster bring out some of Cruise’s best work in years. The once young pilot who made his bones in the Cold War has given his life to being an aviator, and must now face the autumn of his years without a family of his own. Suddenly he is confronted with a young man who is the spitting image of his long-lost friend, and Cruise conveys an understated tangle of loss and hope in their exchanges, especially toward the end as they face the prospect of death together, that stayed with me after the movie ended.
The drop-dead gorgeous Jennifer Connelly rounds out the cast as Maverick’s old flame, Penny Benjamin. Some may say she is merely an ornament trotted out to fulfill a trope, but I’m here to tell you those people are as wrong as two boys in a closet under a blanket with the lights off. In addition to introducing the possibility of love and new beginnings to Maverick, there is a note of bittersweetness in her performance that accentuates the reoccurring theme of the passage of time.
The first time I saw Connelly was in Career Opportunities. Watching her roller skate down the aisles of a Target and ride that mechanical toy horse was thrilling. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. As she went on to other roles over the years, her beauty only ripened. Seeing her now, I couldn’t help but notice the faint lines in her face from what has hopefully been a life filled with more laughter than worry, betraying that the wild splendor of hers has begun to fade. And yet, there is a kind of beauty in that as well. This is a grown woman; one who has loved, brought life into the world, shouldered burdens, and yet retains a sexy playfulness, humor, and grace. She took an obscure reference in a movie from thirty-six years ago and breathed something wonderful and feminine into it. For a woman like that men would go to war, because there is nothing like a dame.
I confess there was something jarring about watching the movie that took some getting used to. I remember seeing the first one when it was released with my Dad. There was a feel from that time that found its way into the original and other movies from that era; the music, the romance, and the bold, reckless celebration of patriotism and masculinity. It was all so damn cool. Anything was possible! There followed a contempt for those things with the emergence of Political Correctness, and the steady descent of that madness into the ugly, embittered, and destructive form of the current “Wokeness.” At some point when we weren’t looking it became the only acceptable ethos, and the things we’d loved and believed were relegated by our cultural taste-makers as outdated Prole-Kitsch and propaganda, if not outright dangerous.
Then there was the parade of messy, ill-defined “interventions” that filled the space left by the Cold War. Outsourcing, mass immigration, recession, riots, and mandates. The America celebrated by movies like the original Top Gun was betrayed. We now can no longer take refuge in the comfortable simplicity of faraway enemies and are beginning to grapple with the grim reality that our true adversaries are much closer to home. The clean Pentagon-approved narrative of good versus evil playing out in a war setting on the big screen now rings false or incomplete. We’ve been through too much and endured too many lies and disappointments to drink too deeply from nostalgia for a past that somehow led to now.
Top Gun: Maverick feels like it comes from some alternate timeline where none of that happened. It remains faithful to the sentiment of the original, honoring that spirit and respecting the legacy characters, while introducing new ones and acknowledging the passing of time. For its detractors, to see an unashamed, patriotic, red-blooded, White, American man bravely rallying others to meet a threat to his country and prevail against impossible odds in The Current Year must be like presenting a crucifix to a vampire. Even worse (for them), is that the characters and the people who play them all seem so unselfconscious and bring with them an air of vitality and positivity. These are dynamic, capable, healthy, good-looking people working together as a team, taking risks, having fun, raising hell, and getting hard stuff done.
This is the America the world fell in love with. An America that could seduce, reach within and show a vision of some aspect of itself in a song or an image, a book, or a movie, and inspire generations. The Top Gun movies are a love letter to that country. If you’d like to take a break from all the craziness and treat yourself to an old-fashioned, lighthearted adventure movie made by people who don’t hate you and love America (what it was, is, and could be), then this movie is for you. For its kind might be truly headed for extinction.