Top Gun: Maverick movie review: we’re well into the danger zone

MaryAnn’s quick take: With its melancholy regret and bittersweet nostalgia, this is far superior to the 1986 blockbuster. But as the sun goes down on American imperialism here, the last-gasp celebration of it unsettles.
I’m “biast” (pro): always surprised to be reminded that I love Tom Cruise onscreen
I’m “biast” (con): not the biggest fan of the original film
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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As a movie — as craft, as popcorn entertainment — Top Gun: Maverick is far superior to its progenitor, 1986’s groundbreaking blockbuster Top Gun. The exciting aerial sequences are grounded, no pun intended, by decades-later drama that is mostly about melancholy regret. The nostalgia that abounds — the characters are steeped in it, as is the audience, via numerous callbacks to the first movie — is about the bittersweetness of passing time, of getting older. There is a resignation here to decline that is not only individual but generational, national, maybe even hinting at the civilizational.

There’s a scene early on in which Tom Cruise’s (American Made, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) hotshot US Navy fighter pilot is told by someone a generation older than him that he should be an admiral by now, or a senator. How has his Pete “Maverick” Mitchell not moved on from flying cool planes? Because he doesn’t want to move on. He is happy to still be a lowly captain, happy to still be doing what he loves.

Top Gun Maverick Val Kilmer
Val Kilmer’s Iceman does return for a cameo… but he and Mav do not finally kiss, to my enormous disappointment.

That’s… very Generation X. Genuinely content to have stuck with his passion, what he’s good at, instead of getting promoted to management. (Later, someone else, his generational peer, will tell him, with perhaps the teensiest smudge of jealousy, that he is exactly where he belongs.) Mav is truly okay with what his elders would have considered diminished expectations, and with what GenX has been left with. If nothing else, Maverick is a tale of GenX verging on elderhood — Cruise will turn 60 in a few weeks, though this was shot several years ago — as accepting of what the world looks like when we can no longer expect to do better than our parents, and embracing the crumbs we’re left with.

There’s even some odd beauty in how director Joseph Kosinski (Only the Brave, Oblivion) casts the stoic forbearance. Aloneness yet not loneliness hangs around Maverick: he’s often by himself in the airplane hangar in the middle of the desert that appears to be his home, or ironically isolated in the middle of a military hangout bar crowded with much younger servicemen and women. Much of the movie is bathed in a yellow tinge that is far from the beautiful golden glow of the fabled cinematic “magic hour” that looks so amazing onscreen, the one that Michael Bay, for instance, loves so much. It’s more like a figurative sunset. The sun is going down on not just a generation but everything we see here. The technology, definitely. Pilotless drones flown by remote operators and AI will replace the likes of the Top Gun fliers, and soon. The opening sequence of the film, in which Mav, now a test pilot, is pushing an experimental scramjet to new supersonic speeds, looks and feels like science fiction (this bit has a blue glow of open skies merging into the midnight of the edge of space), but even that plane, it is suggested, may end up a relic.

Top Gun Maverick Jon Hamm
Any excuse to post a pic of Jon Hamm (who plays one of Tom Cruise’s superior officers), cuz he fine.

But for now, the human pilots with elite skills are still needed. Maverick is recalled as an instructor to the San Diego fighter school to train a class of recent Top Gun graduates — “the best of the best” — for a top-secret infiltration of enemy airspace in order to take out a facility about to begin producing nuclear fuel, contrary to international treaty. Similar to the original 1986 film, the opponent is not named; they are only ever called “the enemy”; a few of their pilots are seen in air combat sequences only as distant figures behind darkened helmets. But unlike in the first movie, it’s not as easy to guess whom the enemy might be: North Korea? Iran? And yet this enemy also has a new “fifth-generation” fighter that the best the Navy has cannot match. It seems unlikely that the United States, with the biggest military expenditure on the planet by far, should be so outgunned, so left behind the technological curve.

Is this a suggestion that America is on the decline? Is the entirety of Top Gun: Maverick an acknowledgement that the American century is coming to an end? (I feel like Ed Harris got a cameo here, as one of Mav’s superior officers, purely for the Right Stuff/Apollo 13 height-of-Yankee-gusto vibe he brings.) If it is, it is nevertheless but the mildest of mitigations to my very huge issues with the movie, issues that make me extremely uncomfortable with what it’s doing.

Top Gun Maverick Monica Barbaro
Yay! Women now get to advance American imperialism from the barrel of a gun, too. Progress!

Yes, the human drama here is extremely well played: Maverick’s regrets revolve around one of the pilots he’s meant to teach, Lt Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller: Bleed for This, War Dogs), son of Mav’s former flight partner, Goose, who was killed in Top Gun. The two appear to have had a good relationship after Goose’s death until something tore them apart in recent years, so their reunion is rife with tension. (Gosh, but Teller looks breathtakingly like he could be Anthony Edwards’s son, which I never would have imagined.) Mav has regrets, too, around flyboy-bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly: Alita: Battle Angel, Spider-Man: Homecoming), with whom he reignites a past romance; their history is less rocky, but a tentativeness simmers from both that implies some deep hurt not easily revisited.

There’s plenty of macho posturing, too, most of it fueled by the putative villain, asshole pilot Lt Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Hidden Figures), but none of the inadvertent homoeroticism that underscored same in the first movie shows up… not even in the half-naked beach football game that echoes the 1986 volleyball scene. That there are two women among the Top Gun pilots helps, probably — one, played by Monica Barbaro, is a significant supporting character — but it’s not just that. This is simply a much more grownup movie than the first one. The script, by Ehren Kruger (Dumbo, Ghost in the Shell), Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, The International), and Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow, Jack the Giant Slayer), is more subtle and more finely wrought than we should have any right to expect from a movie like this, especially given the movie that spawned it.

Top Gun Maverick Glen Powell
Any excuse to post a pic of Glen Powell (who plays the asshole-pilot villain), cuz he fine.

However… all that means the pro-American, pro-military propaganda is less rah-rah, too, so much so that it’s almost easy to overlook it. Because this is also a movie about the American military taking unilateral action to violate the territory of sovereign nation and attack it at its whim. Worse is its absolute dehumanization of how this warfare is conducted. The parameters of the mission involve navigating narrow canyons at high speeds and low altitude, with steep climbs and dives and other extreme maneuvers. Mav and his students practice in the open desert, using only computer screens to simulate the terrain they will have to travel and the very small target they will have to hit. Their mission is almost literally turned into a videogame. It’s also impossible to imagine that it’s an accident on the part of the screenwriters that this mission resounds of Luke Skywalker’s canyon run to destroy the Death Star in Star Wars. One of the trainee pilots even has the callsign “Fanboy.”

But what is happening here is not fantasy, it’s not cosplay, and it’s not a game. War is not bloodless, as it is here. Military action is not without consequence, as it is here. There isn’t a single thought given in Top Gun: Maverick to whatever geopolitical ramifications there will be to any success, or any failure, this mission has sees. What we get here is deeply, quietly terrifying… and the movie hasn’t an inkling of that.

Top Gun Maverick Miles Teller
It’s the retro ’stache that makes Miles Teller look so much like he really could be Goose’s son.

Of course it’s true that movies like this, in which Hollywood cheerleads for American imperialism, have always been problematic. (We could probably say much the same about Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies, for starters.) But the world has changed, rapidly and almost beyond recognition, since this movie wrapped production, three years ago. (The coronavirus pandemic delayed it seeing the light of day.) Even just since its release was finally being arranged mere months ago. The United States blithely invading and attacking anyone it wants to on the flimsiest of provocations looks ever more obviously hypocritical when it condemns Russia for doing the same. (Of course I oppose the Russian attack on Ukraine. But I also opposed the US invasion of Afghanistan.) A celebration of way-cool tech, regardless of how deadly its sole purpose is, is incredibly difficult to swallow in the wake of two mass shootings in the US, the likes of which occur regularly solely because enough American politicians and their suck-up sycophants in the media are in the thrall of a powerful gun lobby and the bizarre notion that guns are awesome and manly and powerful.

There isn’t a single difference between celebrating a Super Hornet jet fighter the way Top Gun: Maverick does and celebrating an AR-15 the way the NRA does. And that should worry us profoundly.


see also:
classic film virgin: Top Gun (1986)


more films like this:
Only the Brave [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | Apple TV UK]
Mission: Impossible – Fallout [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Paramount+ US]

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HPENVY ENVY
HPENVY ENVY
Sun, May 29, 2022 4:03am

“There isn’t a single difference between celebrating a Super Hornet jet fighter the way Top Gun: Maverick does and celebrating an AR-15 the way the NRA does. And that should worry us profoundly.”

What? lmfao

jdmtxaggs
jdmtxaggs
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, May 29, 2022 2:12pm

He’s saying why don’t you just enjoy the movie and leave your liberal anchor on flight deck. Always whining about something good grief. It’s the movies!!!!

Bluejay
Bluejay
movie lover
reply to  jdmtxaggs
Tue, May 31, 2022 2:54pm

The people who tell liberals to just shut up and enjoy Top Gun are probably the same people who hated the all-female Ghostbusters film and complain nonstop about Hollywood being too “woke.” Why all the whining, fellas? Just sit back and enjoy. It’s the movies!!!!

Serious answer: They don’t care about hypocrisy, only power. In this case, the power to silence liberals while being able to spout whatever they want — “freedom of speech for me, but not for thee.” They call the Jan. 6 insurrection a “patriotic protest” while freaking out about pro-choice supporters rallying peacefully outside the homes of Supreme Court justices. They want to say anything they want on Twitter without being banned, while themselves banning “CRT” (a.k.a actual history) from classrooms, banning LGBTQ books from libraries and bookstores, and punishing Disney for “sexual” content (but only gay content, because princes kissing sleeping princesses without consent is a-ok). They make fun of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and accuse liberal students of being “snowflakes” who need to toughen up and face the real world; then they pass laws forbidding schools and businesses from saying anything about race that might make their precious white kids/employees “uncomfortable.” Their only consistent guiding principle is power and dominance: “WE get to say and do whatever we want; YOU have to stop doing whatever you’re doing, and being whoever you are.”

Fuck ’em all.

Bluejay
Bluejay
movie lover
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Jun 02, 2022 4:09pm

Yes, exactly! There’s no inconsistency in the idea “We are in charge and can do and say whatever we want to you, and we’ll crush you if you do and say anything that threatens us in any way.” This is why I think we need to move beyond all the tired arguments pointing out right-wing hypocrisy, in the hopes of, what? Getting them to say “Gee, I didn’t realize I was being hypocritical”? Pointless. They’re all about the will to power, and we need to see them clearly for what they are if we’re to have any hope of responding effectively.

Danielm80D
Danielm80
movie lover
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Jun 02, 2022 4:58pm

Let me see if I can post a quote from The West Wing.

SAM
You know, you insist government is depraved for not legislating against what we can see on the newsstands, or what we can see in an art exhibit, or what we can burn in protest, or which sex we’re allowed to have sex with, or a woman’s right to choose, but don’t you dare try to regulate this deadly weapon I have concealed on me, for that would encroach against my freedom.

.

AINSLEY
Yeah? And Democrats believe in free speech as long as it isn’t prayer while you’re standing in school. You believe in the Freedom of Information Act except if you want to find out if your fourteen-year-old daughter’s had an abortion…

last edited 29 days ago by Danielm80
Bluejay
Bluejay
movie lover
reply to  Danielm80
Thu, Jun 02, 2022 5:57pm

Are you making a “both sides do it” argument, Daniel? Because the problem with Ainsley’s counter-argument is that (1) the First Amendment, about free speech, is ALSO about government not supporting religion, i.e. in places like public schools; and (2) the FOIA applies to getting information from the government, not your daughter’s doctor. “Our” side can be hypocritical too, but Ainsley’s argument is bad at pointing it out. 🙂

Danielm80D
Danielm80
movie lover
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Jun 02, 2022 9:09pm

Aaron Sorkin is a liberal, so he’s not going to completely dismantle core liberal values, at least not in a three-sentence joke. But, as you said, liberals can be hypocritical, too. For example, I support abortion rights and oppose the death penalty.

The thing is, though, I’ve spent years thinking about why I believe the things I do, and for lots of complicated and—I hope—thoughtful reasons, I don’t feel that the two values contradict each other, or my ethics.

I know enough conservatives to believe that many of them are aware of the apparent contradictions in their values and, like me, have put a great deal of thought into their principles. I don’t believe that their politics are as simple as: “We are in charge and can do and say whatever we want to you, and we’ll crush you if you do and say anything that threatens us in any way.”

Unfortunately, there are also plenty of conservatives who put very little thought into their beliefs, or their public statements. Some of those people get a lot of airtime, and they take up a lot of space on social media, and on this website. Their beliefs may, in fact, boil down to “We can do and say whatever we want.” But when MaryAnn attacks one of their favorite movies, I think something slightly different is going on.

I think some people really do shut off their brain when they go to the movies. They just want to watch the planes perform stunts and fire weapons, and they don’t care that much about the rationale behind it. Movies are filled with basic pleasures: beautifully executed fight scenes and scary people jumping out of the dark and kisses and pretty people taking their shirts off and lots of big guns.

I understand the appeal, because I enjoy going to superhero movies, and I enjoy them even though I’m horrified by violence in the real world and opposed to vigilante justice. But occasionally I forget about that while I’m sitting in a darkened theatre.

Unlike some of the people who post here, though, I recognize that what happens on the screen is open to debate. Some of the debate goes on in my own head. (And, to their credit, many superhero movies incorporate that sort of debate into the films.) But the impact of an exciting film is so primal that, I guess, some people are too overwhelmed to say anything more than “LMFAO” or “It’s the movies!!” And if you do anything to take away that basic pleasure, they’ll fight like a vigilante hero.

Bluejay
Bluejay
movie lover
reply to  Danielm80
Sat, Jun 04, 2022 3:26pm

I know enough conservatives to believe that many of them are aware of the apparent contradictions in their values and, like me, have put a great deal of thought into their principles. I don’t believe that their politics are as simple as: “We are in charge and can do and say whatever we want to you, and we’ll crush you if you do and say anything that threatens us in any way.”

I think it’s also likely that they may not consciously THINK their principles boil down to that, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not the undercurrent of all their arguments.

I sincerely and greatly admire your efforts to extend radical empathy to them (and I particularly understand if they’re relatives), though I doubt that many of them would return the favor. If conservatives could stretch their imaginations to put themselves in the place of trans people or pregnant people seeking abortions or dark-skinned refugees, they wouldn’t be making the arguments they’re making.

And I’m not sure which is worse: a cynical embrace of conservative principles as a strategy to obtain power, or a sincerely held belief in those principles. Somehow, knowing that some conservatives may genuinely believe Loving v. Virginia was decided wrongly doesn’t make me feel more secure in my marriage.

Sorry. Perhaps I’m just trying to say that I have less patience with them than you do. When liberals extend a hand to the right wing to try to get everyone to come together in the center, the right wing just grabs that hand and pulls us closer to the right, and get more of what they want. I’m done with that.

Bluejay
Bluejay
movie lover
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Jun 04, 2022 8:22pm

Also, I highly recommend this interview (if you haven’t reached your article limit yet), which touches on a lot of things but also the underlying consistency behind seeming contradictions in various (white Judeo-Christian conservative) positions. Relevant quote:

The other reason I think we really use that term “white Christian nationalism” is that it connects policy preferences that we associate with the Christian right to an underlying narrative that connects those positions. I think a lot of folks go, “Well, gosh, how can you be anti-abortion and pro-gun?” and “How can you claim you’re pro-life but also be pro-death-penalty?” What does supporting the police or opposing masks and vaccines have to do with being a Christian? It doesn’t really make sense if you just look at it from a perspective of Christian ethics. But it does make sense if you think about it in terms of this underlying narrative or story about white Christian nationalism. And, in particular, I think here it’s important to understand this thing that we call the “holy trinity” of white Christian nationalism in the book: freedom, order, and violence. Which means a kind of libertarian freedom for people like us — “us” being, above all, straight, white, native-born Christian men — order for everybody else, which means racial and gender order above all else, and that kind of righteous violence directed against anybody who violates that order.

And maybe that’s where I’ll leave it; apologies for derailing this thread. 🙂

Bluejay
Bluejay
movie lover
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jun 05, 2022 8:05pm

But why are those people reading film criticism? Why would you seek out deeper discussion of a movie if you don’t actually want to think about said movie?

That’s easy — to police the discussion. As you and I both agree, these people want to dominate the cultural space. They want to impose a hierarchy with themselves at the top. They’re not interested in investigating or reconsidering their own opinion; they’re interested in making sure no one else is voicing different ones.

djconner@gmail.com
djconner@gmail.com
patron
moviegoer
Sun, May 29, 2022 2:44pm

This movie sounds more interesting than I expected, especially in that they’re addressing (instead of ignoring in the usual “let’s pretend Tom Cruise is still 39” sort of way) the generational issues.

I recently saw someone make a really interesting point about us GenXers. A GenX person only ends up being in a leadership role when their innate desire to not be in charge is overcome by their fear/annoyance/etc. at how badly the alternative options will screw things up if they’re put in charge.

fred gaither
fred gaither
Tue, May 31, 2022 9:25am

You clearly need a bit of sorting–in all respects, I don’t doubt, but alas, my efforts must be brief. The movie business requires payment and (very) occasionally gets it right whereby they do a 20X or 30X (ROI) release and this will certainly fall into that category. There’s no big message in (any) movie outside of that parameter– and most importantly there shouldn’t be.

There are no ‘sovereign’ countries except for ours (mine, more properly–as your world-view doesn’t permit the the ownership equation necessary to claim it) and if anyone, anywhere has flat-out ignored our direct orders about some specific aspect of their behavior long enough for us to decide/plan/execute a strike then they damn well deserve a missile in the ass. Any country that does not have that perspective doesn’t deserve the distinction–we happen to be the only one who can really act on these very normal can/will paths. The ‘unilateral’ you fling about perjoratively–is kinda how it works (duh).

Imagine not doing better than your parents? Epic, epic fail. Well…at least you don’t get a do-over in life, for which we will be ever thankful.

Up with a sick kiddo whom has re-awakened and believes story-time is somehow appropriate in the middle of the night. We will resume with Kipling of course. Can’t raise him on ‘we’re all one big dysfunctional family’ rot you see. Off, then, to flog some natives and allow you to digest that things are–AS they properly are–ELSE they wouldn’t be that way. Such a simply concept…

fred gaither
fred gaither
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, May 31, 2022 1:32pm

Rather not. I’m shocked your husband– the poor thing, lets you put pen to such viewpoints. I’m sure he has a well-polished apology when he is confronted…perhaps mumbles things about her ‘condition’ and ‘the doctors say’ as he’s in queue to buy baskets of cat food.

Well, unlike life, you may have a do-over in husbands. Do the chap a favor and drop him off in the desert and we’ll hope the next one takes you in hand.

amanohyo
amanohyo
moviegoer
reply to  fred gaither
Wed, Jun 01, 2022 7:01am

Sir, sir, I have some rather unsettling news. Please take a deep breath, have a seat, and hear me out. I know you think you’re a perfectly rational citizen living in the year 2022, but our scientists have good reason to believe that you are, in fact, a fictional, time-traveling mustache-twirling British officer of the Gilded Age.

I know, I know it sounds preposterous, but surely you’ve noticed all the strange reactions to your antiquated sociopolitical babble? No message in movies except ROI? No sovereign nation except yours? Ignore our orders and you deserve a unilateral missile up the ass? (When you return to your time, I suggest you look up a certain Dr. Freud)

This moving picture is actually the sequel to another film, also entitled Top Gun which released in 1984. That film was financed and supported in part, by the U.S. Department of Defense (known in your time, more accurately, as the War Office). That was the first film in what has now become a sort of Military Entertainment Complex of big-budget, pro-military propaganda movies backed by the DoD (Transformers, Black Hawk Down, etc.).

The US Military does not simply support movies out of the goodness of their hearts. They expect and receive considerable influence – their “ROI” is the delivery of a specific, political message, ideally resulting in new recruits. This is not unique to films bankrolled by the DoD, every film has a message beyond a simple profit motive – even a detail as tiny as Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket showing the Taiwanese flag has both financial and political implications. Oh, I forgot to mention, fifty years after you made the jump, all the wealthy anti-communists in China lost a Civil War, ran away to Formosa, and called it Taiwan. The communists eventually turned into Orwellian capitalists, but they’re still sore – one of your old Cambridge buddies, Milne, created a talking stuffed bear that somehow got roped into the mess and cancelled, it’s a whole deal.

Anyway, this deluge of new information must be overwhelming, and I’m sure you just want to watch shiny planes make loud noises and make the bad guys ‘splode. Stay calm – in 2022 a movie can be entertaining, well made, and emotionally moving while also carrying within it some disturbing undercurrents of nationalistic military propaganda. Fighter jets are beautiful marvels of engineering (as the review notes, many feel the same appreciation for other shiny metal pieces of military hardware like, say… an AR-15). However, they are also designed to murder other human beings, human beings who might, for example, be defending their own sovereign nation from a missile attack, or perhaps human children going about their lives at an airport or school.

Got it now? Multiple things at once: cool and fun and slick and loud and nostalgic, but also icky and disturbing in light of how the world really is, multiple thoughts existing inside of one noggin simultaneously. Hang in there buddy, it’ll all make sense in a few decades. We’ve got a crack team of scientists working hard to return you back to your time. The lead researcher is a legendary nuclear engineer, bit of a wildcard, but his work in temporal fusion is revolutionary. His assistant is actually the son of his old partner (killed in an earlier time travel experiment – bit of bad blood there) There’s also a remarkably diverse group of junior engineers working on his team, even an Chinese American lady who uh, “excuse me, excuse me, who ar-..” never mind she’s gone. Oh well, probably just there for some ROI.

The important thing is that we’re really close to cracking the code to send you back. The final trial run of the temporofusion tacheon core is tomorrow, and all the engineers brought their families to a potluck today to celebrate the completion of the project. It’s a really cool facility at the end of a long canyon in the middle of these super tall mountains. During something called the Cold War it was used as a research facility by the Soviets… honey, honey, put down that cupcake honey and stop pinching your brother. Wait a sec, Sweetie, Hun, come over here a second, do you hear that? In the sky? Am I going crazy, it can’t be, is that… Kenny Loggins?

Lowell Rapaport
Lowell Rapaport
moviegoer
Wed, Jun 01, 2022 11:21pm

ummm, does this mean they have to bring back charlie sheen for Hot Shots: Topper?