Since the original trailer dropped two years ago, I, like everyone else, have patiently waited for Top Gun: Maverick to open in theaters. The wait was worth it and there’s box office money and broken records to prove it. After watching the second of two Top Gun installments in which American fighter pilots take down a faceless enemy with great intensity, I found Memorial Day weekend to be an apt and sobering time for this film to come out.
This is not only because it’s a fun, American summer film heavy on military pride, but because it subtly begs the question: Should America always be the one to come running when the U.N. calls, especially when it puts lives in grave danger?
Top Gun: Maverick is motion picture’s equivalent to riding a roller coaster, which is an appropriate metaphor since going to the movies now costs almost as much as going to an amusement park; and, to be honest, the title sounds like the name of a roller coaster. I love an adrenaline rush almost as much as I love movies, so this was a fun film to watch on the big screen and an exceptional communal experience that I highly recommend.
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It was a communal experience from the moment the ’80s music started playing and the opening credits started rolling. A couple of guys in the front row shouted in unison one of the first film’s most famous lines: “I feel the need, the need for speed!”
In fact, there were plenty of times throughout the movie where the audience’s reactions to particular scenes made seeing the film this way extra special. Whether gleefully cheering for the better man chosen for the mission or cheering for the lesser man in his character’s redemption, or just being collectively mesmerized by this never-before-made aerial cinema experience, this film is a prime example of why at-home streaming services will never replace the thrill and feel of going to the movies.
In fact, I argue that this film nods to community and away from self-isolation insomuch as it shames Tom Cruise’s Maverick for his smartphone use. Jennifer Connelly (who is beautiful in this film; I don’t know why that’s important, but it is) plays Penny Benjamin, an old flame of Maverick’s who is about to go round three with him. She owns a bar called The Hard Deck, which has this rule: Disrespect a woman, the Navy, or have your phone on the bar and you buy a round. Needless to say, Mav ends up buying a round.
I recently rewatched the first film (which I am not a fan of), and it confirmed for me that it does not hold up to its own hype. I don’t find the love story charming, nor do I find Goose’s death particularly moving. I’m convinced that what people like about it is its aesthetic, which became iconic and is now nostalgic—a handsome, young Tom Cruise as a cocky-confident Navy fighter pilot, its ’80s Americana look with the bike, the jets, the jacket, the patches, the aviators, the men singing in military uniform, the music, and a stellar showcase of bare abs in competitive male sport.
The sequel is incredibly shot, but it also keeps with tradition by continuing the first film’s aesthetic: cool cars, an added sailing scene—and now, because it’s 2022—a very poised, tough, but still feminine female fighter pilot that I imagine will inspire a generation of young girls (similar to what Demi Moore likely did in her role in another Cruise film, A Few Good Men).
It’s comedic at times and quotable in its own right: “Don’t think, just do.” The film is satisfying in the redemption of the relationships and its dramatic ending. That’s why we love it.
But why we should really love it is because it’s a piece of pop culture that adequately reflects our current military engagements. That is one of the reasons I don’t think I was taken with the original Top Gun, beyond what I’ve previously mentioned. Although I knew it was a movie about the pilot program and various leadership styles, the generic threat of a nameless, rouge state made the combat scenes a bit impersonal and hard to stand up against a classic war movie—because in order to root and cheer, one must know what’s at stake.
I doubt anyone that goes in to watch this film is going to mull over this detail or our nation’s foreign policy entanglements, but it’s worth noting that this continued plausible storyline of the U.N. called and the U.S. goes running, is, as my friend put it, “so imbedded in our national identity that it’s in our cinema.”
Obviously, the film isn’t about the enemy, whoever it is. Rather, it is about the fact that the plot involves an international body (who doesn’t solely represent American interests) who decides that something needs to die and it’s up to America to play 007 and kill it. This is worth an examination and critique.
While I am not here to persuade one way or the other on American hegemony, we’re about to send 40 billion dollars to Ukraine. And by the number of Ukrainian flags in my neighborhood (embarrassingly outnumbering American flags), I wouldn’t be surprised if most of those who identify with our establishment class thought we should send more than just our mana. To what extent can any of this be justified as being in our national interest? That also deserves an honest examination and critique.
Say what you will about Maverick. He’s a complicated character. But he does provide a necessary service to his fellow Naval aviators—he cares for their lives and has a ruthless commitment to finding a way for them to survive the mission, not just carry it out. He is a man who has counted the cost of mistakes and war. To the military, these fighter pilots may be indispensable when it comes to talent, but they can still be replaced. To Mav, they’re individuals that one could be carrying with them for a long time—36 years, to be exact.
[Image Credit: Paramount]