When Top Gun hit theaters in 1986, it spoke to audiences by giving them a rose-tinted reflection of the supercharged American values of the time – aggressive masculinity, fast jets, fast times, fast money and fast guitars. America really had become a fast nation in 1986 – it felt the need – and understandably so. We had just endured the slow burning hangover of the 1970s. Vietnam, economic stagflation, Watergate, we all know the story. “Peace, Love and Rock ‘n Roll” were exchanged for military might, ruthless competition, and heavy metal. Eighties America demanded a different kind of revolution, which came in the form of a blitzed cocaine-fueled frat party known endearingly as “The Reagan 80s”. The party began unsuspectingly with a one-two punch from Rocky and Star Wars in 1977 – two hugely feel-good movies in a sea of nihilistic downers that reflected the disillusionment of the era – and then exploded toward its zenith with Top Gun in 1986, eventually fizzling out with the austere big-budget studio pictures of the early 1990s (Dances With Wolves, The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump). It was simple really. 1980s America needed a massive ego stroke – and Top Gun delivered spectacularly. It served as a gleaming example of how the pop art of the decade both reinforced and celebrated the values of American exceptionalism and individualism during the waning years of the Cold War.
Top Gun: Maverick shares much in common with its 1980s predecessor. The sunset-hued color palette bleeds lusciously over each new digital frame, evoking a familiar aesthetic of hot, nascent intensity. In fact the movie begins exactly as the original, inundating us with hazy silhouettes of modern carrier aircraft as though observing mythic beasts from afar, coolly underscored by that iconic synthesized echo of a TR-808 drum machine. But then it jolts you into modernity by cutting to the elder Maverick, now a test pilot for a sleek new hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft (hardly a career downgrade), but still the same high-functioning loner he was 35 years before. Though I thought it strange that the aircraft’s nemesis, Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), a Navy “gold winger” himself, would so forcefully dismiss the future of manned aviation to another Navy pilot behind closed doors. But I’ll assume it was just empty hyperbole to deflate Maverick’s ego.
We get the same party-at-the-bar scene to establish our main characters, except the slick neon lights of the Miramar O-Club are exchanged for a rustic wooden beachfront called the “The Hard Deck”, which is actually a surprisingly faithful recreation of North Island’s famous “I Bar”, whose oaken interior is overrun with beer steins, squadron paraphernalia, and countless airplane miniatures hanging from the ceiling. A strikingly well-aged Jennifer Connolly takes the place of Kelly McGillis as the “the one who got away”, whose on-screen introduction is cheekily underscored by David “Goblin King” Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” – a calculated reference that should please any cinematically literate person born between 1975-1985. Connolly embraces the role of Penny with an alluring coolness, without any hesitation toward playing what is a fairly stock female character. Some might even call it a regressive “unempowered cheerleader” trope – but Connolly plays it with such poise and class that it doesn’t matter. She makes the role empowered.
Our band of new hotshots bandy passive-aggressive quips over beers and pool while joyously punctuated by oldschool jukebox anthems by T. Rex and Foghat (although a game of “beer die” would have been far more faithful to Naval Aviation). Their callsigns are only slightly more realistic than the original, with names like “Fanboy”, “Bob” and “Hangman” being true to the uncool and self-deprecating nature of real Navy callsigns. However “Payback”, “Phoenix” and “Coyote” are a little too cool sounding – though if they were jokey metaphors for an embarrassing story or personality quirk, I’ll buy it.
The combat objective is cleverly devised for maximal visual impact – a Star Wars-esque canyon run followed by a treacherous bomb drop into a steep mountain crater requiring an absurdly sharp egress pullup of 9+ Gs. Shot with 6K IMAX-certified Full Frame cameras, the visuals are expectedly stunning and the G forces are indeed real, as confirmed by the constantly flailing seat straps and the eye bulging “shit your pants” expressions on the actors’ faces – an expression every new pilot knows intimately well, and is officially taught as the “Anti G Straining Maneuver” or “AGSM”. Paying the Navy over $11,000 per flight hour, the filmmakers owe us nothing less than maximal authenticity – and they succeed.
Jon Hamm reprises his inner “Don Draper” as VADM Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, and provides the obligatory no-nonsense “Ice Man” foil against Maverick’s inner cowboy. Jon Hamm may be a severely one-note actor, but his throaty “tough love behind a desk” shtick is so natural and commanding, that such criticism hardly seems relevant (Harrison Ford and Robert Redford would stoically agree). The Ice Man scenes were genuinely touching, and played tastefully into Val Kilmer’s real life illness. The “who’s the better pilot?” exchange was a perfect finishing touch, and a much needed relief for a pressure cooker of a scene. In fact, the dynamics of Top Gun: Maverick are much like a Top 40 pop song – perfectly spaced moments of loudness and quiet – verse, chorus, verse, chorus – designed to keep the listener hooked all the way. The blazing aerial scenes are expertly interspersed with quiet introspective moments exploring Maverick’s relationships with Goose, Penny, Iceman, and most notably Rooster – to whom Maverick embraces as his own son, leaving us with the profound reminder that childlessness and parenthood are not always mutually exclusive.
The film’s conclusion plagiarizes much of the same plot beats from the original – the climactic battle where all the training must synergize to assure victory against an enemy “rogue state”, implied to be Russia in all but name. The visuals are of course phenomenal, and make it nearly impossible to distinguish CGI from reality. The intensity of the combat footage is continuously defused by comical variations of “do some of that pilot shit!” one liners, eventually building up to the hilarious climax when Rooster leaves Maverick speechless by forcing him to eat his own advice, “but you told me not to think!” (because if you do, you’re dead, obvi).
The movie then takes a wild turn toward 1980s action-movie schlock when Maverick engages in “grand-theft Tomcat” by somehow sneaking into the enemy base undetected, and firing up an ancient F-14 that is conveniently fueled, armed and in working condition. This scene draws directly from the Iron Eagle playbook and is essentially an excuse to force Rooster to reprise his father’s role, Goose, as the backseat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), shouting panicked expletives while Maverick heroically flies the old museum piece to victory like the good old days. This entire sequence is a breathtakingly shameless nostalgia grab, and a clear homage to 1980s action flicks, and yet by some miracle, the movie still maintains control and keeps us believing. The ridiculousness somehow works, and the movie leaves us feeling even more invested than the original. Gutsiest move I ever saw, Mav…in more ways than one.
“Real” Navy Pilots?
Top Gun might leave viewers with the negative impression that all Naval Aviators are infantilized high-functioning pride-stricken narcissists, and I’m going to let you in on a secret. We are. But most of us conceal it much better than our sensationalized Hollywood caricatures would suggest. It is true that naval aviation wardrooms are filled with Type A personalities, huge egos (often bruised), indomitable pride, juvenile innuendo, passive-aggressive tendencies and faux humility (occasionally genuine). But that’s not the whole story. These wardrooms also produce highly mature leaders, mentors, teachers, and most importantly, lethal warfighters who will unflinchingly sacrifice themselves for any of their countrymen. These men and women endure a high-stress, high-sacrifice profession that necessitates a “work hard, play hard” ethos. They’ve earned that right. And in the profession of arms, pride can be just as much a virtue as it is a vice. Our vanity is our weapon, and drives us to be the best of the best – even when we inevitably fall short. Good natured competition fosters excellence in warfighting, and is a healthy facet to any combat unit – Esprit de corps as we call it in the military. Infantilized or not, these “high functioning prideful narcissists” are exactly the elite professionals you want protecting you when the bullets start to fly.
Top Gun was a clear product of its era in 1986 – a total reflection of its hyper-competitive, high-speed zeitgeist. However its sequel is no such movie. Top Gun: Maverick is less a product of its time and more a nostalgic celebration of its older, inferior sibling. It’s just a simple feel-good American action movie refreshingly absent of any political undertones or social messaging – which is in keeping with the apolitical nature of the U.S. military it seeks to portray. Considering it was originally slated for release in 2020, one of the most divisive years in American history, this absence seems even more bold. Top Gun: Maverick is most definitely not a product of its time, but rather a pariah – perhaps even a bellwether of things to come. And I sincerely hope it is. Because if there’s anything America can learn from Top Gun: Maverick, it’s that non-political problem solving and teamwork…and maybe a little beach football are all we need.
The famous movie critic Pauline Kael described the original Top Gun as “a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster” – seemingly to imply that the movie is all style and no substance. And to a degree she is correct. Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick are indeed simple and uncomplicated movies that, on the surface, feel more like commercials than stories – supercharged adverts for American exceptionalism, individualism, beach vibes and rock ‘n roll. But just like its oversimplified portrayals of Navy pilots, there is more beneath Top Gun’s macho-adrenalized exterior. The “commercial” is also selling us deeply human stories about adversity, perseverance, teamwork, and fraternity – the bedrocks of the military profession. And it is precisely these sentimental clichés that people respond to, and are what imbue Top Gun with its greatest strength – which it leverages by disguising those clichés behind dazzling spectacle and humor – the stuff of all great pop-cinema. And that’s why Top Gun will always endure.