“Top Gun: Maverick” – A Navy pilot’s take on the Great American Advert

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.

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.

Conclusion:

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.


“The Last Jedi” and the New Aesthetic of Star Wars

Upon leaving the theater from The Last Jedi, I was immediately struck by two questions – 1.) Did Star Wars change or did I change? And 2.) Did people feel the same way about The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?

I’ll admit, my expectations for this movie were enormous, especially after 2016’s masterful Rogue One. The epic title, the crimson-hewn poster art, the badass trailers– all implied a sense of hugeness and gravity.  Given the events of Episode IX have yet to occur, my opinion of this movie could completely change; and I wholeheartedly commend Rian Johnson for attempting to sate our desire for a “unique” movie. However The Last Jedi underwhelms because it fails to capture the tonally mature, carefully-paced elegance of the originals – which I contend is the subconscious reason people, including children, fell in love with Star Wars in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of things I liked about the movie; however The Last Jedi is ultimately a double letdown of both story and storytelling. The film is marred by too many awkward moments of humor and goofy plot beats, while severely lacking in exposition, character development and artful dialogue – the latter two being the hallmarks of a great second act. It was alike and different from the classics in all the wrong ways. The fundamental reason why so many sequels fail (which is a whole new discussion) is because the new creators fail to understand what made the originals so great. Disney appears to be no different.

The Story

Before touching on aesthetics, let’s first discuss some structural problems with the plot. First, the story feels fundamentally hollow due to a lack of exposition for the good guys (The Force Awakens is partially to blame). We’ve seen Return of the Jedi, and are owed some explanation. Without it, the good guys feel like weightless carbon copies from the original trilogy (and no, the originals owed us nothing because no prior canon existed to Star Wars in 1977).  We can’t empathize with the Rebellion “Resistance” because we still have no explanation (literally zero) of their origin or motive. Why was a resistance even necessary after, just 30 years prior, pulling off the most kick-ass guerilla military operation in the galaxy? What was the New Republic government even like and why is it worth fighting for? Where the hell were the mighty fleets of the New Republic and why were they concentrated so finely that they could be wholly destroyed by a few superlasers from The Deathstar Starkiller Base? The easy answer is that the New Republic was a pacifist government that dismantled its weapons and only kept a token fleet for defense (and apparently a worthless intelligence agency). Such naïve rationale would make even the peace-loving Captain Picard facepalm himself in dismay. Disney could have at least honored the legacy of Return of the Jedi by giving us a simple 5-minute flashback (Lord of the Rings style) on the post-war events after Episode VI. This could of been easily accomplished by a short dialogue between Rey and Han/Luke/Leia.  Doing so would have provided the critical weight in helping us believe in that “spark” to ignite this new rebellion (or is it resistance?).

star-wars-the-last-jedi-images-000

Problem Number Two – There is basically zero relationship between Luke and Rey, and zero training accomplished. She shows up, Mark Hamill plays a cynical version of himself (which is sort of entertaining for a while but awkward for the movie), she swings a lightsaber at a rock, force-skypes with Kylo and leaves. This feels more like reality TV than epic storytelling.  Most criminal of all, the movie completely omits any semblance of the “hero’s journey” for young Rey.  After ditching Luke, she cordially meets bad-guy Kylo with whom she teams up to defeat a Sith master with little more than a scratch (although the lightsaber battle is really cool and the movie’s highlight). This narrative would have been far, far more satisfying had they been brother and sister, but I digress. She then heroically flies the Millennium Falcon into battle and rescues the surviving Resistance fighters by effortlessly force-lifting a ton of rocks (a feat even Luke would have struggled with as a trained apprentice).

Wow. Disney, I get you’re trying to be “different”, but there is nothing epic about telling a story of a kid who, unchallenged, “figures it out on their own”. It is neither inspiring nor relatable, and does a disservice to young viewers. And while I vehemently maintain that “relatability” is not a prerequisite for good art, it is a very powerful storytelling element whose omission is painfully absent in Rey’s development. Aside from an apparently painful mind-meld with Snoke and receiving some bad parental news (which she already knew), Rey achieves success without any suffering, failure, or catharsis (could this be Disney’s cruel play to the “entitled millennial” stereotype?). She better be the second-coming of Yoda or Jesus Christ to be this adept in The Force without a teacher. In fact, doesn’t Yoda even say that “failure is the greatest teacher” in the movie?! While Rey’s competence with a lightsaber is conceivable given her skill with a staff, her self-mastery of the Force is uninspired, unrelatable and ultimately detracts from the beauty of the story. Daisy Ridley is a dynamite actress and her portrayal of Rey is fantastic. Her character deserves far more complexity from the script.

Daisy-Ridley-Rey-Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi-Photo-High-Quality

So…is she ever gonna get her ass kicked?

Supporters of the movie will likely celebrate its “punk” sensibility– how it seems to push the confines of epic storytelling (the three act structure, the hero’s journey, etc). However I would argue that these inspirational elements are hardly a “limitations” at all, but fundamental ingredients like sugar and salt, from which thousands of recipes can be made. It is still possible to craft a unique story without sacrificing these classic themes, and to think otherwise just seems intellectually lazy.  Yes the story was different, but not in a satisfying way. Disney promised us Rocky. What we got was a super-hero movie reboot. Looks like they’re saving the heavy-lifting for Episode IX!

Aesthetics

Even despite these annoying plot issues, I would argue The Last Jedi still could have been a great movie had Disney simply been more respectful of the tone of the classics. While lighthearted at times, the originals were fundamentally serious movies about suffering, faith, warfare and heroism. Perhaps a product of the post-Vietnam milieu, Lucas masterfully blended dark and adult themes with tasteful moments of humor (a skill he apparently lost for the prequels).  The solemnity of The Last Jedi is beleaguered by far too many awkward, ill-timed moments of slapstick that rob the film of any sense of tonal majesty.  For example, the scene on the cliff where Rey is practicing her hot lightsaber moves started swelling up as this gorgeous scene of badassery and focus…and then stalls when she accidentally cuts the stone in half, nearly hitting two of those goofy bipedal bird aliens. *facepalm*. Let’s not forget that classy montage (soon to be a meme) where “Jeremiah Johnson” Luke awkwardly milks the teat of a dopey-looking sea cow with Rey watching in confusion. And of course the scene where Mark Hamill (playing himself) tickles Rey’s hand as she “reaches out to The Force” – which is actually really funny but robs the scene of the dignity it deserves. What should be a movie rich with meaty, elegant dialogue discussing the complexity of The Force, is reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. Granted, as a young child watching The Empire Strikes Back I remember getting bored with all the Yoda training scenes on Dagobah. However as I grew up, those scenes quickly became my favorite part of the entire trilogy. Those philosophical exchanges between Hamill and Oz in the misty Dagobah jungle reign as some of the most artful and transcendent lines of dialogue I’ve ever witnessed from science fiction.

Yodalukedagobah

And it wasn’t just the Luke and Rey scenes, but countless more off-color distractions such as the General Hux phone prank scene, gravity-falling bombs (in space), Finn dumbly walking around in a leaking suit, Rey scolding a shirtless Kylo, and the cringe-worthy horse-alien rescue on Canto Bight (a scene that felt more befitting the disastrous Episode I). And of course the watered-down battle of Hoth Krayt that seemed more concerned with promoting the weird narrative of Finn and Rose than depicting the realities of combat.

However I will grant that the final Luke Skywalker scenes were pretty cool and befitting the grandeur of his character. The lightspeed kamikaze was wicked cool too. Also, the Snoke and Kylo scenes were fantastic, and I loved how Snoke (brilliantly voiced) immediately addresses the “elephant in the room” by rightfully eschewing Kylo for being defeated by an untrained girl, not to mention mocking his Vader-wannabe mask. The Leia resurrection scene was also masterfully done, and a heartbreaking ode to Carrie Fisher’s famous request to “die in the moonlight strangled by my own bra.” (I held back tears on all three viewings).

Chuck Klosterman, in his book of “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs”, fascinatingly deconstructs the symbolic importance of The Empire Strikes Back as the cultural moment that marked the ascendance of Generation X. The rebellion is in retreat, the fate of the galaxy uncertain, and our hero forced to cope with a major identity crisis (sound familiar?). Emotionally heavy, cynical and bleak, Empire masterfully tells a coming-of-age tale that mirrors the Gen-X aesthetic with chilling accuracy. However there’s a frustrating irony in that the Gen X-ers helming the New Star Wars seem incapable of replicating the weightier tone of the classics they grew up with, Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards notwithstanding – but maybe they deliberately don’t want to?  As a millennial myself (who identifies as Boomer), I can’t help but wonder if The Last Jedi is serving the same cultural purpose for my generation as Empire did for Gen-X? A movie coddled by cutesy jokes, emo entitlement (Kylo) and unearned success (Rey), could The Last Jedi be Disney’s cruel affirmation (or mockery) of the millennial stereotype? Its nihilistic motif of “letting the past die” also seems eerily reminiscent of our “post-truth” Trump moment and its crusade against old institutions of media, politics and government.

But maybe the haters just don’t understand The Last Jedi? Maybe it’s just too artsy, too intellectual?  Or maybe our adult-centric view of Star Wars is wrong and that it really is meant to be nothing more than lightweight children’s fare? Who are we to demand more substance from the new stories? Maybe it will be us millennials who will triumphantly bring Star Wars back to its roots? But seeing as we’ve nearly killed rock ‘n roll, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

good-times-on-hoth

May We Honor Their Legacy