The new film, less a sequel than a revamp, infuses the 1986 drama of aerial combat with present-day politics.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president, in 1980, it seemed a little more absurd than if Ronald McDonald had won. Both were entertainers, but the hamburger clown knew it, while Reagan believed in the nostalgic and noxious truths of the movies in which he had appeared and, as a politician, tried to force modern American life to conform to them. So “Top Gun,” which I saw when it came out, in 1986, felt like the cultural nadir of an era that itself was something of a nadir. As a movie of cheap, poignant drama and jingoistic nonsense, “Top Gun” played like feedback, a raucous distillation of the worldview it reproduced. Little did we know that there was another artist, less accomplished but more bilious, waiting in the wings to wreak even more serious damage, more than three decades later, on politics and the national psyche.
No less than the original “Top Gun,” its new sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski, is emblematic of its politically ignorant times. That’s why, compared to the sequel, the original comes across as a work of caring humanism. Yet, paradoxically and disturbingly, “Maverick” is also a more satisfying drama, a more accomplished action film: I enjoyed it more, but its dosed and squeezed pleasures reveal something frightening about the implications and effects of its narrative. efficiency.
“Maverick” is less a sequel to “Top Gun” than a revamp of it. The framework of the story is taken from the original, almost scene for the scene; the drastic changes, while updating it for the present day, leave it still recognizable. In the new film, Tom Cruise returns as Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, whose call sign is Maverick. He is now a test pilot at an isolated outpost in the Mojave Desert, where the project he is working on, the development of a new aircraft, is about to be canceled in favor of drones, on the pretext of a performance standard that cannot be met. So Maverick, defying an admiral’s order, takes the plane into the air and, against all odds and at grave personal peril, pushes it past Mach 10 (which, for the record, is over seven thousand miles per hour), thus temporarily saving the project. but also risking a court-martial. Instead, Maverick is sent back to the Combat Arms School, aka Top Gun, from which, of course, he graduated, in San Diego, summoned by the academy’s commanding officer, Admiral Tom (Iceman) Kazansky, his classmate and respected rival. in the first film (again played by Val Kilmer). Maverick’s task is to train a dozen young pilots for a crucial, top-secret mission, to fly to a mountainous region in an unnamed “infidel” state and destroy a subway uranium enrichment plant.
Soon, however, another admiral, Beau (Cyclone) Simpson, played by Jon Hamm, sidelines Maverick and changes the parameters of the mission. In response, Maverick steals another plane and undertakes another unauthorized and dangerous flight, thus justifying his own set of parameters to Cyclone, who orders him back to lead the young fliers. However, Maverick has a history with one of those flyers, Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), call sign Rooster, whose late father, Nick (Goose) Bradshaw, played by Anthony Edwards, was Maverick’s wingman in the original “Top Gun” and died. saving Maverick’s life. There’s more to that story (spoiler), but the dramatic point is that Maverick has to overcome both the distrust and enmity of one of the best pilots he’s training, for the sake of the mission, the unit’s esprit de corps, Rooster’s peace. of mind, and his own sense of responsibility for a young orphan for whom he took on parental responsibilities.
There’s also a romance, perhaps the most superficial this side of a kids’ movie. Like the one in the original “Top Gun,” it’s centered around a bar. This time, Maverick reconnects with a cute ex-lover named Penny (Jennifer Connelly), the owner of the bar where all the pilots hang out. (In the original “Top Gun,” a woman named Penny is mentioned as one of Maverick’s romantic partners, but the lead doesn’t develop.) What it takes to get them back together is a sort of hazing at the bar that costs him money and dignity, plus a ride on his sailboat where he literally teaches her the ropes. (As for what happened between him and Charlie, his instructor, and lover in the first film, played by Kelly McGillis, the new film doesn’t say a word.) Their relationship is the hollow core around which the film is modeled, and its emptiness emerges not as accidental or unconscious, but as the conscious dramatic strategy of the film’s director and a group of screenwriters.
The first ten minutes of “Top Gun,” depicting the mid-air madness of a pilot named Cougar (John Stockwell), contain more real emotion than the entire runtime of the sequel, and therein lie the key differences between the two films. The powerful feelings, troubling circumstances, and haunting ambiguities of the original posed dramatic challenges that its director, Tony Scott, and his screenwriters never faced. His film threw a handful of significant complexities at the screen, but never explored or resolved them. It wasn’t just Cougar who fell apart in “Top Gun.” Maverick himself, wracked with guilt over Goose’s death, first tried to quit the Navy and then, upon returning to combat duty, froze in mid-air. Of course, Maverick quickly got over it (thanks to Goose’s dog tags), and his sudden heroic abilities saved the day, carried the film to a quick triumph, and sparked three decades of impatience for a sequel, but his vulnerability and fallibility in less made a dispiriting appearance.
By contrast, “Maverick” allows for no such doubts or hesitations. There is certainly danger in the film, including a pilot who passes out in mid-air and needs to be rescued. Maverick himself ends up in a dangerous situation. But none of these situations suggest any weakness or unwillingness, any questioning of the mission or the pilots’ own abilities. The challenges are more visceral than psychological, technical rather than dramatic, and the script offers them not resolutions but mere solutions, which are as impersonal as putting a key in a lock and as rewarding as hearing it unlock. “Maverick” feels less written and directed than designed. It’s a work that achieves a certain kind of perfection, a perfect lack of substance, which is a deft way to make its implicit, blunt and wildly political theme go unnoticed.
Again, the comparison with the original is telling. Whatever the original “Top Gun” is, it is a procedural film. The astonishing upside-down maneuver with which Maverick flaunts his daring and skill early on is not a violation of the rules, just a deviation from textbook methods. In another flight, he breaks the rules, in relatively minor ways: he briefly goes under the “hard deck” (the lower limit) to win a contest and then jokingly calls out the officials in a tower, and gets a serious call on the carpet for it. By contrast, in the sequel, Maverick openly defies the orders of his superior officers, and not just for a quick stunt or a prank: he steals two planes and destroys one of them. (In fact, the destruction is kept off-screen and is only played for laughs). The essence of “Maverick” is that a naval officer breaks the law but gets away with it because he and he alone can save the country from imminent danger.
The model of the lawbreaker as a hero sounds different in an era of Trumpian policies and practices, open insurrection, and near coup d’etat. “Maverick” is evidence, as strong as any in the political arena, that Overton’s window of authoritarianism has changed. This is evident in the film’s cavalier attitude toward the rule of law, even in the film’s seemingly sacrosanct mastery of the military discipline. In the original “Top Gun,” instructor Viper (Tom Skerritt) tells Maverick and the other pilots, “Now, we don’t do politics here, gentlemen. Elected officials and civilians do that. We are the instruments of that policy.” (Yes, “gentlemen,” all the fliers in the original are men.) In “Maverick,” there is no parallel line of dialogue, and the military is hermetically sealed off from any reference to politics, perhaps because such sentiments would probably now, in many parts of the country, be booed.
In “Top Gun,” Maverick is a warrior who needs to master his emotions in order to serve his country and protect his colleagues. In the new film, Maverick, nearing sixty, achieves this only by yielding to his emotions, not by expressly controlling them, and this, above all, is the doctrine he imparts to the young pilots: “Don’t think, just do. ” That mantra, which his best students repeat to him and follow, is a strange perversion of a key phrase that young Maverick, explaining himself in class, blurts out in “Top Gun”: “You don’t have time to think. there; if you think, you’re dead.” There is a world of difference between the young Maverick’s almost apologetic instrumentalization of instinct and the older Maverick’s exaltation of thoughtless action. This key line, which, following the quote from the original film, seems devised to become a slogan, is not limited to flying and fighting, but is presented as a dictum that could easily be repeated by anyone with anything to do anywhere.
Thinking means reflecting on consequences and contexts, stepping over immediate desires and appearances to consider causes and implications. Not thinking is easy for the characters in “Maverick” because they have no individual attributes. The pilots and officers are played by a diverse group of actors, but the screenwriters give them identities outside of their military actions and have no backgrounds besides those arising from the original “Top Gun.” Throughout the film, not a single event, idea, or experience is discussed that does not relate specifically to the plot. As a result, the stars and supporting cast have little to do and are reduced to flattened emblems of themselves. However, the reduction of the characters to cipher-like mechanical functions is part of the charm of “Maverick,” foregrounding the many extended high-stakes flying sequences and characterizing them more dramatically than anything that takes place on the ground . . Moreover, these aerial scenes far eclipse those in “Top Gun,” because they are largely filmed from the pilots’ point of view, looking through the front of the cockpit toward the barrage of other aircraft and in the face of threat and menace. threatening obstacles. They are some of the most impressive and exciting, and surprisingly simple, action sequences I’ve seen in a long time.
Apparently, the flying scenes in “Maverick” took place on real planes in full flight, and the cameras in the cockpits were operated by the actors themselves. Cruise, who enjoys doing his own stunts, supposedly trained his castmates in the necessary skills of aerial cinematography. However, I wouldn’t have guessed any of this if I hadn’t read the publicity materials in which Cruise and others say so. The scenes of pilots in flight are cut into quick snippets that reduce the aerial views to mere moments of excitement. They are intercut with grainy close-ups of the actors, especially Cruise, grunting and sweating. This amounts to a kind of editing-room malpractice, transforming the valiant and devoted efforts of the actors into an apparent trap, a surrogate experience that might as well have been created with C.G.I.
The most impressive thing about “Top Gun: Maverick” is its speed, not the speed of the planes in flight, but the speed with which the film hurtles in a straight line from its opening act to its conclusion. The flights in the middle of the film are dizzyingly sinuous, but the drama is a bullet train on a rigid track. Both in the air and on the ground, Kosinski is an approximator. He doesn’t let his eye be distracted by the piquant details, and he doesn’t turn his head to hear stray confidence or incidental commentary. He focuses strictly on the relentless course of the action and is not interested in its detours, its implications, its material or emotional realities. It keeps the drama as abstract as the military software and as inhuman as the military hardware that is the real protagonist of the film. I repeat: I enjoyed it, and you might too, if you don’t think, just watch.