The striking if not truly shocking success of “Top Gun: Maverick” is built around the simple fact that it’s an exquisitely executed blockbuster. It seems to have everything a commercial retro action film would need: a top movie star – one of the only ones left – who still knows how to bend a film around his image; jaw-dropping dogfight sequences that make any hint of fake green screen disappear (because these are real actors taking off and flying); the kind of 80s nostalgia that, at this point, is almost too powerful to be called mere nostalgia – it’s more like nostalgia for nostalgia; a story just good enough to rip out every carefully planted chord of resonance between authority figure and arrogant, Tom Cruise-is-old-but-still-master-of-the-game; plus the haunting presence of Val Kilmer (although it would have been even better if they had let him speak in his own damaged voice).
Of course, what good would an action movie be – one that talks about the interface of 1986 and 2022 – if it didn’t also have a big bad guy? “Top Gun: Maverick” has one. Yet this villain is never mentioned. Actually, it’s not in the script. The filmmakers didn’t even know that. Yet you can feel it watching the film, hidden in the shadows. This is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
All you have to do is connect a few dots. Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell forms an elite squadron to attack a weapons site – essentially a hole in the ground that they must zoom under the radar and bombard with pinpoint accuracy, just like the heroes of “Star Wars “, in 1977, had to target a rare vulnerable point in the Death Star to blast the thing to smithereens.
In “Maverick”, no one utters the word “Russia”. On the contrary, it’s obvious that the filmmakers bent over backwards to make the whole standoff as politically neutral and irrelevant as possible. But to root the film in something resembling the real world, they slip in a telling word: NATO. The Top Gun team is on a mission to protect NATO. It seems – or must have seemed, when “Maverick” first started filming four years ago – like a relatively safe topical sphere for the film to invoke. But the meaning of NATO, since the start of the war in Ukraine, has changed. The alliance has always been vital (although some have argued that it has become moot). Today it is the living epicenter of a global conflict.
But why does “Maverick” invoking NATO automatically invoke Russia? For this you need to connect an additional point: the original “Top Gun”. This film culminated with a battle against Russian MiGs. Sure, Tony Scott’s movie was a popcorn joystick fight thriller, with speed and bravado and rivalry and sometimes homoerotic male bonding. But it was also a film that made a point of reflecting the heightening of Cold War tensions by the Reagan administration. It was part of his package, part of what gave flyboy action its due advantage in the zeitgeist. It’s also partly why critics didn’t like it. So yes, Russia was really part of the first “Top Gun”. He was deliberately left out of the second “Top Gun”, but reality had another idea.
I am not trivializing the war in Ukraine. It is an incredibly horrific and profound human tragedy; “Top Gun: Maverick” is just a summer movie. But the movies are about real things. Hollywood films trivialize tragedy all the time, from the World Wars to 9/11 to the specter of American racism. While you’re watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” the (unintended) effect of the war in Ukraine is to take this utterly fun, throwaway military attack thriller and raise the stakes of what you’re watching by saying to the audience: “Yes, in its own live-action video game way, this movie is rooted in something real. Maybe we would have pretended anyway. But given the current global situation, we don’t don’t have to pretend so much.
In 1986, I was one of the many critics who fell for “Top Gun” for a multitude of reasons – it was the making of music videos! Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were hack producers who had brought an over-adrenalized aesthetic (which didn’t seem entirely unrelated to Don Simpson’s cocaine habit) to Hollywood! All that flyboy preening!
But mostly, I think we critics were pissed that the background noises of the Reagan administration had, with one film, become the demagoguery of high-concept films of the 80s. The whole Reagan problem as a leader (well, one of them) is that he was an artist who viewed “the real world” as a sort of Hollywood projection. Now it was Hollywood, casting Russian Reaganesque bait onto the pop cultural landscape, implicitly helping the administration turn reality into entertainment. And all that to sell movie tickets! No one thought Simpson, Bruckheimer or Tony Scott were secret right-wing hawks. Yet the very fact that they weren’t, that they made “Top Gun” a feature-length Navy recruiting commercial out of sheer youthful expediency, struck them as even more despicable.
That was the line, anyway. But three years later, after Reagan’s absence, I watched “Top Gun” again, on the small screen at home. What I discovered, away from the heat of the mid-80s, was that it was a terrifically well-made and engaging film with deeper roots in Old Hollywood than I thought. Bits were kitsch, but it was stylish and exciting, and the journey Tom Cruise took was real. A film like this needed a villain, and the filmmakers had chosen Russia. I thought to myself again: why not? Should they have chosen Bulgaria or Thailand? The US-Russia-MiGs climax of “Top Gun” gave it a shot of urgency. It was, I believe, a sort of reflexive moralism from the discolored embers of the counterculture that led so many of us to kick the film in the shins for this very reason.
This consciousness is always there; which is why a number of critics have risen to declare that “Top Gun: Maverick” – with its villain virtually obliterated – is superior to the original “Top Gun”. Please! The dogfight scenes are more technologically advanced, but “Top Gun” had a rush, a romance, a total emergence out of its time. And the evocation of it all is so much what audiences are looking for in the new. Of course, a sequel can improve its source, but Bad “Top Gun”! “Maverick” good! no sense. The new movie is no better. It’s a beautifully polished action flick that replays our collective affection for “Top Gun” with catchy echoes of a different America. And it allows Tom Cruise to portray Maverick with an added layer of commentary on his own aging but still vital celebrity.
What we didn’t know in the summer of 1986, when “Top Gun” reigned supreme, was that rising tensions between the United States and Russia marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev had been chosen as Russia’s General Secretary the year before, but at the time we had no idea what a radical transformative he was going to be, so much so that even Ronald Reagan, in tandem with Gorbachev, became a sort of born-again dove of the arms race. Here we are now, 35 years later, and Russia, in a way none of us would have said six months ago, poses a greater threat to world peace than it ever has. been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. None of this was on the minds of whoever made “Top Gun: Maverick.” Yet the movie still channels that change, the same way movies can. When “Top Gun” came out, many people questioned the American military buildup of the time. But part of what people feel watching “Maverick” is an affirmation of fighter pilot heroism. There’s no shame in saying that the movie reminds you why they’re there.