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Top Gun: Maverick and the politics of the action hero

In its Reaganite military pomp, Top Gun seemed to mark the end of an era – but a new sequel shows it may not be over yet.

By Leo Robson

Top Gun, the ludicrous film about naval aviators released in 1986 and now begetter of a sequel, boasts dozens of memorable, meme-friendly elements. The movie contains topless beach volleyball, topless locker-room conflict, the term “wingman”, the line “I feel the need… the need for speed” (capped by a clumsy sideways high five), the jargon “bogey” and “MiG”, along with infectious songs either yelled on screen (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, “Great Balls of Fire”) or ladled over the soundtrack (“Danger Zone”, “Take My Breath Away”).

The producer Jerry Bruckheimer had come across an article in the May 1983 issue of California magazine, and, with his partner and fellow pioneer of the high-concept blockbuster, Don Simpson, plotted to create “Star Wars on Earth.” A pair of punchy monosyllables was a key part of the formula. Ehud Yonay’s piece – 8,000 words, plus a trio of informative sidebars – had been titled “Top Guns”, a description of the pilots. The “s” was dropped, out of fidelity to the name used for the Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar, near San Diego, though it doubles as slang for the slot that the trainees are all after.

The writers up the ante right from the on-screen prologue, explaining that Top Gun (the school) was founded in the late 1960s both to revive the “lost art of aerial combat” and to create “the best fighter pilots in the world”. Tom Cruise, initially reluctant, agreed to sign up once persuaded that the film was “about excellence”. As Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, gutsy, boastful and haunted by his father’s death in Vietnam, he became acquainted with his favourite type of future co-star: shiny, fast-moving machines. The director, Tony Scott, had worked in ads, and peddled a by then familiar formula of slow-motion, smoky light and synths. Reviewing the film in the New Yorker, the critic Pauline Kael asked what Top Gun was selling, and decided: “It’s just selling.” That was prophetic to a degree. People pre-ordered the VHS in record numbers, bought the soundtrack, Blu Tacked the poster to their bedroom doors. But Kael’s answer was also naive.

[See also: The rise of Jack Reacher: how Lee Child created the ultimate escapist hero]

When the film opened in May 1986, the US president was a former actor whose credits included Hellcats of the Navy, and an avid Red-baiter who had endorsed another slice of late Cold War entertainment, Tom Clancy’s novel The Hunt for Red October (“the perfect yarn”). Top Gun, with its Pentagon backing, its loathing of abroad, its thrusting, toothy, unselfconsciously manic lead and a supporting cast that contained three female speaking parts – Cruise’s love interest and a pair of wives – was steeped in the most Fifties-ish elements of Eighties America. The White House press secretary Mark Weinberg, in his dewy memoir Movie Nights with the Reagans, about the regular screenings held at the naval support facility known as Camp David, recalls that his old boss welcomed Top Gun’s “unabashedly pro-military” stance, and describes a later meeting of minds between Cruise and Reagan – two men, he maintains, who “helped us” emerge from the shadow of Vietnam. Geoff Dyer, in Another Great Day at Sea, his portrait of life on an aircraft carrier, said that he met only one person who wasn’t there because of Top Gun.

In other ways, the film’s legacy has been limited, or at least contained. The critic Andrew Britton, sizing up “Reaganite entertainment” in 1986, before the release of Top Gun, observed a new phenomenon: the brazen desire to celebrate the armed services, “recuperate Vietnam” and assert the primacy of father-son relationships. Top Gun, while a culmination of that logic, was also a terminus. For one thing, it is an overwhelmingly white contribution to a film sub-type notable for the dominance of African-American actors: Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Denzel Washington. And it was totally at odds with what soon became the prevailing Hollywood attitude to the exercise of American power.

[See also: The meaning of Taxi Driver]

Oliver Stone, a decorated veteran, had released one anti-war film, Salvador, weeks before Top Gun came out, and had another due out at the end of the year, Platoon. In his memoir Chasing the Light, Stone recalls an offer from Don Simpson to adapt the California article. “My problem was the content,” he wrote: “a big commercial picture about our hotshot competitive fighter pilots.” But it wasn’t a totally zany match-up. Stone had recently written a film about male excitability full of period trappings – Scarface. And, as Pauline Kael cannily observed, even when “left-leaning polemic” became his thing, it was paired with “a right-wing macho vision” characterised by such Simpson-friendly properties as “gaudiness”, “sensationalistic propulsiveness”, “filtered light”, “romanticised insanity”. Top Gun was the highest-grossing film of the year, but Platoon, made on a $6.5m budget, came third, and it swept the Oscars (Top Gun had to make do with Best Original Song). Stone was a champion crowdpleaser, but of a different kind. Barely six months after that screening at Camp David – a period that also witnessed the Iran-Contra affair – the shadow of Vietnam was fully restored. (“Your film has changed the direction of a country’s thinking,” wrote Jackie Kennedy in a letter to Stone.)

Meanwhile, John Grisham, a lawyer and Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives, was hard at work on his debut novel, A Time to Kill, and six weeks after Top Gun came out, a sometime actor, Aaron Sorkin, heard from his sister, a naval lawyer, about a strange case down at Guantánamo Bay, and started writing a play. Though Tom Cruise made his name with a series of roles in which he gets to be good at things – “He could play brash, energetic, go get ’em at any cost, cut any corner,” Stone wrote – he soon traded virtuosity for virtue, or placed one in the service of the other. He earned his first Oscar nomination working with Stone, playing the campaigner Ron Kovic in the Vietnam story Born on the Fourth of July (1989), then starred as hotshot lawyers facing down thuggery in adaptations of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men (1992), which resembles Top Gun in half a dozen ways, and Grisham’s breakthrough novel The Firm (1993).

In the three and a half decades since Top Gun, tales of military-industrial derring-do have been relatively rare. The blitheness of the Reagan era gave way to knowingness, incredulity, eloquence, a liberal consensus. The revelations of the navy lieutenant Paula Coughlin – the Tailhook scandal of 1991 – exposed a culture of sexual harassment among aviation officers. The closest thing that the Nineties offered to Top Gun was Paul Verhoeven’s savage, satirical film Starship Troopers. Stone and Sorkin became the dominant political storytellers. The actor Tim Robbins, who had a grinning supporting role in Top Gun, directed prominent films about Republican corruption (Bob Roberts) and capital punishment (Dead Man Walking). Pretenders to Cruise’s throne, Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon, emerged with studies in the limits of machismo – respectively playing an arrested high-school playboy in Dazed and Confused, and a traumatised, opioid-addicted army medic in Courage Under Fire (which starred Meg Ryan, one of the Top Gun wives, as an army pilot being considered for the Medal of Honor). Then they proceeded to Grisham adaptations.

Cruise himself diversified wildly, sometimes deconstructing his persona, sometimes relinquishing it, sometimes – in films as varied as Magnolia and Austin Powers in Goldmember – sending himself up. The next time Simpson and Bruckheimer made a film involving the armed forces – again with Tony Scott – it was a more nuanced affair, Crimson Tide, with a couple of scenes written by the pre-eminent cine-literate voice of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino, who had just devoted one of his regrettable acting appearances, in the 1994 film Sleep With Me, to a riff on homosexuality in Top Gun.

Top Gun: Maverick is close at times to a reboot, and that’s what saves it. Jorge Luis Borges, in his story about a fictional writer named Pierre Menard who set out to produce a line-by-line transcription of Don Quixote, suggests that while Cervantes in one passage offers “mere rhetorical praise of history”, Menard, using the identical phrasing three centuries later, puts forth a radical account of history’s claims to truth. A version of that logic can be applied here.

Top Gun: Maverick opens with the same message as its predecessor. Aerial combat is still a “lost art”, but what was once the occasion for nostalgic bloodlust seems, in the age of drones, an honourable form of combat, akin to duelling. Repetition forms the basis of riposte, even critique. In the original, Maverick’s “ego [was] cashing cheques” his body couldn’t cash, here he needs “an ego check”. All this time we thought he had tamed the tendencies enshrined in his call sign, and stayed on as a Top Gun instructor. Now we learn he lasted all of two months, and, though he has excelled as a pilot, never rose above the rank of captain. He is that most un-Reagan-like creature, the middle-aged non-conformist.

Date night: the Reagans held regular movie screenings at Camp David, including one of Top Gun. Photo by Pete Souza / Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

In general, the film’s construction is less carbon copy than mirror image. Maverick has been called in to prepare a group of Top Gun graduates for a geographically vague high-stakes mission. The counterpart to his younger self is Rooster (Miles Teller). Rooster has a dead naval-pilot father – Goose, Maverick’s wingman last time around – and an imbalance in his make-up, albeit the opposite to that suffered by Maverick: too much thought, not enough instinct. Maverick’s position in Rooster’s life is therefore closer to cheeky uncle than proxy dad – he urges him to take more risks. One of the odd things about the original film was that the spectre of a father who died on a flying mission induced a daredevil streak in the son. The knock-on effect was that the putative bad guy, Iceman (Val Kilmer), with the obnoxious quiff and vampire vibe, was forced to assume the role of goodie-goodie, a stickler for safety who was basically right in his censure of Maverick’s recklessness. So while the new film is not as memorable, or of its moment, it’s a more coherent piece of character drawing (the Iceman descendant, Hangman, is intrepid), a more exhilarating spectacle, and, by virtue of not being made in the mid-1980s, altogether less daft.

What, then, is Top Gun: Maverick selling? This time, it would be true to say the film is just selling – at least selling itself, its brand of escapism. “The future is coming, and you’re not in it,” Maverick is informed by a grumpy superior (Ed Harris) who believes in “unmanned” aircraft. Maverick, of course, insists on the primacy of “the pilot” – an assertion that the film supports with its awe-inspiring stunts, its lack of green-screen effects. Cruise has hardly been averse to science fiction. When he appeared in Top Gun, he was rebounding from Ridley Scott’s fantasy flop, Legend. But the new film reasserts the virtue of the mortal and corporeal. Its director, Joseph Kosinski, worked with Cruise on the futuristic adventure Oblivion, but just as relevant, one suspects, was his 2017 film Only the Brave, also based on a magazine article (in GQ), and concerned with the work of firefighters.

Top Gun: Maverick, though it may draw on memories of unrivalled American hegemony, is really harking back to the era of star-led genre filmmaking that started in the mid-1980s, with Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun, gathered pace with Die Hard and ended around 2000, the last time the year’s biggest film wasn’t animated, computer-generated or fantastical. That was Mission: Impossible 2, with Cruise as producer-star, and there have been four more since, with a further two on the way. So the new film forms part of a broader ongoing project, not to replicate Star Wars on Earth but Thor, or perhaps Captain America, without a cape. Cruise is ranging his forces – the influence on studios, the stardust, the various pilot licences – against Marvel and DC, and also the streaming services, rejected as an option even after the advent of Covid. It may be less a matter of reversal or revival than of a last hurrah. “Your kind is headed for extinction,” Maverick is told. “Maybe so, sir,” he replies. “But not today.” Top Gun: Maverick is at once a portrait and an exhibition of resilience. We shall see if the public opts to ratify its message.

This article was originally published on 25 May 2022.

[See also: Terence Davies’s Benediction is a perfect portrait of an outsider]

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control