Americans love the movie-going experience. Since the invention of the motion picture, we flock to the theaters to see and experience the best stories come to life on the big screen. And summertime brings out the best Hollywood has to offer. This past weekend, Top Gun: Maverick premiered to an astounding $250 million payday globally, easily eclipsing its $150 million budget. The film is the long-awaited sequel to the original Top Gun from 1986, which propelled Tom Cruise into the stratosphere of A-list actors.
As critics and audiences submitted their reviews, they overwhelmingly endorsed the new Top Gun as worth the wait. Movie audiences love a followup story to their favorite films, but rarely can directors and actors recapture the magic, even if the key cast members reprise their roles. So what makes the latest iteration of Top Gun so good? Well, warning, if you’re under 35, the appeal might not be there.
Caution: mild spoilers ahead (no plot reveals, promise)
The underlying themes of the film
In 1986, younger adults and children were the primary audiences for Top Gun. The same people who truly loved the film then are the ones lining up to see the sequel, particularly my generation (the 40 and older crowd). Some of the themes in Top Gun: Maverick caused them to love this film, but in a different way than its predecessor.
1. The young upstarts versus the age and experience. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is decades older than when we last saw him. He has a laudable career as a US Naval Aviator, including his work as a test pilot for a plane traveling Mach 10. No one can touch his accolades, but his role in this film is more teacher than fighter pilot. The younger pilots Maverick trains refer to him on a few occasions as ‘pops’ and believe they can challenge his skills in the air. Viewers know how that’s going to end — with a montage of Maverick roasting the competition with the same phrase: “That’s a kill.”
Seeing the young pilots bested by Maverick appeals to the crowds from 1986. The children from the 1980s are now middle-aged, and they understand the annoyance of youth. Those rascally 20-somethings mistakenly believe they have life figured out and we take a deep joy in showing them precisely how wrong they are. Every generation learns this painful lesson and the Gen-X / Millennials are right at the cusp of this age. We get it because it’s happening to us right now.
In a related notion, older generations might also enjoy the man versus machine conflict. Early in the film, a new drone program threatens to replace Maverick’s test plane project. In a few sequences, Maverick works on and flies a World War II era P-51 single prop plane. We also hear repeatedly that what matters most in success of the mission is the “man in the box.”
The 40-somethings, as a generation, are the last to grow up without the internet and understand the value of both technology and human effort. We’re already lamenting the changes in society and the over-reliance on technology. And while Maverick is a generation ahead of us, we are far more likely to relate to him than the young, hotshot pilots.
2. What is my identity? The most interesting aspect of the film is Maverick wrestling with his personal identity. When we catch up with him at the start of the film, he’s still a captain. That’s the same rank he was in the original film. One of his superiors remarks to Maverick that he should be a two-star admiral by now. This point is further driven home by the fact that Maverick’s foil from the first film, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), is an admiral.
Maverick wrestles with the notion that he is not a teacher, but a fighter pilot. It’s all that he knows. Americans in general become caught up in their work. We often let our work define us and fear taking on a different role. The ‘work’ consumes Maverick’s life. Every generation faces the dreaded mid-life crisis, where we question our life, our accomplishments, and the fact that we are becoming older. For Maverick, he’s avoided it as long as he can. However, his superiors in the Navy have made it clear that his tenure as a teacher of pilots will be his last stop in the service. And at some point, every American has to have asked themselves, “Is this all?”
3. Taking chances versus playing it safe. As we grow older, life changes us with marriages, children, and greater responsibilities. The idea of taking chances or doing things we did in our youth becomes ridiculous to even consider. People are counting on us and we should minimize risk.
Maverick’s role as a teacher in this film includes trying to mentor Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller) as a pilot. Rooster’s father, ‘Goose,’ died while flying with Maverick in the first film and this provides the requisite tension in all aspects. Rooster doesn’t fully trust Maverick, and Maverick doesn’t quite know how to teach the young pilot how to move away from his conservative flying style.
Viewers also see a changed man in Maverick with respect to his love life. The young, brash pilot who went into the women’s restroom to score a date now finds himself alone and pondering some of the mistakes he made in the past. Instead of hooking up with women in this film, he explores a genuine relationship with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) — yes, that Penny Benjamin. She’s a single mom who has a history with Maverick and to this point, cared more about Maverick than he did about her. But he’s too old for games anymore. Other people are counting on him.
Maverick seems to now understand when to take chances and act more conservatively. He’s still the guy who disobeys orders to fly an experimental plane, and he plans an audacious attack the Navy needs. He even buzzes the tower once. Yet, he’s not giving high fives and no witty one-liners. (I was slightly disappointed that he did not ‘feel the need for speed.’) Maverick doesn’t engage in trash talking, but rather lets his skill do the talking.
He’s clearly learned some life lessons. My generation loves this because it is us. Life slows us down. It binds us to our responsibilities. Yet, there’s still the part of us which wants to be daring and somehow finds the times when we need to bold.
4. The right amount of nostalgia. Americans are always suckers for nostalgia, remembering those good old days when everything seemed right with the world. Part of our love for this film is rooted in the love for the first film. Everything about the original Top Gun provided a semblance of unity amongst people. We knew all the catchphrases and could enjoy a laugh with anyone because everyone saw the movie. Top Gun in 1986 served up everything we loved about the country. Military power, cocky American attitude, a common enemy, and some cool high tech gadgets that cause explosions.
When adults over 35 watch the sequel, we think back to the 1980s and realize how good it was. Top Gun: Maverick provides us with enough flashbacks to the original film while still standing on its own and showing the growth of the characters we loved. This includes a well done scene with Maverick and ‘Iceman,’ who clearly aren’t the same people.
The mere existence of these characters and their world provides our generation with a great common memory about a time when the world seemed … well, better. Social media wasn’t around to annoy us. Friendships didn’t end over difference in political opinion. Schools shootings weren’t a thing. A kid could play outside. It doesn’t matter that the 1980s had serious problems, or that the adults of that era thought the 1950s were the pinnacle of American greatness. Just the feeling of nostalgia is enough to help us further enjoy the movie.
It’s important to consider the producer for this film — Jerry Bruckheimer. This guy practically invented the summer blockbuster. His resumé includes the Top Gun films, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the never ending CSI television series and its numerous spinoffs, Con Air, The Rock, Armageddon, the Bad Boys films, Blackhawk Down, and the National Treasure movies. Sure, he’s had some films which didn’t pan out well, but he hits far more often than he misses.
Obviously, Tom Cruise carries the move, and rightfully so. Cruise is one month shy of 60 years old and he’s stilled ridiculously fit. Also, critics can harp on Cruise for many quirky traits, but it’s usually not for his inability to deliver in an action film. It never hurts that Cruise performed his own stunts either. What a showoff.
The rest of the cast offers an array of big names mixed with some young talent. Jennifer Connelly is great as the love interest. Ed Harris and Val Kilmer play small but important roles, and Jon Hamm wasn’t on his ‘A’ game, but that seemed due to writing and not his acting skills.
Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman) portrays ‘Bob,’ whose real name and callsign are one and the same. He brings an element of humility to a crop of young, talented pilots who seem to have everything but. Miles Teller plays the angry son of Goose well, and Glen Powell (as ‘Hangman’) appears to be the new version of Maverick.
There’s no denying that this newest Top Gun film provided plenty of action and that’s what the audience expects. The film provides great sequences of military jets flying at high speeds and high altitudes with the best ‘dogfighting’ a wannabe ace pilot could ask. How did the Jerry Bruckheimer and his team manage to portray this? Pretty easy. They arranged for their actors to engage in several flight experiences in smaller plans for graduating to the military’s F/A-18s. Military officials allowed film crews to connect IMAX movie cameras to the jets to obtain the most realistic views and reactions, providing a more realistic experience for audiences.
The landing sequences on aircraft carriers never get old and viewers can’t seem to not stress out at the tone of the radar lock weapons system. Defensive flares prevent missiles from hitting the heroes. Tight plane formations and deft maneuvers impress us to no end.
We love action films so much because it’s a fantasy. Few problems are solved by direct conflict and even fewer in such a timely manner. Part of the movie’s plot includes the mission to blow up a nuclear facility in a rogue nation. Anyone who has followed world events understands as much. Even America, with all its military might, cannot fly into another nation without serious repercussions. But in Hollywood, good guys take the initiative. Less talking and more action. And we think to ourselves, “It sure would be nice to handle problems like that in the real world, because America always wears the white hat and we know what’s best for the world.” Deep within our own minds, we understand we cannot operate in such a cowboy manner, but it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?