How Crazy-Ass Tom Cruise and "Top Gun" Saved America
America needs to get back to meaningless fun, and "Top Gun: Maverick" delivers in colossal doses
In a classic Beavis and Butt-Head episode the boys watch a video of U2’s One. They hear Bono’s lyrics:
Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
They see a blurry buffalo running in slow motion through a field of tall grass. “Whoa!” says Beavis. “That’s a big dog!” Next, shots of the word “One” written in various languages flash on TV — Une, Aon, 하나 — followed by cuts to a still shot of a sunflower field, which zooms out, eventually fading back to the slo-mo buffalo. “Is this like a quiz?” asks Butt-Head.
“This is like school,” says Beavis. “This means something.”
Over the weekend I saw the much-hyped Top Gun: Maverick. Two hours of bad-ass plane battles. It wasn’t art. It didn’t mean anything. And it was awesome. I left the theater genuinely sad to be back in 2022 America.
In a gutsy call, considering how high-tech the movie’s effects and roller-coaster direction were, the film opened with a scruffy-looking Tom Cruise — his “real life” costume — looking like he’d eaten a canister of happy pills as he delivered a 50s-style apostrophic intro to the long-awaited sequel. Sounding like a proud Dad, he told audiences to buckle up for “real Gs” and the “most immersive and authentic film experience” they could muster.
Cut to: the most unapologetically corny script ever, but one that works all the way. It’s every film cliché in history! It’s “Washed up hero gets one last chance at glory” meets “Fulfilling a dying friend’s last request” meets “Hand over your gun and badge!” (it’s a movie about pilots, so the actual line is, “You’re grounded!”) meets “Slow-running man impossibly escapes fusillade of helicopter-fired automatic weapons” meets “Boy and girl ride off into the sunset.”
Is it brainless propaganda? Hell yes! In the one scene where an atavistic sourpuss reflex kicked in for me, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson — played by dialed-down Mad Men survivor Jon Hamm — explained the Top Gun “mission”:
Let’s get to the goal. An unauthorized uranium enrichment plant. It was built in violation of numerous NATO agreements. The uranium produced there poses a direct threat to our allies in the region. The Pentagon has given us the task of forming an assault team to destroy it before it is fully operational…
If you want to be a dick about it, and apparently at least one reviewer was, you can do the math and conclude the best candidate for the enemy described is Iran, which not only didn’t violate our joint agreement with them, but apparently kept adhering to it after we ourselves violated the deal in the Trump years. But the premise is fictional, the landscape ends up looking more like Russia or China, they never come back to the politics, and beyond that, the situation is so totally absurd that you’d have to be nuts to be offended by it. The whole premise is ripped directly from Star Wars anyway, right down to the ticking clock before the deadly weapons station is “fully operational,” and the impenetrable enemy air defense whose one fatal mistake is not accounting for the gifted super-pilots of Our Team zig-zagging under the radar to bullseye a one-in-a-million shot at blinding speed.
It’s “just like Beggar’s canyon back home,” or in this case just like the dartboard at the famous I Bar Navy hangout in San Diego, where Cruise’s Pete Mitchell watched flyboys throw bullseyes one after another, even with hands over their eyes. How accurate does the real attack team have to be? “Your target is in an area of less than 3 meters,” the Top Gun pilots are told solemnly in training, at which every last perfect-looking actor exhales in relief: that’s a whole meter wider than the Death Star shot! (“The target area is only 2 meters wide,” General Dodona said back in 1977).
The action-movie allusions are this bald throughout and you’re all for it. The pre-flight ritual dialogue between ground-bound Bernie “Hondo” Coleman (“I don’t like that look, Mav”) and airspeed record-smasher Mitchell (“It’s the only one I’ve got”) feels shot-for shot like Levon Helm’s Ridley character ritualistically offering Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager his last stick of Beemans before he broke the airspeed record in The Right Stuff. Ed Harris, who’s in both movies, does a great job in Maverick of pretending he’s never seen a hot-shit test pilot defy orders, blast past an impossible Mach barrier, incinerate a gazillion-dollar plane, and show up in the next scene walking in a daze with a grease-covered face after ejecting at high altitude.
The only other time my cerebral cortex even flickered during Top Gun: Maverick was during the hilarious swipe at Lockheed-Martin screenwriters inserted mid-movie. The whole film is a Boeing ad, so it made sense, but it was still genius. In fact, the tale of an aging but still impossibly fit Cruise/Mitchell being called back into service for a crucial mission after being deemed a dinosaur by colleagues is a naked metaphor for the career path of the movie’s other main character, the Boeing F-18. In real life the Super Hornet has been written out of the defense budget two years running, only to be re-inserted at the last minute by congressional Rabbis (the legislative equivalent of Mitchell’s sole friend high in the Navy brass, Val Kilmer’s Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, who keeps intervening to prevent Cruise’s decommissioning).
Given all that backstory, the Boeing/Lockheed subplot works as priceless corporate pettiness. When Cruise/Mitchell is asked to assess the low feasibility of the proposed mission, he goes out of his way to dump on Lockheed-Martin’s next-generation F-35:
Sir, normally, with the F-35s flying in silent mode, this would be child’s play. But GPS
jamming throws it away… I think it’s achievable with an F-18.
This line apparently generated controversy among people who care about fighter jets, and I’ve since seen humorously earnest articles about how a Top Gun: Maverick featuring F-35s would have been “boring” because the plane kills too easily, from a distance. It doesn’t matter. The rest of the movie is gasp-inducing shots of actors and actresses perched on vomit-edge as they pilot fearsome-looking planes through supersonic versions of the World War II dogfights that of course never happen anymore. (It’s not an accident that Mitchell’s downtime hobby involves working on a P-51 Mustang Cruise actually owns, or that he and Jennifer Connelly end the film by literally riding off into the sunset in the thing). The audio booms out of this world and really makes the movie in parts, particularly the CLANG!-swerve-CLANG! scenes where Mitchell slams the stick as he grimaces his way through the test course. The plot is so vague and trite and so nakedly an ad for military hardware that it’s impossible to be mad at. It’s just fun. How many things in the last seven, eight years in America have just been fun?
I wasn’t a fan of the original Top Gun. In fact, the only scenes I could even remember from the first movie were the Righteous Brothers bar serenade of Kelly McGillis and the death of Maverick’s mustache-wielding wingman “Goose,” and when Top Gun: Maverick replayed the latter scene I realized I didn’t even remember that correctly. I’d filed away the far more ridiculous Hot Shots version of Goose’s death — he’s called “Dead Meat” in the spoof, where his pen runs out before takeoff, but no problem, he tells his loving wife, he’ll sign his life insurance “when I get back” — and mistaken it for the real thing. When I went back and looked that scene up, I realized it, too, had a “lucky gum” reference, making the heroic test-pilot-movie confusion total:
When the original Top Gun came out in the eighties, America’s culture-war dynamic was still plenty hot but ran in a different direction. Anti-Reagan malcontents (I was one) stewed over the Hollywood-Pentagon partnership and quietly seethed at the film’s makers for plunging millions into a script that read like a two-hour “not just a job, an adventure” Navy ad written over a single Burger King lunch (the legendary “500% recruitment increase” the film supposedly triggered is apocryphal, by the way). That movie did monster box office, grossing $357 million, but even in hindsight I’m not convinced it was all that. Val Kilmer’s abs were probably more of a draw than the dogfight scenes (I’d argue it wasn’t near the second-best Kilmer movie of the period, being clearly behind Top Secret! and Real Genius. If drunk enough I might even argue for Willow). Moreover the era was packed with other great movies like Blade Runner and Full Metal Jacket, so there were reasons to scoff at a jingoistic Cruise vehicle shot with a Navy PR officer on set with veto power over its wooden script.
Fast forward 36 years. Not only are we on the brink of what feels like civil war, and as of this week flirting with real war with two different superpowers, we’re nearly a decade into a crippling fun shortage. We have complexes about every holiday from Christmas to Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July, the president has been severely disordered or clinically dead for at least six years, and the most famous standup performance in a generation involved Chris Rock getting man-slapped by the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
America used to be a global leader in brainless entertainment, particularly featuring explosions, boobs, and weightlifters, but since Trump’s election Hollywood’s been in a funk and spent years trying to bury its baser instincts and reinvent itself as Highbrow and Caring. This resulted in a thousand iterations of self-serious films straining to make the miserable entertaining (Bill Maher’s take on the perfect modern Oscar hopeful was The Immigrant Who Shit in a Coffee Can). Of all the negative by-products of Trump’s election, one of the most subtly destructive was alienating America from the one thing we’ve consistently done well, the lowest common denominator. For no good reason, politics has made a big chunk of the country wary of Cheez Whiz, mud wrestling, commercials about pickup trucks carrying other pickup trucks up mountains of boulders, and a hundred other mindless awesome things in our blood.
This country sucks at highbrow, we’re great at stupid, and since there’s nothing more stupid than stupid highbrow, we’ve spent the last half-decade exporting the most embarrassing conceivable content on a grand scale. This has just made everybody, left and right, more uptight and pissed at each other. When we get back to embracing shark panics, Hang in There Baby office posters, and weightlifters/models blowing each other out of the sky with billion-dollar weapons, my guess is we’ll all start feeling better. Thank you, Tom Cruise, you lunatic. You’ve helped the healing begin.