“Top Gun: Maverick,” Reviewed: Tom Cruise Takes Empty Thrills to New Heights


When Ronald Reagan was elected President, in 1980, it seemed only slightly more absurd than if Ronald McDonald had won. Both were entertainers, but the burger clown knew it, whereas Reagan believed the nostalgic and noxious verities of the movies that he had appeared in—and as a politician he attempted to force modern American life to conform to them. Thus “Top Gun,” which I saw when it came out, in 1986, felt like the cultural nadir of a time that was itself something of a nadir. As a film of cheaply rousing drama and jingoistic nonsense, “Top Gun” played like feedback—a shrill distillation of the very world view that it reproduced. Little did we know that there was another, less accomplished yet more bilious entertainer waiting in the wings to wreak even more grievous damage, more than three decades later, on the polity and the national psyche.

No less than the original “Top Gun,” its new sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski, is an emblem of its benighted political times. That’s why, in comparison with the sequel, the original comes off as a work of warmhearted humanism. Yet, paradoxically, and disturbingly, “Maverick” is also a more satisfying drama, a more accomplished action film—I enjoyed it more, yet its dosed-out, juiced-up pleasures reveal something terrifying about the implications and the effects of its narrative efficiency.

“Maverick” is less a sequel to “Top Gun” than a renovation of it. The framework of the story is borrowed from the original, nearly scene for scene; drastic changes, while updating it for the present time, leave it recognizable still. In the new film, Tom Cruise returns as Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, whose call sign is Maverick. Now he’s a test pilot at an isolated post in the Mojave Desert, where the project he’s working on—the development of a new airplane—is about to be cancelled in favor of drones, on the pretext of a performance standard that can’t be met. So Maverick, defying an admiral’s order, takes the plane airborne and, against all odds and at grave personal danger, pushes it past Mach 10 (which, for the record, is more than seven thousand miles per hour), thus temporarily saving the project but also risking court martial. Instead, Maverick is sent back to Fighter Weapons School, a.k.a., Top Gun—of which he is, of course, a graduate—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 assignment is to train a dozen young ace pilots for a top-secret and crucial mission, to fly into a mountainous region in an unnamed “rogue” state and destroy a subterranean uranium-enrichment plant.

Yet soon another admiral, Beau (Cyclone) Simpson, played by Jon Hamm, sidelines Maverick and changes the mission’s parameters. In response, Maverick steals another plane and undertakes another unauthorized and dangerous flight, thereby justifying his own set of parameters to Cyclone—who orders him back to lead the younger flyers. Yet Maverick has history with one of those flyers, Lieutenant 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 history (spoiler), but the dramatic point is that Maverick has to overcome both the distrust and the 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 fatherless young man for whom he assumed paternal responsibilities.

There’s also a romance, perhaps the most perfunctory one this side of a children’s movie. Like the one in the original “Top Gun,” it is centered on a bar. This time, Maverick re-meets cute a former lover named Penny (Jennifer Connelly), the owner of the bar where the pilots all hang out. (In the original “Top Gun,” there’s mention of a woman named Penny as one of Maverick’s romantic partners, but the hint goes undeveloped.) What it takes for them to get back together is a kind of barroom hazing that costs Maverick money and dignity, plus a jaunt on her sailboat where she literally teaches him the ropes. (As to what happened between him and Charlie, his instructor and lover in the first film, played by Kelly McGillis, the new film says not a word.) Their relationship is the hollow core around which the movie is modelled, and its emptiness comes off not as accidental or oblivious but as the self-conscious dramatic strategy of the director and the film’s group of screenwriters.

The first ten minutes of “Top Gun”—showing the midair freakout of a pilot called Cougar (John Stockwell)—contain more real emotion than the entire running time of the sequel, and therein lie the key differences between the two films. The powerful feelings, troubled circumstances, and unsettling ambiguities in the original posed dramatic challenges that its director, Tony Scott, and its screenwriters never met. Their film thrusted a handful of significant complexities onto the screen but never explored or resolved them. It wasn’t only Cougar who fell apart in “Top Gun.” Maverick himself, racked with guilt over Goose’s death, first attempted to quit the Navy and then, returning to combat duty, froze up in midair. Of course, Maverick quickly got over it (thanks to Goose’s dog tags), and his suddenly resurgent heroic skills saved the day, brought the movie to a quick triumph, and aroused three decades of impatience for a sequel—but his vulnerability and fallibility at least made a daunting appearance.

By contrast, “Maverick” allows for no such doubts or hesitations. There’s certainly danger in the film, including a pilot who passes out midair and needs to be rescued. Maverick himself ends up in some perilous straits. But none of these situations suggests any weakness or failure of will, any questioning of the mission or of the pilots’ own abilities. The challenges are visceral rather than psychological, technical rather than dramatic, and the script offers them not resolutions but merely solutions—ones that are as impersonal as putting a key in a lock and as gratifying as hearing it click open. “Maverick” feels less written and directed than engineered. It is a work that achieves a certain sort of perfection, a perfect substancelessness—which is a deft way of making its forceful, and wildly political, implicit subject matter pass unnoticed.

Again, comparison with the original is telling. Whatever else the original “Top Gun” is, it’s a movie of procedure. The astounding upside-down maneuver with which Maverick flaunts his daring and prowess early on isn’t a violation of rules, just a departure from textbook methods. On another flight, he does break the rules, in relatively minor ways—he goes briefly below the “hard deck” (the lower limit) to win a competition and then playfully buzzes officers in a tower—and gets seriously called on the carpet for it. By contrast, in the sequel Maverick openly defies the orders of his superior officers, and not merely for a quick maneuver or a playful twit—he steals two planes, and destroys one of them. (For that matter, the destruction is kept offscreen and is merely 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 lawbreaker-as-hero model rings differently in an age of Trumpian politics and practices, of open insurrection and a near-coup. “Maverick” is evidence, as strong as any in the political arena, that the Overton window of authoritarianism has shifted. This is apparent in the movie’s cavalier attitude toward the rule of law, even in the seemingly sacrosanct domain of military discipline. In the original “Top Gun,” Maverick and the other pilots are told, by the instructor Viper (Tom Skerritt), “Now, we don’t make policy here, gentlemen. Elected officials, 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 likely now, in many parts of the country, be booed.