Not much has changed for Naval Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the last thirty-six years. Despite a well-decorated career as one of the world’s most skilled jet pilots, he has passed on promotions that would gain him prestige but take him out of the air. He doesn’t belong behind a desk delivering orders, he prefers to be in the cockpit, breaking the sound barrier and barrel-rolling through the clouds. Top Gun: Maverick opens with him performing a test flight on a new hypersonic scamjet called “Darkstar”. His superior, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris, in a moody, two-scene part), wants the program shut down so funds can be rerouted to his drone program. Hammer sees a future where the Navy no longer needs pilots, a future that will make men like Maverick obsolete. As Maverick sits in Darkstar, waiting to take off against Cain’s orders, he’s asked by his right-hand man, Hondo (Bashir Salahuddin), “Do you understand what will happen to you if you do this?” Maverick cooly responds, “I know what will happen to you guys if I don’t”.
And that is how, in its opening scene, Top Gun: Maverick sets up the film’s central metaphor. Maverick is, of course, played by Tom Cruise, our greatest living movie star, the one most committed to the quickly-rotting dream of the theater-going experience. Cruise has made no secret about wanting to reignite the public’s fervor for going to the movies. This is one of the main reasons why this film’s release was postponed by over two years, to sidestep a pandemic that first forced people to watch movies at home and has now left many skittish to go out for anything that isn’t a superhero event. Cruise is his own superhero brand, and part of that brand is propping up Cruise’s own messianic vision of himself. It’s not just that Maverick is defying orders so he can do what’s best for his crew; this is Cruise defying general wisdom to get your butt back into movie theater seats. His legendary ego has powered all his films since the beginning, but Maverick may be his greatest testament to himself, and his ability effect the culture.
Whatever you may think about Cruise’s personal life (and there’s a lot to poke through), it’s difficult to argue against his devotion to his films. He may think he is the center of the universe, but he has always leveraged that to make his films better, more exciting, and more thoroughly entertaining, which is more than can be said for most overinflated, self-important Hollywood figures. There is always a portion of his film’s budget allocated for endless media regarding how he performs his own stunts, and the implication is simple: he is willing to put himself through so much for us. The tone of his movies did start to shift in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the most bombastic film in the beloved film series, but also the first to introduce Cruise’s mortality. At nearly 60, Cruise can no longer claim to be the spry, unbreakable man he presented in the first Top Gun in 1986 or even the first Mission: Impossible in 1996. Fallout introduced us to a version of Cruise who realizes that he’s closer to the end than he is to the beginning, that understands that he must start building the foundation of what he’ll eventually leave behind.
This is ends up being a pretty major part of Top Gun: Maverick, which shows us a Pete Mitchell whose cockiness is only present behind the engine of a jet liner, who no longer wears out his welcome with obnoxious bloviating about his own excellence. He’s no longer the Maverick who endangers his fellow pilots with displays of death-defying stunts, but one who wants to put himself in the air so others don’t have to. This makes his latest order that much more difficult to take. Called upon by his former rival turned close friend, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer, in a role mostly off camera, but with one very emotional scene), Maverick is asked to train the latest and greatest crop of Top Gun graduates to perform an impossible mission (all of the puns intended). A uranium enrichment plant is close to being finished in the middle of some unknown country (a missing detail that illustrates the stridently apolitical stance of its narrative). It’s location is the base between two high mountains, a perfect sanctum for a super secret layer.
Add to the fact that the plant is protected by stationary missiles as well as nearby defensive jets, destroying this target is sure to end up in American casualties. Putting aside his own reservations about being a competent teacher, Maverick takes the job in respect for Iceman, but he meets immediate resistance from Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm, in elite douchebag mode), who sees Maverick as an imperfect choice. The pilots come from across the US. There’s Hangman (Glen Powell), a braggadocious hotshot who manages to be an even more grating version of a young Maverick. Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) is the sole woman in the crew – which is essentially the beginning and end of her characterization. Bob (Lewis Pullman) is a glasses-wearing runt who is the butt of a lot of jokes – he doesn’t even get a call name. Then there’s Rooster (Miles Teller), or Bradley Bradshaw, the son of Nick Bradshaw or “Goose”, Maverick’s closest friend whose death is the emotional stinger of the first Top Gun. There is a lot of unspoken tensions between Rooster and Maverick, adding just another impediment to this already challenging mission.
Maverick‘s script (by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie) is pretty standard stuff. Maverick is forced to confront the sins of his past and his guilt over Goose’s death. This is given a physical manifestation in Teller’s Rooster, who has his own issues with hesitancy while in the air. The reckless Hangman is quick to heckle the precise but passive Rooster. “Don’t think,” Maverick tries to tell Rooster, but Maverick is the last person he’s interested in getting advice from. Finding a peace with Rooster may finally be the thing that helps Maverick forgive himself for Goose’s death. There’s also a love plot. Jennifer Connelly plays Penny, a bar owner with a romantic history with Maverick. It’s a thankless role for Connelly, pining after a Maverick whose gone silent on her in the past, though she hides it behind a veneer of sarcasm. This is far from a part worthy of the Oscar-winning actress, but she manages to walk away with her dignity.
The press for Maverick has been heavy on mentioning its use of real jets, and that is an element that pays real dividends. Cruise’s insistence on doing his own stunts (and flying his own planes) gives all his movies an intensity and an authenticity in an era where CGI has become so prolific that audiences don’t even recognize how uncanny most mainstream movies look. Director Joseph Kosinski gives Top Gun: Maverick a slickness that tips its hat to the late Tony Scott who directed the first film, but this movie is pure Cruise, through and through. The success of his more recent collaborations hinge on the ability of filmmakers to give the creative control to our greatest living movie star, a strategy that has produced some of the best Hollywood films of the last thirty years. I wouldn’t call Tom Cruise the real director of Top Gun: Maverick, but it’s clear that he’s the boss, and his message is clear: just as drones could never replace a great pilot, streaming could never replace having a great time at the movies.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski