Highway to the pleasure zone: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

By the standards of liberal-left politics Top Gun: Maverick is a disgusting film, an obscenity, a box of chocolates to the military-industrial complex and the nostalgia-industrial establishment. A sequel to an indifferently edited High Reagan Era artifact in which Tony Scott lit damp abs and polished jet wings like refrigerators in The Price is Right, Top Gun: Maverick has Tom Cruise’s name among the producers when he should’ve demanded directing and screenwriting credit. Perhaps George Lucas should’ve too: when Maverick isn’t purloining from the Cruise mythos it’s borrowing, insouciantly, from Star Wars. The Rebels — sorry, Navy pilots — must learn teamwork and improbable flying strategies, most of which involve flipping their jets upside down, quick enough to blow up a uranium stash in some country or other before it becomes, to quote wise old Emperor Palpatine, “operational.”

Well, damned if Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t work like America often does: by a show of will so implacable in its demonstration of self-regarding awesomeness that cooperation and coercion are as indistinguishable as shots on a bar counter. But that’s the weirdness of Top Gun: Maverick: does it take place in America? Is it even set on Earth? Sure, only the United States taxpayer could pay for jets so lithe they can tilt left to right zipping through canyons without busting a kneecap, but otherwise Top Gun: Maverick is unsullied — remarkably so — by jingoism. The scriptwriters don’t even deign to award the hostile forces a nationality or an ideology; they’re faceless purveyors of doom in obsidian TIE Fighter pilot drag. Few things are at stake in Top Gun: Maverick except keeping Rooster alive. The son of doomed best friend Goose (Anthony Edwards before shaving his head for the rigors of ER), Rooster (Miles Teller) is another hot dog looking for a comeuppance, and Maverick’s guilt compelled him to quash Rooster’s ambitions — or perhaps Maverick balked at the possible competition? Either way, the preservation of the American man’s honor and living long enough to bash “Great Balls of Fire” on the bar piano before the mass singalong kills everyone of COVID are their only worries.

At least the risk of a court martial does not rank among them. “The future is here — and you’re not in it,” barks Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm, the requisite tight-ass) to Maverick in the middle of ordering this test pilot uninterested in career advancement to teach a group of fresh Top Gunners what he knows. Acknowledging the changing times, the team boasts women and people of color (including a rear admiral CO played by Charles Parnell as a Greek chorus), but the film is most interested in Rooster and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell, refining his amiable asshole shtick from Everybody Wants Some!!), who like Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) did another lifetime ago prove that men can gleam behind sunglasses and chew gum at the same time. During rare time off Maverick reunites with old flame Penny, a woman who, in the film’s only cynical gesture, does not look like Kelly McGillis but does earn enough running that San Diego bar to own beachfront property and a sailboat and to look like Jennifer Connelly. To remind his team of what real homoerotica looked like in 1986, Maverick leads them in a crazy-ass oceanside football game during which Claudio Miranda’s camera captures the bat shit hotness of the crew without a sense that they’d lock lips in a locker room. The non-diegetic song this time is OneRepublic’s “I Ain’t Worried,” which sums up the film’s ethos more than Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys” did Top Gun‘s.

Watching that game, I thought of Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ beloved 1999 film about French Legionnaires at work and much play. Yet Top Gun: Maverick is the better depiction of male bodies in motion. Why? Loosely adapting Billy Budd, Denis eroticizes the soldiers into sullen abstractions; the stolidity of the performers and the unending stillness of the East African desert froze Beau Travail into a bas-relief. By contrast, Top Gun: Maverick eschews literary pretensions and even aesthetic ones. Director Joseph Kosinski’s idea of mise-en-scène, insofar as the concept troubles his sleep, consists of catching the sweat on Teller’s ‘stache, preserving the sparkle on Powell’s Colgate-fresh choppers, and examining the unholy tautness of Cruise’s cheeks as they struggle to contain his jaw (Connelly’s eerie stillness remains a wonder: a woman who’s been called beautiful long enough for her to shrug about it). Maverick’s favorite fortune cookie maxim, “Don’t think — do,” while risible in itself and emblematic of a century’s approach to foreign policy, is a sturdier contextual framework for this film than Herman Melville was for Beau Travail.

But Top Gun: Maverick is not a ruthless picture; if it were, it would play like an overcrowded Marvel Universe project. Those flying sequences, where Cruise and costars look as if they’re feeling G-forces, are as cool as if you’ve heard. And Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie’s script bring the pathos to a reunion between Maverick and Iceman. Now a commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Iceman has softened up on his former rival enough to act as as deux ex machina, saving his ass on more than one occasion. On paper the decision to use the ailing Kilmer’s real life cancer as a plot point for the dying Iceman looks exploitative, but nobody said exploitation and drama were mutually exclusive. For once Cruise uses his body, conditioned after years of stunt work, to do his acting; he suggests that he loves Iceman and would be destroyed when he dies, which, in the context of this sort of picture and Cruise’s own penchant for hysterics when tasked with the ordeal of impersonating carbon-based life, is no small thing. Cruise and Kilmer’s chemistry absolves the audience of the responsibility of paying attention to the sentences Iceman taps into his computer, the sorts of things which make “Don’t think — do!” look like Montaigne.

When I claimed earlier that Top Gun: Maverick is a film mostly untainted by cynicism, I meant it. As producer, commodity , and benignly cold-blooded pharaoh, Tom Cruise wants audiences to see this movie. He wants no one offended by politics or bloodshed. Adrenalin and speed turn on Maverick and his team, not patriotism. This isn’t an apolitical film, but in the absence of a point of view the whirr and flash of film grammar will fill the vacuum. When Connelly, Cruise, and her car pose in one of the film’s last scenes, the audience sees not an advertisement for the American family but a promo poster for the film; when they board Cruise’s own P-51 Mustang before the end credits, it’s a symbol of our attachment to vehicular motion, perhaps our only truly monogamous relationship. Top Gun: Maverick, to its credit, doesn’t lie about it.

GRADE: B+

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