Going to the Movies: Flyboys and Flygirls
"Top Gun" and "Top Gun: Maverick"
Seeing Top Gun (1986) and its recently released sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, in succession restores faith in big budget, legacy studio, star-driven filmmaking. The former is streaming on Amazon Prime and Paramount Pictures released the latter over Memorial Day weekend. [1.]
The lengthy period between the original and the sequel may have been an unanticipated blessing. The sequel deftly calls back visual, plot, dialogue and music motifs from the original starting with the text and font of the opening title cards followed by silhouetted shots of the movements—a form of intricate dance—of the crew and planes on an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Other resonating scenes include Maverick at speed on his motorcycle while a fighter plane lands next to him, a sweaty beach football game featuring glistening bodies that resembles the original’s beach volleyball game, and a sequence where Maverick manages an airborne rescue of another pilot in distress
Top Gun, which reputedly enhanced Navy recruiting, is a narrative in the Arthurian legend tradition. In the Southern California Camelot of the Navy’s Top Gun fighter training school, a wise, but relatively passive Arthur (Viper, played by a restrained Tom Skerritt) presides over a pilot/knight round table that includes a Sir Gawain-style perfect knight, the error-free textbook pilot Iceman (Val Kilmer) and the more conflicted and intuitive Launcelot (Maverick) and lesser knights (Jester, etc.) They battle each other and their insecurities in training. Maverick’s wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), dies in a training accident and Maverick undergoes a crisis of confidence. Of course, led by Maverick the pilots come together to vanquish a common enemy in spectacular aerial combat.
The sequel presents the original movie’s F-14s as antiques, as are fighter pilots in the drone era. A chiseled-in-stone Rear Admiral Chester (“Hammer”) Hains (Ed Harris) tells Maverick, “Your kind is headed for extinction” to which Maverick, all swagger, replies, “Maybe so, Sir. But not today.” His career having plateaued at Captain (How could the Navy promote anyone named “Maverick”?) he now takes on a final mission—teaching the intricacies of aerial combat a new group of much more diverse pilots including Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) to prepare for a nearly impossible aerial attack. Rivalries, bonding, snappy dialogue, and spectacular aeronautics ensue.
In the sequel, Maverick continues to specialize in antagonizing authority (buzzing towers, irritating admirals, etc.), heroic self-sacrifice and clever retorts (Crewman: “I don’t like that look, Mav.” Maverick: “It’s the only one I’ve got.”) Even so, the sequel is a much more nuanced movie. While the plot works mostly to make the pilots and their planes confront the most difficult and dangerous flying conditions imaginable, the character relationships are much more complex than in the original. The supporting characters are played stronger actors—notably Jon Hamm as a Navy admiral and Miles Teller as Rooster, Goose’s son—and are more fully realized.
Top Gun starred Cruise and his teeth which should get separate screen credit and are almost matched by Kilmer’s and those of his love interest, Charlie (Kelly McGillis). Cruise’s performance then was mostly movie star mannerisms and tics—grins, smirks, knowing glances. He is a much different, and more effective, actor in Maverick: Top Gun. Cruise, who can resemble a cyborg with his lean physicality—there is a shot of him sprinting in almost every movie he is in—has developed into an actor with impressive range. Swagger, doubt and regret are an unlikely mix, but he makes the combination work.
The sequel, belying its title, is less Maverick-centric than the first movie which was almost exclusively about Maverick, his crises, and how he resolves them. In the sequel Maverick has to simultaneously train the new pilots, redeem himself with a skeptical Rooster who blames Maverick for, among other things, Goose’s death, avoid getting fired by the Navy brass, and ultimately lead the mission. In the sequel Maverick must address Rooster’s crisis of confidence, not his own.
In the original, Maverick is the object of pursuit by the opposite sex. After a staff meeting dust-up, Maverick storms out on his motorcycle. Charlie speeds after him in her vintage Porsche and catches him. She tells him, heatedly, 1) that she was correct in her critique of his flying in the meeting and, 2) that she has fallen for him. The man as the object of romantic pursuit is not a new idea (see almost any movie with Cary Grant) but it is a construct, or fantasy, of a younger demographic.
In the sequel, Maverick’s relationship with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) is more balanced and more grown up. He is not in control of every situation, nor does he win every dialogue exchange. Penny is an independent businesswoman (she owns a popular bar) with a knowing teenaged daughter. In an unexpected sailing scene she literally shows him the ropes. Near the end of the movie there is a shot of Penny in front of her car which is, what else, a vintage Porsche of a different era.
As Phoenix said when the pilots were debriefing the sequel’s climactic mission, “Maverick’s an ace.”
1. The current and more mature Maverick apparently resonates at the box office. The movie’s global receipts exceed $550 million. The June 6, 2022 edition of The Wall Street Journal (p. B1) reports that, according to Paramount Pictures, more than half of the tickets to Top Gun: Maverick were sold to people over 35.