Publisher’s note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer based in western Pennsylvania, USA. The views expressed here are hers alone. See more articles like this at CNNe.com/opinion.
(CNN) — The following opinion piece contains minor spoilers for “Top Gun: Maverick”.
“Top Gun: Maverick” may be the box office hit of the year thanks to a perfect storm of circumstances. It’s Memorial Day weekend; people feel a bit more adventurous; everyone needs to escape the horrors of the real world; and… Tom Cruise.
Cruise, one of our last real movie stars, is the one who reportedly insisted that this movie, shot in 2019, not be released on a streaming platform. And damn it, she was right. This glorious blockbuster demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and hold on to your popcorn, because the actual aerobatics must be experienced in high definition to be believed. (The academic dean of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics was sitting behind me at our screening. His review: “Fantastic!”).
More importantly, “TGM” pulls off the tricky maneuver of recapturing all the adrenaline and bravado that made the first “Top Gun” an indelible ’80s landmark, while stripping away some of its more toxic and updates (at least slightly) your view of the world. His politics are vague enough that almost everyone walks out of the theater clapping. Who but Pete “Maverick” Mitchell could unite this deeply fractured country?
As much as the original was a product of its time, the overdue “Top Gun: Maverick” manages to be the perfect sequel for now, steeped in melancholy and mortality but still fighting for meaning and glory. It may be the first movie since the start of the pandemic that truly reminds us of the sheer fun that can be had in an ordinary theatrical experience.
I don’t know how long it’s been since we saw “Top Gun” in 1986, but beware spoilersit’s pretty dated: The late director Tony Scott’s saga of fighter pilots embodies the red, white, and blue macho spirit of the Reagan years, with a daredevil hero who literally takes down the Russians.
In Scott’s film there is no subtext. The rogue protagonist is called Maverick. The guy who is cool under pressure is named Iceman (Val Kilmer). The clumsy sidekick is named Goose (Anthony Edwards). The boss who scolds people for violating protocol is Stinger (James Tolkan).
In a movie about a character with a deep disdain for authority, well, here’s some subtle dialogue:
Iceman: “I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”
Maverick: “That’s right, Iceman. I’m dangerous.”
The original “Top Gun” also managed to be one of the most (intentionally?) homoerotic movies of the decade thanks to its sun-kissed beach volleyball scene and male pilots saying things like “I’m sorry about this.” makes her hard” while watching videos of warplanes. But it’s also riddled with sexism, from the way Top Gun recruits laugh at Kelly McGillis’s Charlie when he debates security clearance with Maverick, to lines like Iceman’s: “The badge for alternates is in the bathroom.” of women”.
It’s also the kind of movie where Maverick is supposed to follow a woman into the bathroom and suggest they do it on the counter so it looks sexy, not creepy. I can’t speak for all women, but this is the kind of thing that makes a girl feel like a movie wasn’t made with her in mind.
Under the direction of Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion”), Cruise’s older, rugged Maverick seems to have grown and changed. He is still grieving the death of his teammate Goose and feels that his abilities have been reduced. That teaching ambition that he joked about at the end of the first movie didn’t work out so well. It does not seem that he has fared better romantically; perhaps the tactic of recruiting an entire bar to drunkenly sing with the Righteous Brothers to win his love over hasn’t aged well at all.
What breaks with the sexist history of “TGM” is the adoption of a different kind of masculinity. The film is an exploration of what it takes to be unbelievably good at one thing – yes, he’s still dangerous in the air! — and being very vulnerable in other areas. One of the high points of the film is a brief and emotional scene between Cruise and Kilmer, in the role of Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, now ailing; the former adversaries have forged a friendship in the decades since. Jennifer Connelly steps in as Pete’s old and new flame, bar owner Penny Benjamin, and if there’s one actress who really radiates that she doesn’t take any shit, it’s Connelly. Penny takes Pete sailing, only to discover that he – despite being a sailor – has no idea which rope is which.
In the movie he even uses his real name most of the time: sometimes it’s Maverick, but most of the time it’s just Pete.
But make no mistake: there is no shortage of truly heady action here. The new group of Top Gun recruits, brought in by Maverick for Iceman to teach them a super treacherous mission, are bizarre and cocky in all the best ways. But they’re not jerks about it, with the possible exception of “Hangman” (Glen Powell, in character as Iceman).
They’re also a more diverse group, with some non-white actors and a female pilot (Monica Barbaro) who is never portrayed as being looked down upon or harassed by her peers. Importantly, the film also goes to great lengths, which is quite exciting to watch, to show just how tough it is to fly missions like this: the crushing weight on your body as you climb straight up, the closeness to death you get it destroys the nerves.
“TGM” is the latest project to tap into our nostalgia for action movies and update, or outright poke fun at, old stereotypes. Sandra Bullock’s “The Lost City” tweaked the “Romancing the Stone” formula with a charming performance by Channing Tatum as the beta male hero. And Peacock’s “MacGruber” series, underrated by the 2010 film, stars Will Forte in a perfect parody of hateful ’80s action stars who bend the rules. (The most hilarious sequence in the movie “MacGruber” is largely based on the sex scene in “Top Gun.”)
At its heart, of course, “Top Gun: Maverick” continues to insist on American exceptionalism, on the idea that being cocky and difficult and breaking the rules is part of patriotic heroism. It is bellicose in a way that is problematic: in what reality is it okay for the US to bomb another (unnamed) country’s uranium stockpiles, even if Russia is suggestively implied to be a global pariah? There are some legitimate diplomatic concerns surrounding the film’s main plot point. Although Cruise has said that he never thought of the original film as propaganda, the original film is said to have inspired a surge in military enlistments. And, as Cruise said in a recent “TGM” interview, he and the rest of the cast and crew “worked with the Navy and the Top Gun school to figure out how to practically shoot it.” So it’s not a pro-military movie.
But most of all and honestly, it’s two hours of pure visceral fun on the big screen, which feels very retro. In the best possible sense.