The imperial claustrophobia of "Top Gun: Maverick"
The complete militarization of society is sexy and fun if you've got the right stuff
“They bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,
Yet still revolt when truth would set them free…” – John Milton, Sonnet 12
The fix is in for the new Tom Cruise blockbuster, “Top Gun: Maverick.” Critics from every corner of the English speaking world have effectively declared any meaningful criticism of the movie to be the work of unpatriotic killjoys.
Even the normally august seeming Anthony Lane of the New Yorker enthuses that the first major flight scene in the $152 million dollar sequel to the $15 million 1986 original, “glows with…genuine beauty.”
NY Post critic Johnny Oleksinski calls Maverick “the perfect summer movie” that “really takes your breath away.” The movie is also a “Variety Critics Pick” that manages to prove conclusively, per lead critic Peter Debruge, “That we need Maverick now more than ever.” Debruge admits that at bottom, the film is “…a glorified U.S. military recruitment commercial,” but such churlish quibbles are immediately dismissed because they might interfere with so many normative adults having so much adolescent, testosterone fueled summer fun.
In addition to Cruise’s old school star power, Maverick is packed with dazzling flight scenes filmed in real time with almost no CGI special effects. It features a handsome cast of young actors brimming with attitude (knowing smirks all round) working alongside the nearly 60 year old, but still amazingly buffed, Cruise. The new-old Maverick also has a token romantic relationship with Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, who glowingly embodies her 51 years. There is a soaring soundtrack anthem, “Hold my Hand,” written and performed by Lady Gaga. An attractive female aviator chosen as the only woman for the movie’s final mission is played by Cruise acolyte Monica Barbaro, offering a photogenic dash of proto-feminism to leaven the start-to-finish alpha male energy.
Maverick was filmed in 2019, before Covid was declared a global pandemic, delaying its release to May 27, 2022. The marketing has been retooled for the current fraught moment. As the pandemic lingers and nearly 70% of Americans believe the nation is headed towards nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine, the film is being pitched as a form of emotional reassurance to audiences. Top Gun is back, soaring to the rescue in vintage red, white & blue Maverick fashion to take out nefarious unnamed foreign baddies.
Tom Cruise, appearing with the entire cast at Cannes, received a “rapturous five-minute standing ovation” when he was awarded a special Palme d’Or at a May 18th screening. Contemporaneously, a NY Times feature hailed Cruise as “Hollywood’s Last Real Movie Star,” a description that has been ubiquitous during the month long pre-release PR campaign and screenings.
The plot is simple. An unnamed rogue nation has violated NATO rules by building an illicit, heavily fortified uranium enrichment facility nestled in a narrow, impossible-to-reach valley enclosed by nearly vertical mountains. A special team of top US fighter pilots is assembled, the very best the nation has to offer. From the group, six will be chosen to fly three jets on a special mission to take out the enrichment facility. It is an almost certain suicide mission for at least some of the final team members.
Cruise reprises his role as Maverick from the original 1986 film. He is still “mavericky,” having stayed at the rank of Captain through the years in order to remain an active pilot in lieu of becoming a desk bound senior officer. In this sequel, he is returned to the Top Gun training program in California to teach, and lead, the next generation of elite fighter pilots so they can take on this world saving mission. For dramatic tension, John Hamm plays the Top Gun commanding officer who thinks that drones and robots are the future of warfare and that Maverick and his ilk are inefficient relics.
The bad guys are sufficiently vague yet foreign, viewers can easily imagine them to be either Russian or Iranian, although saying so would ruin the fun and limit global ticket sales.
What is going on in this big budget Hollywood spectacle? What is the subtext? Why the universal critical adulation for Tom Cruise 2.0 as a real world Superman? Cruise was 23 years old when the original Top Gun was released in 1986. Can the wizened Maverick of 2022 really save us? What is the significance of his $152 million reentry into mainstream culture 36 years after the original film?
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF NINE G
It is clear that Maverick is a propaganda film, the latest officially sanctioned big budget diversion from a world gone seemingly mad, and it delivers thrillingly. Even the Dolby wired seats in the theater rumble and vibrate to the thrum of jet engines.
Yet within minutes of the opening scenes in Top Gun: Maverick, I felt trapped in a hermetically sealed, hyper masculine world militarized so completely that even beach volleyball seemed like a strange 6K, IMAX version of Pentagon Kabuki. Nothing in this lavishly filmed movie takes place outside the confines of military life and/or bases except combat scenes. This being a Tom Cruise movie, no effort is spared to give the film a feeling of veritas, yet the overall effect is suffocating, not liberating.
Top Gun: Maverick is perhaps the greatest propaganda film ever made, in no small part because it received nearly unprecedented support from the US Dept. of Defense and Navy.
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the War Zone produced 84 pages of documents detailing the assistance. It included the use of two Naval aircraft carriers, multiple US Navy bases, a large team of expert military advisors, dozens of vintage jets and an equal number of newer jets representing the latest ultra cutting edge military aviation technology.
The FOIA contracts cover secrecy and make allowances for production delays due to "unforeseen contingencies affecting national security.” It is very much a co-production between the Pentagon, A-list Hollywood producers (Cruise among them.), distributor Paramount Pictures and global entertainment media, an alliance described by international security expert James Der Derian as the “Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network.”
Despite this surfeit of official resources, the film’s two hours plus of soaring Hollywood and Pentagon technical brilliance are no match for the existential dread waiting for viewers outside the cineplex, where they confront looming nuclear war, a seemingly permanent global pandemic, worldwide food and energy shortages and surging criminal violence.
Above all else, the movie reflects and embodies the nearly complete merger of technocracy and militarization in US, and by extension global, society. The 2022 US military budget is a record $813 billion, exceeding the combined military spending of the next nine largest nations. Led by the US, worldwide military spending in 2022 exceeded $2 trillion for the first time in history.
It is possible that the absurdist, almost cartoonish military ethos of Top Gun: Maverick will inadvertently serve as its own antidote. The combination of technically complex but morally simplistic filmmaking ends up unintentionally lampooning the increasingly obsolete world view it was designed to celebrate. Maverick has still got game at nearly 60 years, but the real world has overtaken him.