About halfway through Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise’s eponymous Pete “Maverick” Mitchell has a romantic encounter with a former flame, Penny Benjamin, played by Jennifer Connelly. They realize that Penny’s daughter has come home early from a friend’s house, and, almost like a teenager, Maverick escapes out the window to avoid detection. He is immediately confronted on the driveway by Penny’s teenage daughter, who sternly warns Maverick not to break her mother’s heart again. Love, romance, and sex have consequences in Top Gun: Maverick.
The moral and social framework of the film reflects 1960 more than 2022. Yes, there is a female fighter pilot, but in the film’s universe that seems to be an anomaly. The admirals are all men; the pilots are mostly men. The Top Gun military is, for better or worse, homosocial.
There is something simplistic and almost quaint about the morality of Top Gun: Maverick. The film is an obvious homage to its 1986 predecessor, but it is also an homage to the seemingly unquestioned righteousness of the Pax Americana of the Cold War. In this regard, Top Gun: Maverick is nothing less than the last twentieth-century film.
For all that is old in Top Gun, there is much that is new. The film’s star power is driven by Cruise, but also by Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm, who are each a decade younger than Cruise. Connelly as a teenager appeared in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth the same year the first Top Gun came out. She won her Oscar in 2002, five years before Hamm landed his breakout role as Don Draper in Mad Men. Hamm’s ability to play “new” men is apparent; Draper is a new type of businessmen. He rejects courtly conventions of the old generation in favor of direct, forceful negotiation. Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson is a new man as well, but a new man who is undoubtedly a product of the twenty-first century. He rejects the daring and risky old ways of Maverick. Simpson is concerned first and foremost with a culturally sanitized safety, for himself, for his pilots, for his institutions. He’s a perfect foil for Maverick, who was himself a new man of the 1980s: risk-taking, cocky, and always flaunting the customs of the hidebound Navy officers who commanded him.
Maverick has not lost his unambiguously American swagger in the thirty-six years since he shot down Migs with Iceman. He’s still brash, cocky, and a bit rebellious. But he’s undoubtedly a creature of the twentieth century. When Simpson wants to make training parameters less stringent, ostensibly for the protection of the pilots, Maverick balks and defiantly proves that the tougher training program not only can be completed but will protect the pilots better in the long run. Although he flies the twenty-first-century hypersonic scramjets, something about Maverick makes us think he would be more comfortable on a World War II aircraft carrier than in the 2022 Navy. Maverick is perhaps a perfect exemplar of Cold War conservatism, a fusion of old and new that gave the U.S. and Ronald Reagan an apparent victory in the Cold War.
The film’s weakness, if there is one, is a lack of introspection regarding what the Navy and the broader U.S. military’s mission is in the twenty-first century. The pilots are training for a mission against an unnamed opponent—a mildly disguised Iran—who is enriching uranium, despite sanctions from the international community. It’s not a particularly well-thought-out plot point, but it doesn’t need to be, precisely because the moral framework of the film asks the viewer to believe in the possibility of consequences, masculinity, tradition, and even the goodness of the United States. The film’s creators seem somehow aware that this belief in the goodness of the U.S. and what was once the American order has died. Why else would the film’s midpoint be a funeral for a character who is a cultural paragon of Ronald Reagan’s America?
Top Gun: Maverick is remarkable because it seems to propose that a sort of resurrection is possible. New becomes old and old becomes new. Rooster, the son of Maverick’s late co-pilot Goose, joins the confidence of the old order with the self-conscious introspection of the new; Rooster knows he’s not the fastest pilot, but his awareness of his own limitations, and his ability to accept them and be deferential, gives him strength.
Maverick also accepts that he is limited. Life and circumstance have kept him from rising through the ranks. Unlike his peers, he’s not an admiral, but a captain. More galling, it might seem to the youthful Maverick of the first Top Gun, is the fact that he owes what promotions he has gotten to his former nemesis Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, who has become the four-star admiral commanding the United States’ Pacific Fleet. Maverick humbles himself and listens to Iceman’s wisdom. We might chalk this up to friendship, but Maverick often disregards advice from friends. Maverick submits to Iceman the Admiral, not Iceman the Friend. The exchange seems more paternal than fraternal. Authority, rank, and tradition not only matter, but have the final word.
Natural authority and hierarchy also have a social function in the film, carrying over into its treatment of gender and family. There is no gender dysphoria in Top Gun: Maverick. Maverick’s relationship with Penny is thoroughly traditional. Penny and her daughter both desire—with varying levels of hopefulness—Maverick to take his place in their family. The only time we see Maverick wear his formal and traditional Navy uniform is when he comes to Penny’s bar and offers her real commitment as a husband and stepfather. The imagery is unmistakable: Commitment makes Maverick the oldest and truest type of Naval officer; the oldest and truest type of American; and finally, the oldest and truest type of man.
Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.
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