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Top Gun: Maverick Shows Changing View of Patriotism in Film

In a short video, Tom Cruise thanks theater audiences for seeing Top Gun: Maverick “in the theater.” It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the changing entertainment landscape.  Despite our enthusiasm for streaming, director Joseph Kasinski’s film was a critical and box office hit.  The critics, for their part, enjoyed the film’s verisimilitude with regard to the ariel footage and cinematography.  

What does the film say about America though, vis-à-vis our perceived rivals and enemies? How nationalistic is this film in comparison to the first Top Gun, released during the Cold War?

Is Top Gun: Maverick “Patriotic”? 

Though the film revolves around accomplishing a mission of the US Military, it is not particularly jingoistic.  In fact, “America” as such is not mentioned too often.  Then again, the Chicago Reader considered the film to contain elements of “military propaganda,”  because…it makes flying a fighter plane look like fun?  Apparently it is sinister to inspire young people to join the military. 

At any rate, it shows how the rules have changed since Cold War era action films, of which the first Top Gun is one.  It was taken for granted that we are the good guys because we are AMERICA.  Russia is bad because they are…Russia (hey, that sounds familiar).  

In Top Gun Maverick, Iran replaces Russia as the antagonist, though the film does not especially inspire feelings of animosity against Iran. The enemy, Iran, is not portrayed as particularly malevolent, except to the extent that they threaten an unnamed regional ally (presumably Israel).  Therefore, their uranium enrichment must be destroyed by the top gun team.   

From the AV Club:

“But Top Gun: Maverick exceeds the original technically, while circumventing naked jingoism in an era when depictions of the military can (or maybe should) no longer be unambiguously celebratory.”

The climate has changed, at least among the critics, such that a patriotic undertone to an action flic would be pejoratively termed “jingoistic.”  Instead, the film is agnostic in terms of nationalism, other than the limited objective of the Top Gun team blowing up their target.  The stakes are more personal than nationalistic.  One might also attribute this to our country’s negative experience of war in the intervening years since the last Top Gun

The Personal Stakes 

Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is supposed to teach the team of Top Guns, the most skilled pilots in the Air Force.   Maverick is a rebel, though, so the idea of being a teacher doesn’t quite square with him.  Nonetheless, he accepts the assignment, as the aging pilot and captain likely has nothing else on the horizon in his Air Force career, something Admiral Simpson makes clear.    

Jon Hamm’s Admiral Simpson does not hide his dislike of Maverick:  “Let me be perfectly clear, you are not my first choice,” he tells Maverick, with that look of masculine contempt which Hamm does so well.  The dynamic between Simpson and Maverick are cliched: the rogue pilot does things his own way and meets the disapproval of his by-the-book supervisor.  Yet we don’t care, the film still works.  

Ultimately, Maverick is promoted by Simpson to be the team leader.   Audiences know it well: you cannot kill Tom Cruise. He is the one who will you have your fist pumping as he shows that the missions can indeed be successful, with the right amount of daring and audacity.  To put Maverick out front in this mission, though he is supposed to be only the teacher, is an obvious move both militaristically and cinematically. 

The Older Actors Steal the Film 

The more seasoned actors, including Cruise, Hamm, Jennifer Connelly and Val Kilmer, deliver skillful and compelling performances.  The younger actors, however, lack inspiration.  It makes one wonder what happened:  Why are the skilled, charismatic actors all from yesteryear?  The young actors portraying the Top Guns are utterly bland, and yet the critics give them rave reviews.  That shows a disconnect. 

Why are the skilled, charismatic actors all from yesteryear? 

“Rooster” is the orphan son of “Goose,” who died through the recklessness of Maverick in the first film.  Now Maverick must train Rooster for the vital mission in Iran, where they will launch off an aircraft carrier.  The continuing resentment of Rooster, played by Miles Teller, towards Maverick is one of the driving personal conflicts of the film.  The critics approve of Teller’s performance, writing that he portrayed “layers of complexity.”  In truth, the actor came off as pouting, sullen, and one-dimensional.  Indeed, his personality is utterly vacant.  Teller’s Rooster has just one redeeming quality: He resembles the actor who played Goose, and so could plausibly be his son.  

Other than that, I found myself hoping that the new Top Guns, including Rooster, might meet with a fatal aviation accident just so I wouldn’t have to continue seeing their faces.   As for Rooster, there must be a way to play “resentful” which is not so off-putting.  Perhaps a young Cruise in one of his earlier roles could serve as an example.  

The other Top Guns likewise are supposed to be arrogant characters, yet it isn’t a swaggering confidence a la Harrison Ford in Star Wars.  Rather, it’s just an obnoxious arrogance.  Glenn Powell, who plays “Hangman,” comes off as a pretty boy but without any charm; such charm as a young Val Kilmer brought to the role in the first Top Gun.  Again, it is odd that there was such a dearth of young talent available for Top Gun: Maverick

Val Kilmer Returns 

The greatest drama, though, happened in the casting of the film, with the return of Val Kilmer as “Iceman.”  Here there is a story within the story.  As it turns out, Kilmer has been battling throat cancer.  The director did not seek out Kilmer; rather, it was Kilmer who humbly asked and even insisted that the Iceman had to be in the Top Gun sequel.  Cruise himself was on board and wanted Kilmer’s participation.

Kilmer has his own character arc as an actor and celebrity, just as Maverick has his character arc in the film.  As to the problem of Kilmer’s health condition and lack of speech, that was solved simply by attributing the same cancer diagnosis to Iceman.

One viewing the film without foreknowledge wouldn’t necessarily be aware of Kilmer’s actual health situation.  True, his appearance is quite different after undergoing surgery.  As the Sun puts it, he looks “puffy.”  One might have suspected a vain plastic surgery attempt of an aging actor before realizing the tragic circumstances, at which point one would feel ashamed for suspecting something so petty.   And considering what Kilmer’s been through, he looks just fine.

Kilmer can no longer speak, and therefore AI was used to generate his voice in the emotional scene with Maverick.  Once a cocky and unflappable star, a now down-to-earth Kilmer describes how he got the role

“It didn’t matter that the producers didn’t contact me. As The Temptations sang in the heyday of Motown soul, ‘Ain’t too proud to beg.”

Kilmer is a quiet, yet powerful presence on screen.  In his dialogue with Maverick, Iceman mostly transcribes what he wants to say, and the camera zooms in on his sentences on a computer screen.  One such sentence: “It’s time to let go,” though only written on this computer screen, may still be the most powerful line in the film.  The stillness of the scene is only broken by the cursor’s blinks as the sentence is on the screen. 

“It’s time to let go.”

With a look of profound suffering, Maverick tries to process the simplicity and the profundity of this advice.  “I don’t know how,” he responds helplessly, teary-eyed.  As a character, Maverick’s sense of guilt is one thing; his guilt for the death of Goose and his not particularly interesting drama with Rooster.  Yet Cruise’s interpretation of that guilt is something visceral and even universal.  That sense of remorse resonates with the audience, in whatever way it might be relevant to their own lives. 

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