With countless commercials ignored (much to the ire of the person sitting two seats over), and a long parade of trailers gotten through, Top Gun: Maverick . . . does not begin. Instead, we get a sort of personal thank you from the movie’s star, Tom Cruise, who plays the legendary Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. I suppose we deserve thanks. After waiting for this film for, what, over two years now, a few more ads would be enough to send my antsy neighbor over the edge. This is a true story, too. The guy got up to complain to the theater staff about the film not starting at the proper time, muttering about the legality of the situation. Hopefully, Cruise’s totally sincere thanksgiving (ahem!) assuaged this poor man’s anger. Then again, there was the guy in the row in front of me. As the astonishingly aging actor tells us how they did this movie for us, the person in front of me chimed in with a more cynical version of these sentiments: a whole bunch of money. As for me, I found it exciting, the antics of my fellow moviegoers and the film.
For the rest of this review of Top Gun: Maverick, I will be referring to the pilots, after their initial introductions, by their call signs. Why? Because that is who they are born to be, a running theme in the film. Maverick is still just that, if you remember his character from thirty-five years ago. His work is now mostly centered on testing jets for the Navy. Yet, when he gets to base for the last few test flights, he is told that a ranking officer, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), is coming to shut down their project. Instead, living up to his call sign, Maverick takes the experimental craft out and puts it through the paces. As you can imagine, Hammer is not pleased, but Maverick has his own friends in high places. The principal of these well-connected confidants is his former rival from the last movie, the now Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Instead of being summarily kicked out of the military, once again Maverick is called upon to perform one more duty. He is sent back to the famous Top Gun school, not to instruct pilots in the elite fighter training program, but to work with the best aviators in the Navy to train them for a dangerous mission. Upon arrival, the commander overseeing the operation, Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), makes it clear that Maverick is not his first or last choice. This will not be Maverick’s only problem. Among the candidates is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). If you do not recognize that name, do not worry. The movie will remind you numerous times that Rooster’s father had been Lieutenant Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), who had been Maverick’s co-pilot. The tension between Maverick and Rooster, though, does not pertain to Goose’s death, which was in the last movie and partially Maverick’s fault. Instead, Maverick had held Rooster out from attending the United States Naval Academy at the request of Rooster’s mother. Despite their history, Maverick goes on to begin preparing the fighter pilots for the daring mission ahead of them. Maverick pushes them hard, and despite his age and their youthful, overly-exuberant confidence, is able to defeat them at every turn. It is Iceman that points out that Maverick is driving his team too hard, and that instead he needs to get them to rely more on each other than believing that each one of them is the best on their own. Still, the one that that is defeating them most is the physical demands of the course of action Maverick proposes for taking out their intended target. Numerous test runs all end in failure on their part. Further, Iceman passes away while they are in the middle of their training, and their window for taking out the target gets pushed up a week. Also, during one of the exercises, one of the recruits, Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), accidentally runs into some birds and has to ditch her F-18. The blame for the failure and the loss of equipment are all heaped upon Maverick by Cyclone, and he is told to stand down. What turns things around is a talk from his love interest, a former flame briefly mentioned in the previous movie, Penelope “Penny” Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). She reminds him of his need to fight for his pilots. As a result, he basically steals an F-18 and completes the simulated bombing run on his own, faster than his original prescribed time. With him having proved his point, he is reinstated and told that he must lead the mission he planned. All goes according to schedule until after their target has been destroyed and they are on the way back to the aircraft carrier from which they launched. Doing so puts them in range of the surface to air missiles (SAMs) they had previously avoided, not to mention enemy fighters patrolling the area. Maverick sacrifices his fighter to saves Rooster, and then Rooster is shot down protecting Maverick. Now on the ground, the two of them sneak onto the enemy hangar their military had just destroyed and steal an aging F-14 and manage to take off in it. The only obstacle now to their safe return are the two fighters they had previously dodged. Maverick destroys both of them in an intense dogfight, but a third one almost takes them out . . . until they are saved by another fighter from the carrier. This clears the way for Maverick to go home to Penny and a happy ending.
It is amazing how sensibilities change, and yet remain the same. The first Top Gun (1986) was all about the “need for speed” and a number of other fighter pilot clichés. Top Gun: Maverick has its main character being a little more pensive than he was in his twenties. The fighter jockey attitude is still there, but it is provided by the younger cast. In my discussion of the plot, I mentioned how the main theme of film is about being who you are, who you are born to be. As such, I ask you to find a character arc for Maverick. The one who has one is Rooster, who learns to trust Maverick. It is Maverick who tells Rooster that thinking is essentially death to a fighter pilot. It is a little hard to imagine the development of a character whose guiding principle is: do not think. All the same, you do not watch the film for solid character studies. You watch it for the slick fighter maneuvers. Going into it, I thought we were going to see Maverick die. When he saved Rooster, Maverick nearly did die. The problem with my logic was in me thinking there would be some development. It is intense action you want, and it is intense action you get.
This is not to say that Top Gun: Maverick is not without value. Sure, the notion of just being yourself would seem to suggest that character growth is not possible. If you are fully who you are, whether that be Maverick or the queen of Spain, the idea is that you should be satisfied. That is what society would tell you. Faith works differently. God calls us out into unknown places, which is another way of saying parts of our relationship with Him that we have not fully explored. Society refers to this as finding yourselves, but it is really venturing deeper into your relationship with God. Fighter pilots test their limits all the time, and in a sense you can see the hand of the Almighty when you push over that red line and live to tell the tale. Clearly, God is not finished with Maverick, though his character does not acknowledge the Divine in his life. None of the characters do, but that is not uncommon for Hollywood, of course. It would be nice if it happened more often in movies, or to have one of these pilots say that they are here but for the Grace of God, but no. For these characters at least, it is all about the guy in the box and no other hand on that control stick.
I do not necessarily mean to be critical of Top Gun: Maverick. I should be used to it by now. Films seldom have the direct messages I would like to see, which is why I make it my job to sift through them and report what I find. This one is all about the rush of being in the cockpit, not trying to answer big questions. It flirts with them a little, but then the afterburners are lit and the opportunity has passed. It is fun, but not with a ton of substance.