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Top Gun: Maverick – a stunning feat of US military propaganda

Tom Cruise as Maverick in a F/A-18 Super Hornet (image courtesy of Skydance)

Tom Cruise reprises his role as ace pilot Captain ‘Maverick’ in a standalone sequel of the 1986 classic film. With breathtaking aerial sequences unlike anything else on the big screen, it's an effective military recruitment tool.

The box office is dominated by CGI. High-budget fantasy franchises like Marvel and Star Wars have all but monopolised the top of the charts. Joseph Kosinski started his career directing CGI-heavy productions like Tron: Legacy, but his newest film, Top Gun: Maverick, is a reminder that real stunts can be every bit as awesome as computer-generated effects. 

An essential feature of Tom Cruise lore is his purist approach to action sequences – doing his own stunts and using real props rather than special effects wherever possible. His fans conflate him and his characters. The knowledge that it really is Cruise at the wheel of the car (or jet, speedboat, helicopter, motorcycle, or anything that moves fast and projects power) allows fans to suspend their disbelief that he’s actually a hero fighting baddies.

In preparation for filming Top Gun: Maverick, the main cast underwent a three-month, intensive, navy-approved boot camp designed by Cruise to enable them to be in the planes themselves as much as possible. They’re not the ones piloting, of course – the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets used in the film are terrifyingly powerful, space age-looking machines, and required trained US naval pilots to pull off gravity-defying stunts unlike anything else seen on the big screen. 

Tom Cruise as Maverick in a F/A-18 Super Hornet (image courtesy of Skydance)
Tom Cruise as Maverick in a F/A-18 Super Hornet (image courtesy of Skydance)
Tom Cruise as Maverick in a F/A-18 Super Hornet (image courtesy of Skydance)
Tom Cruise as Maverick in a F/A-18 Super Hornet (image courtesy of Skydance)

Achieving the ambitious aerial scenes of low-altitude aerobatics and airborne dogfights required excellent cinematography and a hoard of state-of-the-art camera equipment. Cameras were mounted on the outside of jets and naval officers had to be schooled in cinematic techniques like lighting and camera angles. 

Wait a second – doesn’t the US Navy have more important things to do with their resources than send their pilots to film school? The reason these officers aren’t defending their nation or occupying an oil-rich developing country somewhere is that Uncle Sam needs new recruits, and patriotic blockbuster action films are a great way to get them. 

The original Top Gun of 1986 (which you can rent on Apple TV or Google Play, presuming you’ve chucked your VCR by now) was so successful as a military marketing tool that enlisting booths were installed in cinemas and overall recruitment increased by roughly 500%, according to a 1986 Los Angeles Times article. Current US diplomacy looks a lot like it did in the 1980s, with Russia on the warpath and rumblings of nuclear war quaking below the surface of the geopolitical landscape.

The time couldn’t be better to inspire the masses, and Paramount Pictures were more than willing to help because it saved them a tremendous amount of dosh. Not only were the cast and crew given all-access passes to politically sensitive naval facilities (most prominently, a nuclear-powered Nimitz Class aircraft carrier) but also advanced training from acting technicians.

According to Shadowproof, whose reporting centres on a 2019 “assistance agreement” between Paramount and the US Department of Defense, the navy was allowed to review and approve the script and footage of the film to ensure it made the best possible impression on young would-be soldiers. Many of the highest-grossing films of all time (CGI-dependent or not) including Avatar and many Marvel films, involved a similar quid pro quo with the US military.

Top Gun: Maverick opens with the identical intertitle of the original and a modern recreation of its opening scene – silhouettes of naval officers readying planes for take-off, backed by American rock ’n roll so that you know to be excited about it. 

Once you’re sufficiently jazzed about jets, we get a second opening scene – a slow revisiting of Cruise, looking scarcely a day older than he did 36 years ago, as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Kosinski piles on the nostalgia, panning over pictures of the old crew to the sound of Harold Faltermeyer’s original anthem, having Maverick don the same leather jacket and zooming down the open road on a new Kawasaki Ninja motorbike. You don’t need to have watched the original first, but Kosinski throws a lot of bones to those who have.

Tom Cruise as Maverick on a Kawasaki Ninja H2 (image courtesy of Skydance)
Tom Cruise as Maverick on a Kawasaki Ninja H2 (image courtesy of Skydance)
Tom Cruise as Maverick (image courtesy of Skydance)
Tom Cruise as Maverick (image courtesy of Skydance)

These days, Maverick works as a test pilot, pushing the limits of new aircraft. His current project is to reach Mach 10 in a huge stealth fighter, but when Rear Admiral “Hammer” Cain (played briefly and fittingly by Ed Harris) orders the programme be shut down and its funds redirected towards drone piloting, Cruise recklessly attempts to reach Mach 10 in the prototype before Cain can arrive. 

While it’s only mentioned briefly near the beginning of the film, there’s a pervasive fear of the impending extinction of pilots. Drones are making human pilots obsolete, and the characters in Top Gun: Maverick (and by proxy, its writers) are so desperate to believe that human skill could be more valuable than advanced technology that the line, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot”, is repeated earnestly throughout the film, building to a climactic scene where an old F14 faces off against fifth-gen fighters.

Back to the test flight: “You know what happens to you if you go through with this?” asks a colleague. “I know what happens to everyone else if I don’t,” responds Maverick the martyr. Maverick’s disrespect and disobedience of authority is one of the least realistic aspects of the film. 

The US military would never tolerate such remorseless insubordination, so you wouldn’t expect they’d allow it in the film. It is likely – although this is an assumption – that the reason they do is that anything portraying the army as a chance for glory is likely to draw recruits – their dreams of being a rogue hero can be easily snuffed once they’re signed up. 

As Maverick takes off, watch the security hut as he flies over – the shockwave blows the roof off, an unplanned detail demonstrating the titanic force of these powerful machines. Of course, even when Maverick achieves his goal, he can’t help but push the limits and it ends in disaster.

After Maverick’s semi-successful stunt, “Iceman” (played once again by Val Kilmer), now an admiral, salvages his old rival’s career by reassigning him to train a new class of Top Gun graduates for a special high-risk mission. The mission is to blow up an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant before it becomes operational.

Where is this plant and who is yet to sanction it? We’ll never know. All we’re told is that the plant belongs to a rogue state with considerable resources. It’s probably Russia based on the climate and type of aircraft they use. Who knows, it could be Iran, but we never see their soldiers’ faces so you don’t have to feel bad when they get blown to smithereens – all you need to know is that they’re the enemy.

It’s slightly less diabolical to glorify the murder of people from an unidentified nation than from a specific one, but positing state-hired killers as selfless do-gooders is dangerous propaganda no matter who they’re executing.

The new, handsome, sort of diverse group of Top Gun graduates who will carry out this sentence are certainly intended to be seen as goodies. Glen Powell plays “Hangman”, the golden boy schmuck; there’s Monica Barbaro as “Phoenix”, the token female; and a standout performance from Miles Teller as “Rooster”, the son of Maverick’s old classmate “Goose”, whose death he blames Maverick for. 

Jay Ellis as "Payback" and Monica Barbaro as "Phoenix" (image courtesy of Skydance)
Jay Ellis as “Payback” and Monica Barbaro as “Phoenix” (image courtesy of Skydance)
 Glen Powell plays “Hangman”
Glen Powell plays “Hangman” (image courtesy of Skydance)
Miles Teller plays Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
Miles Teller plays Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

As soon as we’re introduced to the 12 young pilots we know almost exactly which six are going to be picked for the mission because only six of them are given lines. Hangman and Rooster’s relationship is akin to that of Maverick and Iceman’s in the first film (it’s unclear which of them would be which) but the most interesting thing about the group is how they navigate the beef between Rooster and Maverick.

In comparison with the original film, our perspective is flipped – we see the training primarily from the instructor’s point of view rather than the hotheaded trainees. Maverick comes marching in with the classic charismatic teacher’s throw-away-the-handbook gambit. He needs to be tough on them, but he also wants to protect them, particularly Rooster, for whom he feels some responsibility, and if they’re not ready it could cost them their lives.

Production still from Top Gun: Maverick (image courtesy of Skydance)
Production still from Top Gun: Maverick (image courtesy of Skydance)

Most of the film is not actually about the action, it’s about the bravado and drama of the military; it’s a soapie for manly men. Top Gun: Maverick is less sweaty and homoerotic than the original, but you do still get a dose of eye candy on the beach, this time with American football in place of the volleyball. 

At least half an hour of the film could have been cut with no impact on the narrative. This includes every appearance of Jennifer Connelly as Penny, Maverick’s new love interest – a completely superfluous character whose main function is a prop on the back of Maverick’s motorbike to show he’s got sex appeal. But most of the extra weight is devoted to gratifying die-hard fans of the old film by tying up relationships with tidy bows.

Jennifer Connelly as Penny (image courtesy of Skydance)
Jennifer Connelly as Penny (image courtesy of Skydance)

Top Gun: Maverick is a feel-good film. It has a few good laughs, nothing particularly bad happens (provided you don’t think too hard about the numerous dead foreign people) and we’re given a satisfying redemption arc – both in terms of Maverick making peace with Goose’s death and his son, and in terms of the original film correcting some of it’s outdated hypermasculinity. 

It’s a shameless production of US propaganda, but as long as you’re cognisant of that, it’s highly entertaining. It’s a long film, but the pace is far steadier than its predecessor, the cinematography is so seamless that it’s easy to forget the cameras are even there, and the stratospheric manoeuvres are best watched on the biggest screen you can find. DM/ ML

Top Gun: Maverick is available in South Africa in cinemas from 27 May.

The headline on this article was changed following initial publication to correct that it was not the US Navy, but the  US Air Force.

You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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