TOP GUN REVIEW
A different kind of Maverick flies again — one last time
Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell passes all the tests of his quest — in a new film that makes deep references to classic storytelling. It reaches back to the universal pleas of children at bedtime, or by the members of an ancient community seated around the campfire following a successful hunt: ‘Tell me a story’. And the filmmakers have told a great one.
Some years ago, I snared a ride on a US Navy aircraft carrier. True, it was only one day’s sailing, but it was enough to watch, close-up, the frenzied choreography of dozens of sailors and airmen, all of whom were in a seemingly effortless dance on the carrier’s deck as aircraft were launched, recaptured, or conducted aerial manoeuvres directly overhead.
Every one of the naval personnel on the flight deck knew their jobs with zero confusion. And even someone like this writer, with little knowledge of the specific difficulties and dangers of the tasks the crew members were performing, was awed by a workload that was, simultaneously, mind-bogglingly dangerous if anything went wrong.
In many ways, a fully operational aircraft carrier is the most complex, interconnected system of people (and yes, there are women on board) and machines ever created. With all its forces, it is capable of wreaking the most astonishing destruction on an enemy’s territory, sometimes with planes armed with precision-guided nuclear missiles. At other times, the jets can now deliver smaller loads of conventional explosives with pinpoint accuracy. For that, they use the full range of smart bombs and missiles guided by real-time data from the mother ship, satellites and surveillance aircraft. And it is here where the trigger, so to speak, of the plot of Top Gun: Maverick is pulled.
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is one of the last of the dying breed of naval test pilots, preparing to fly a prototype jet up to the speed of Mach 10 (ten times the speed of sound). He has been in the Navy for decades and while he is the best pilot in the Navy, because he has an unerring tendency to rub his superior officers the wrong way through both word and deed, years after he should have obtained at least one admiral’s star, he remains a captain.
Under normal circumstances, with the military’s “up or out” personnel system, he would have been involuntarily retired by now, but that would have made it a very short film reflecting on the frustrations of a top-tier pilot now looking for other work.
On the fateful day in the film, Pete Mitchell is flying that very prototype jet, just as word comes down from on high that the military is cancelling the next generation of manned fighter jets and will be replacing them with ground-controlled drone-style craft instead. They are cheaper to make; easier to manage; the Navy has no personnel issues and no G-forces to worry about with drones instead of pilots; and most especially there is no one like “Maverick” the brass must contend with.
The first of several deus ex machina moments arrives as Mitchell, having pushed his test craft a bit too hard, destroys it. But at that moment, there is a very conscious echo of test pilot Chuck Yeager’s crash in the earlier film, The Right Stuff. The top brass have arrived to tell Mitchell that just like the now-outmoded test programme, he is now done, finished. He is history.
Fortuitously, due to deus ex machina #2, Mitchell’s old rival from that first Top Gun film, “Iceman,” is now an admiral. He is dying from throat cancer, but he has arranged for Maverick to return to the Top Gun flight school for one last, unique task. Mitchell will be a temporary instructor to run a crash course for a very select group of the very “best of the best” pilots in the Navy for a dangerous — indeed quite possibly suicidal — mission to destroy a secret nuclear plant being run by a distinctly unfriendly, but unnamed, nation.
This mission will require precision timing, beyond just brilliant flying skills, and sheer, unshakeable nerve. The deliberately unnamed country (anonymous for cinematic purposes, since one never really knows who the enemy would be by the time a film is released, perhaps) is probably Iran. Although we never know for sure, that seems most likely since it still has a few US F-14 fighter jets left over from an earlier, friendlier era between the two nations and it does have nuclear ideas. That task becomes deus ex machina #3.
There are challenges and rivalries among the pilots who are brought together for this special training — including the son of Maverick’s earlier co-pilot or RIO, “Goose.” Unsurprisingly, there are obvious complications here since Goose had died while Mitchell was flying a training manoeuvre at the Top Gun school all those years ago.
There is also a love interest played by Jennifer Connelly, although the amazing heat that the Tom Cruise/Kelly McGillis pairing generated three decades ago seems more modulated between the new couple. Okay, let’s chalk that up to the fact that Cruise and Connelly’s characters are now middle-aged, while that other pairing was between a fiery, young fighter pilot and his instructor — who just happened to be a woman in a job usually held by men. But maybe it is one more sign that it is finally time for Mitchell to accept life’s course, even if he is not yet ready for a comfortable wing chair and a pair of slippers.
After the usual cinematic sturm und drang, the mission’s four pilots are selected (and Maverick elects to lead the mission himself, in spite of his stated role as the pilots’ instructor). Nevertheless, the full cadre of pilots goes to the aircraft carrier for the coming attack on the nuclear plant (and to serve as backup pilots in the event of a sudden mishap on the part of any of those selected for the mission).
The raid culminates in a frenetic sequence that borrows more than a little from the penultimate scene — the attack on the imperial death star — in the first Star Wars film, right down to Mitchell’s injunction to the attacking pilots that they must not think, they must just do, putting their trust in their now finely honed instincts. You can virtually hear echoes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, urging Luke Skywalker to trust in The Force, despite the ultra-high-tech trappings of his craft and the carrier.
In creating this film, writers Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr and Peter Craig, and director Joseph Kosinski, have clearly drawn from Joseph Campbell’s explorations of the meanings and origins of humankind’s ancient stories — the epic hero on his quest — and the dangerous tests of his inner strength and skill. Accordingly, as models for Pete Mitchell, think Jason and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece; or Hercules and his divinely ordered labours such as the command to cleanse the Augean stables; or, even more so, Odysseus’ fraught, extremely lengthy return to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
In this version, Pete Mitchell is searching for career redemption, for love and respect — via the successful destruction of a dangerous nuclear plant. The script writers follow the ancient road, to the temptations and obstacles appearing in Mitchell’s path, and even the more personal challenge of reaching reconciliation with his dead RIO’s son.
Because the curve of such a plot can be so familiar, even ingrained, we are with it through the inevitable trials and tribulations until Mitchell can achieve success, and settle into a lasting (hopefully) relationship with his once and future romantic partner. By the end of the film, Mitchell is soaring off into the late afternoon sky — with her — as he flies a vintage World War 2 fighter he returned to airworthy condition. Maverick becomes a modern Odysseus, reaching for the comforts of his own Ithaca.
Despite the positive reviews the film has been receiving, and extremely positive audience responses, some critics argue that similarly with its 1986 predecessor, they are just elaborate recruiting commercials for the military. They make it out to be sexy and dangerous — a way for enlistees to play with really expensive, glamorous toys that go extremely fast and deliver gigantic explosions. Where are the images of horrific deaths and destruction being visited upon the enemy, let alone the collateral damage of innocent men, women and children, like the images now seen every day on television and the internet from the blasted cities in Ukraine?
One answer is that this film is marvellously entertaining fiction. Fiction. It is a story, not a depiction of real life. Of course, they had the full cooperation of the Navy in the making of it, including time on two actual aircraft carriers. But virtually every American film ever made that shows the military as less than a demonic force gets — and acknowledges and pays handsomely for — such assistance, even if they don’t need to borrow an aircraft carrier or two.
Russian and Chinese films also have made liberal use of whole army corps as well — and they are usually films decided upon by the government for government goals. And, of course, big cities around the world (including those in South Africa) have film offices that do pretty much the same thing, closing streets and bridges, making police and fire marshals available for crowd control as needed — and filmmakers pay for this.
But let’s be fair. A film about a handful of highly trained, mid-career jet fighter pilots is an unlikely vehicle to encourage a vast horde of young men and women to rush right out and enlist in the military as privates or able seamen, even if this film has a killer soundtrack and great visuals, and even if the US military is finding it challenging to meet its yearly quota of new enlistees or in getting those already in scarce fields to re-enlist in the military, rather than jump to a hot civilian job market.
If you really wanted to make a feature film as a recruiting poster (or if the military plotted you would do so), it would be a remake of a film like An Officer and Gentleman. That showed a real dead-ender of a young man, played by Richard Gere, transformed into an officer pilot and a responsible adult, despite his background; or perhaps reshape earlier films like The Bridges of Toko-Ri or Twelve O’Clock High, works that highlight valour, honour and all the rest. And for real propaganda films, turn to the model of John Ford’s films in the Why We Fight series, which were designed to motivate young men to enlist to defend the nation and for the rest to buy war bonds.
However, what Top Gun: Maverick may well accomplish is to be the handmaiden in achieving more positive attitudes towards the military and its role. To see that there is an unexpected coincidence surrounding the film’s release and an earlier parallel. Back in the middle of World War 2, the Warner Brothers film Casablanca received an immense boost (and undoubtedly generated even more support for the US’s participation in the war) when its release came around the same time as a very newsworthy meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the city of Casablanca, and just as the Allied campaign against the Germans in North Africa was rolling forward.
For Top Gun: Maverick, while the film was originally supposed to be released several years earlier, Covid restrictions on cinema attendance got in the way. Instead, in its new release date, it coincided with the growing American and Nato military and economic aid to Ukraine amid that nation’s heroic resistance to a Russian invasion. The synergies may be huge with a really well-made film with an A-list star at its core.
The bottom line? Is it a great film? Who knows, but it absolutely is a truly entertaining one. Moreover, there is virtually no blood and guts on screen to turn off more squeamish viewers (yet another hallmark of it being fiction). There are lots of heroics and well-toned bodies, and wonderful plot twists. And at its heart, beyond those references to classic myths and stories in the background, there is magnificent aerial choreography filmed with real planes and real pilots, and no CGI or blue screen technology except with the classroom exercises. DM
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