I saw Top Gun at the cinema back in 1986 as a teenager, and its famed homoeroticism, plus added military fetishism, went way over my head like a stealth bomber without the bomber bit. I didn’t even fancy Tom Cruise during that decade, apart from in Risky Business, and that was mainly because of the train scene with Rebecca De Mornay (warning: do not attempt to replicate on the Tyneside Metro).
36 years older now and only slightly wiser, I went to see Top Gun: Maverick with some trepidation. It was at my local cinema; middle-aged good sense meant I didn’t feel I could justify the train fare + babysitter cost to go to one of the early London press screenings. Well what an admission, in both senses.
After watching this sequel I think if I was a knackered old fighter I’d be an F15: bits falling off all over the place but still just about goes, overly complicated to run, the manual lost, lacking flare(s). US Navy Admiral Simpson, no spring chicken himself, is scathing of “old relics”, likening Maverick himself to the museum piece F15 they’ve spotted stored next to the enemy’s runway.
There is much about the passing of time in Top Gun: Maverick, and not long into the film the young top gun pilots are aiming quick-fire jokes about “old timer” Maverick at the bar.
I said in my review that Maverick is a paradox. He has an obsession with instinct but also teaches knife-edge, supremely accurate flying that requires practice, practice, practice. Maybe instinct too is a weapon? And despite being mid-50s and quite clearly having still got it, he’s determined to instil in his 12 young pilots that “time is your greatest enemy”. Yes that’s within the parameters of the mission, but within the parameters of the film it’s also about human lives. Maverick’s old friend Iceman is dying of cancer, a disease where the risk usually increases with age; while Maverick is stuck in his past, still unable to come to terms with Goose’s death over three decades ago.
But Cruise, of course, still looks perfectly honed. Maverick may have survived many a dogfight, but age has not withered him. It’s not so much that he’s old, as that he’s old hat.
So yes age in this movie is partly about the years themselves (including among Top Gun‘s original audience — though the sheer thrills of this movie will mean you won’t fall in reveries about your poor pension provision while watching it). But it’s more about our rush to declare the obsolescence of ideas, technology and technique.
Equipment, people and ways of doing things are superseded, too complicated to maintain, overtaken by events. New ideologies take root that make their proponents wonder how anything succeeded before their Big Idea. The most telling moment during that bar scene is not the mockery thrown Maverick’s way for being old, but the finality of the two bar doors deliberately closed behind them as they go back in, Maverick left on the sand outside. We know the Navy top brass don’t want him. We know his direct boss doesn’t want him. And now the youngsters don’t want him either.
There’s a belief not even in progress for progress’s sake, but that the passing of time itself equals progress, that we are always on an upward trajectory to better things, which isn’t always true (especially when as a species we seem determined to repeat our mistakes over and over — just in more modern tech and with less bouffant hair).
Admiral Simpson wants rule followers. Admiral Cain, older than Maverick, wants a streamlined, predictable weaponry production line. Both want the quirky, the rebellious, the rule-breakers and the out-of-the-box thinkers managed out. Order is, ahem, the order of the day, while seat-of-the-pants flying is unreliable and unpredictable. Maverick is obsessed with the pilot; “Drone Ranger” Cain wants them removed entirely. (To be fair, while I was of course always rooting for Maverick, he does get shot down, and Rooster ignores orders to go back and rescue him. People are messy and screw up more than they do something heroic. Unless you’re British, where you become a hero for screwing up.)
Drone warfare gives the illusion of being cleaner; in the skies, if not on the ground, where the same vulnerable people will continue to be war’s victims. It’s those weeded-out pilots though that can react instinctively in the moment, turning a dogfight or mission from failure to success. (Outside of movieland I’m not sure how reliable instinct is, apart from mine of course. And Simpson particularly appears to be just as swayed by personal animosities as by results.)
Pilots also bear witness to what happens in war. Of course, you save pilots’ lives when you remove them from the cockpits, though initially Admiral Simpson doesn’t seem that fussed whether his six come home from their mission — it’s still all about a successful bombing, with the pilots seen as more machinery.
Also apparently obsolete are words that accurately describe what’s going on. Don’t mention (the) war, you could say. In real life, we’ve seen Russia’s President Putin declaring his invasion of Ukraine “a special operation” rather than what it is, a war. And along with much talk of the likelihood of World War Three these last few months, many voices have declared we are already fighting it, and have been for years, we just don’t call it that. Top Gun (1986) was often criticised for being a glossy, sunkissed recruiting tool for the US Navy, and, like many cheerleading, military-set movies, ignoring the context and likely results of their attacks on their enemies. Top Gun: Maverick tries to avoid that completely. The country they’re attacking is never named. We don’t know the enemy nation in Top Gun either, though the enemy pilots in this sequel being so anonymous when we see them in their cockpits almost seems like we’re being trolled by the filmmakers. (I like to think they were Wonder Woman’s sisters, defending Themyscira.)
And in a film where the Navy top brass often want to do away with pilots entirely, the mission simulations — tiny planes climbing vertically then dropping down the side of a jagged cartoon mountain — look as clean as warfare could be. The focus is very much on the struggles and squabbles (internal and among themselves) of the pilots, admirals and Maverick. It’s very 2020s (regret, loss, love) and also builds into the idea of the ageing hero looking back on what he has learnt, though we all know we are just as warlike as before.
In a way (and stay with me here) the five-star Top Gun: Maverick reminded me of the decidedly three-star Senior Year, the fun but unremarkable Rebel Wilson comedy that came out on Netflix earlier this month, about a 37 year old who wakes from a 20-year coma and goes back to school to complete her senior year. Both are about bridging the gaps between the young and the not-so-young, coping with cultural and technological changes and navigating what seem like polarising societal changes to bring out the best in everyone — building to a final understanding that the person, not the technology, is what is important.