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Highway to the Comfort Zone

Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

An aircraft carrier is 90,000 tons of diplomacy (as they say on the T-shirts) and its smell is hard to describe. It’s an enveloping sensation that permeates the entire world around you, especially when the carrier is out at sea and a floating city for thousands of people. Below decks the air is heavy with the weight of the ship, metal and body odors, recycled air and watertight doors. The flight deck smells like salt air and overheated tarmac, wind and jet fuel. It gets under your skin like very little else.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is all about what it’s like to chase a sensation. It begins with old-school renegade expert Maverick (Tom Cruise) taking an experimental plane for a test flight before its program is shut down by an admiral so tough (Ed Harris in a delightful cameo) he doesn’t even flinch as the plane passes so low overhead it knocks the roof of a guard hut. It transpires that Maverick is needed urgently at the flight school outside San Diego, where a secret mission – think the targeting of the Death Star in “Star Wars,” only more convoluted – requires training only Maverick can provide. The training is overseen by Cyclone (Jon Hamm), a by-the-rules admiral who dislikes Maverick, personally and professionally. One of the trainee pilots is Rooster (Miles Teller, phenomenally cast and with a superb mustache, and otherwise serviceable), whose late father was Maverick’s wingman and who has daddy issues galore. Maverick’s daddy issues from the original are forgotten. As the world turns, eh? The rest of the plot is pretty standard blockbuster stuff.

Exceptionally well done standard blockbuster stuff, but still. The key is the flight scenes, which include some incredibly dangerous, absolutely spectacular show-off flying, and appear to have been done for real, without C.G.I. Director Joseph Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda were smart enough to stick a camera onto the side of the planes and let the spinning scenery speak for itself. Mr. Kosinski has worked with Mr. Cruise before, on “Oblivion” (an underrated and very weird movie), but he also did “Tron: Legacy,” another bloodless sequel hung up on the relationship between a young hotshot and his absentee father who has the skills he needs to survive in an alien environment. It’s not often a director’s previous work combines so perfectly for a current moment.

But what is the current moment? The movie is extremely careful never to name the country in which the uranium plant that must be destroyed is located. The enemy fighters we see are dressed in plain black with their planes and faces shielded and unmarked. They are just killing machines, with no humanity. Most militaries are moving away from using human pilots and into drones, so it’s not a coincidence that when Maverick begins his first lesson, he stands in front of an American flag as inspirationally as George C. Scott did to win his Oscar in “Patton.” But the focus on the training run is designed to emphasize on the humanity of the American pilots. This batch might be more diverse, and a woman, Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), is just another part of the team, but their jobs are to bring death from the sky in an unauthorized act of war and escape the consequences, just as the nameless, faceless enemies are supposed to protect their own home against such acts. All the focus on team bonding and racing against the clock is designed to make them, and us, forget these facts. There are accidents, and challenges, but the real stakes of what it means to be a fighter pilot – not just a pilot – are no longer the most important thing.

The original “Top Gun,” which landed in 1986 into a very different America, was smart enough not to forget the stakes involved, even as audiences lapped up its thrills without thinking too hard about the subtext. But it was very clear, and the clue was in the name: The cocky young men who raced planes on their motorbikes knew they were killing machines, and knew that the entire military apparatus around them was the spear, of which they were the sharpened point to strike the killing blows. But we’ve had more than 30 years since then to live in the world which that original movie wrought, in which time that awkward knowledge has been diluted and sanitized into something considered safe for kids, where the bombast and homoerotic beach volleyball became the most important part. But that’s also because its ability to ignore ever-present death (the cause of the negative contemporary reviews that have caused so much head-scratching these days) has been soaked into American culture so deeply it’s common knowledge, past the need for critical comment. We have had decades of hunter-killer video games designed to teach children military tactics, desensitize them, and program them into thinking that the death of other people has no meaning to you personally. The threat of the cold war and its recognizable enemy has been replaced with a pervasive threat of terrorism and war being fought behind the scenes of the internet, with no known human face. There’s no longer anyone specific to fear, or to fight. As the military has worked relentlessly to become more diverse and protect the lives of its people, civilian life in America has become saturated with guns and the certain, powerless knowledge that at any moment, one of your neighbors might snap and kill all the children in your town. But that enemy is not one Hollywood wants to fight. Who gets to feel good about themselves when the enemy is one of us?

Well, it all depends on whom you think the enemy is. It’s made explicit that Maverick has devoted his life to improving the Navy’s flight capacity, to the detriment of his career (after over 30 years in the service, still only a captain instead of a two-star admiral; the movie is correct this is notably unusual, you’re either up or out). He has no partner, no family; in fact his closest long-term relationship is with Iceman (Val Kilmer, whose appearance is an act of personal heroism), who did become an admiral and has expended considerable professional energy in giving Maverick the life he wants. Of course, the return to San Diego means Maverick crosses paths again with Penny (Jennifer Connelly, as usual criminally underused), a name mentioned in a throwaway line in the original, here used to build a decades-long on-and-off history in a single scene perfectly written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. She owns the beachside bar where the pilots hang out, has a teenage daughter (Lyliana Wray), and shares her parenting nous to advise Maverick on his students. Unfortunately most of the students blur into the background behind Rooster and Phoenix, with the glorious exception of Hangman (Glen Powell, who in this part is one of the most perfectly cast actors in cinematic history), a handsome jackass who, as the old joke goes, joined the Navy so the world could see him. Office politics are the real enemy. It would be a fine joke, if it were funny.

Of course, it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of nostalgia. It’s hard to lose money harking back to problems which no longer matter to the present moment. Two movies from 2017, without which “Top Gun: Maverick” would not exist, both mined a similar seam. The first was “Blade Runner 2049,” in which an old relic is pulled out of retirement by a handsome young man doing his same job because only the relic (who abandoned his family as a purported act of love) has the skills to save the universe. The other is “T2 Trainspotting,” in which a bunch of addicts who outlived their addiction must, to their surprise, reckon with the long-term consequences of their narcissism, selfishness, cruelty and capacity for violence. Both those sequels also integrated footage from the original; both centered white characters while trying to acknowledge a more diverse world, without much success; both introduced new female characters to attempt to dodge the misogyny of their concept, also without much success; and most of all, both also believed men’s feelings were the most important thing in the universe. “Top Gun: Maverick” is essentially a mashup of them both, on a plane. The clue to all this nostalgia is in the soundtrack, a throwback mainly comprised of ’80s classics; the new Lady Gaga song is only heard over the credits. Mr. Teller even sits at a piano and leads Penny’s whole bar in a singalong to “Great Balls of Fire.” If this movie wanted to do something new it would have thought about how any of this sounds.

So what we have here is an incredibly expensive entertainment about how the entire apparatus of the American military has but one purpose: to support an old relic’s addiction, and to enable him to inoculate a new generation of need-for-speed junkies with the stuff they need to save the universe. Under the thrill of genuine stuntwork and the pleasure of being able to relax into a story we already know, audiences won’t mind that the film’s sensations are only based on what used to get us off. But the recipe is stale, its modern ideas about humanity are disturbing, and to truly get under the skin, Hollywood needs to cook up something fresh.


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