Top Gun and American Decline
The film shows an America in which every catastrophic policy decision of the last 40 years never occurred.
I had just turned eight years old when the first Top Gun film was released. One day that summer, my best friend’s teenaged brother had agreed to take us to the movies. We searched the showtimes in the newspaper and agreed on two possibilities: Top Gun or Karate Kid 2. We opted to watch Daniel-San kick some Okinawan ass, and I still hold that this was the right choice. Karate Kid 2 is universally recognized (by anyone with decent taste) as the best installment in that series. Top Gun (which I eventually saw on Betamax) was and is an incoherent mess. A group of trainees spend the first two-thirds of the film scoring chicks and trying to outdo each other with aerial stunts in fighter jets. Then, said trainees are inexplicably chosen to fly an emergency military exercise against an unnamed foe that audiences knew was supposed to be the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, millions of Americans loved Top Gun (including my dad, a Navy veteran and private pilot). It deserves its enduring reputation because it was a key artifact in the information campaign of the Cold War (which was approaching its final resolution in the mid-80s). At that time, American military power was indisputably the greatest in the world. Top Gun was a bold, matter-of-fact celebration of that reality.
When I heard they were releasing a new Top Gun film, I was convinced that America no longer knew how to make a movie that would capture the spirit of the original—a suspicion that seemed to be confirmed by the film’s trailer, which removed the Taiwanese flag from Maverick’s flight jacket in an apparent effort to appease China. But upon its film’s release, I read raving critical reviews. When I heard that the studio had restored the patch of the Taiwanese flag, I decided to give the movie a shot. To my surprise, it was fantastic. But while the original Top Gun presented an American nation that matched the mood, position, and stature of the United States in the reality of 1986, the sequel portrays an America that is deeply at odds with the national reality in 2022.
The America depicted in Top Gun: Maverick is not the America we live in today. Rather, it is what America likely would have been if nearly every catastrophic policy decision of the last 40 years never occurred. Perhaps where the movie’s America diverges most from the current reality is in its representation of a military that embodies a culture of excellence and aptitude. The very existence of a “Top Gun” program for the highest 1 percent of pilots with the best flying and dogfighting abilities is a testament to a military that rewards skill and risk-taking, one that seeks out courageous people with natural ability and refines it. In Top Gun: Maverick, the new pilots are trained to execute a very difficult, very dangerous, very precise military strike. They all have amazing skill in flying the planes. But Maverick (their teacher) demands perfection.
This is not the American military of today. Today, we lose wars to third-world countries that don’t even have an air force. How did this happen? Well, the brass has to devote a lot of attention to things like creating maternity flight suits. The Pentagon is more concerned with the “inclusivity” of the military than its lethality, a condition dramatized by their lifting of a ban on transgendered troops. The Army has obligations to create gay-recruitment videos, to say nothing of its important visual design work in order to celebrate LGBT pride month.
Not convinced these things have an effect on the excellence and aptitude of American military force? What about the lowering of physical-fitness requirements for recruits, a decision even enlisted men admit has a negative impact? During an open attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, Obama and senior leadership couldn’t even be bothered to provide air cover for the Americans on the ground. Four men died. The military depicted in Top Gun: Maverick is the military we had in 1985, not the one we have in 2022.
Early in the film, Maverick’s superiors remind him that he is a relic—that unmanned military aircraft is the wave of the future, and that very shortly, our fighter jets won’t need human pilots. This is probably true, but it is a shame. America’s recent campaigns of drone warfare haven’t won us any respect abroad. The use of drones expanded dramatically under Obama – a weaselly way to continue American military adventurism without risking American life. When the human element in warfare is reduced to some underling who watches live-feed camera footage from a drone on the other side of the world and presses a button to initiate an attack, the military culture of valor, courage, and strength atrophies.
Our society no longer wants warriors. They want button-pushers who don’t argue with orders. The distance of our soldiers from the battlefield is what allows our military to reduce physical-fitness requirements: raw physical strength is rendered obsolete by machines. These trends ensure that the soldiers who prosecute the battle really have no experience of warfare. A lack of familiarity with how the realities of battle cloud and distort our decision-making as it relates to mission objectives. Combat comes to look more and more like a video game, a fact that our military apparently sees as a recruitment opportunity.
The young pilots training in Top Gun: Maverick (both men and women—apparently none of them “transgendered”) are beautiful physical specimens. They are young, muscular, and attractive, with looks that are characteristically American. They aspire to excellence. They are spoiling for the fight. They are actively competing with one another to get the chance to fly the combat mission. Not all of them will be chosen. But they all want to be chosen, which reflects a culture of ambition and aggression that our elites now view as unrefined and embarrassing.
The appearance of “Ice Man” (played by Val Kilmer) is a welcome addition to Top Gun: Maverick. In the original film, Ice Man is Maverick’s foil, but at the end they become friends. In the world of the new movie, their friendship has endured over the decades. But whereas Maverick’s routine disregard for rules and order has stalled his career at the rank of captain, Ice Man has become an admiral. Throughout the film, he works behind the scenes to assist Maverick. He recognizes that the attack they are going to execute is so difficult that perhaps only Maverick can prepare anyone to fly it. But more than this, it seems, Ice is engaging in some kind of Freudian therapy, helping Maverick put the unfortunate death of his old co-pilot Goose behind him. This creates some tender, touching moments between the two rivals-turned-friends. But the fact that Top Gun: Maverick is, at its core, a personal psychodrama of spiritual redemption highlights its contrast with the first movie, which was about fast machines, girls, American power, and beach volleyball.
There is one place where the realities of 2022 seep into the edges of the film. In the original Top Gun, the implicitly Soviet enemies flew a fictional version of the MiG aircraft that the Russians flew in real life. One of the striking things about the final battle scenes in that movie was how obviously superior American military technology was to that of our foes. The airstrike in the new movie is heavily implied to be either in China or on Chinese interests. Once the enemies finally get their air force to respond, we see that they are flying 5th-generation fighter jets, technology every bit as sophisticated as the best we have available, and superior to the F-18s that the American pilots in the movie are flying for tactical reasons.
It comes as no surprise that the good guys ultimately win. But the fact that the weaponry of our enemies is as innovative as our own shows that in 2022, we are faced with a much different reality than we were in 1986. How did our enemies (i.e., China) get so advanced so quickly? It will dawn on savvy viewers that we ourselves gave our enemies this technology. Shipping manufacturing overseas required other nations to develop the engineering capacities needed to sustain a manufacturing base. Because our elites ignored a few decades worth of industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property, the military and technological advantage that American ingenuity had provided has now been nullified. Our opponents didn’t so much steal it as we gave it away.
Top Gun: Maverick is an excellent movie. But it is also a puzzling one, for the reasons described above, and more. It presents a fictional vision of what America might have been without the chronic mismanagement and failed leadership that the country has suffered since the release of the first film. For this reason, its dominant mood is one of nostalgia, but it is unclear whether that nostalgia emanates from the film itself, or from within the viewer who remembers the vitality of America in an earlier era.
Is Top Gun: Maverick a swan song for the America that we lost? Or is the film a testament to Hollywood’s obliviousness to that loss and the toll taken by forty years of institutional decay? It is unclear whether the creators of the film have a keen awareness of the current realities in America or a profound lack thereof. I am hoping that it is the former. If the memory of the old America is permitted to live on in our art and entertainment, then there may be some will to rebuild it. Like the studio mustered the courage to put the Taiwanese flag back on Maverick’s jacket, perhaps Americans will muster the fight necessary to reclaim our birthright— and the spirit that made the nation great.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. He is the author of Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, now available in paperback. You can follow him on Twitter @1HereticalTruth.