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Why I Was Wrong About ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Former fighter pilot explains why the hit Tom Cruise movie is not a mere commercial for war
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Here's a great letter from a reader taking issue with my somewhat negative view of Top Gun: Maverick, which I enjoyed technically (great flying sequences), but couldn't get into in terms of its messaging. The reader responds:

I think you are missing an important aspect of the success of the latest Topgun.

First, my background.  I previously flew F-14s during the Topgun era.  I flew missions over Southern Iraq in the aftermath of the gulf war, among others.  So, I come from the culture represented in the movie, but as I am a reader of Am Con you can imagine that I am no cheerleader for the military state.

Before I give my perspective as to why I think the movie is doing so well, let me also say that I don’t see it as great art, nor do am I asserting thatthe authors of the movie intended what I see.  We can also set aside the flying sequences as I think all agree they are a technical triumph. They truly are amazing and no film has every done justice to what it actually feels like to fly in a fighter jet. 

We live in a very different time, and I don’t believe that this movie is speaking the same message about America as the original one. The mission, while relevant to today’s news, is just a mcguffin to show off the flying. 

The movie is successful because it appeals to those who traditionally served in the military by focusing on courage and duty. It is profoundly human as it critiques drone warfare (Admiral Cain) and cold leadership that sacrifices people for objectives (Cyclone). And with its focus on the pilot over the machine - especially as the “ancient” Tomcat takes on the most advanced fighters - it highlights the value and virtuosity of humans. This movie is a rebuke to technocratic warfare.

But above all else, at its heart this is a movie about how we mature in love. Throughout Maverick is more thoughtful and humble than in the last movie. He is “where he belongs” and he flys to help save others jobs in the opening. He longs for reconciliation with his surrogate son. He is focused on the well being of his “family” - his team. He puts his old self - pilot Bagman - on the sideline even though he is the best technical pilot, for he lacks care for others. He sacrifices himself to save Rooster, trying to atone for being unable to save his Father. And he chooses to literally fly off into the sunset with a woman who he has hurt in the past, keeping his promise to her daughter not break her heart.

This all sounds rather elevated for pop entertainment - but I think these messages come through.  People want to believe that despite the leadership of the military being politicized and our wars questionable, that our soldiers and arimen are still what we expect them to be and that they will fight courageously to do the right thing for them - their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.

Now, I have no argument with the potential for this movie to feed into older, militaristic and triumphal attitudes. But I also think the country is at a place where those messages doesn’t resonate as much. I believe that it is the focus on humanity, family, and love (as well as skill, honor, valor) is why it succeeds.