Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and the theatre of war

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The art of the long-tail sequel. How Top Gun: Maverick uses ghosts, heists and flashbacks to bring closure to a high-octane love story, 36 years later. SPOILERS.

What is Top Gun: Maverick about?

Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) should be an admiral by now. He’s not. Once the US navy’s top aviator, since the death of a colleague 36 years ago he’s been kicking around the system causing trouble.

Now the navy needs him back in service. With an impossible mission just weeks away, Maverick is ordered back to Top Gun, the elite school for fighter pilots. He’s tasked with getting a new generation battle ready – but he’s fighting ghosts of his own.

The art of the long-tail sequel

At the time of writing, Top Gun: Maverick has landed in cinemas after a stonking two-year delay. Holding back the release – and letting anticipation peak – may have been an incredibly smart move.

The sequel is heavy on nostalgia (always a winner), plus cinematography that leaves CGI for dust. Either way, Cruise and co are adept at old-school cinema magic that sets this film apart from other releases. That has proved good for box office.

The story also returns to – and resolves – the 1986 film, giving us closure on one of the 80’s most high-octane love stories.

The US release falls on Memorial Day weekend, a holiday which honours those who died in military service. But it also follows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the world warily watching what this means for oil, food and freedom.

Intentionally or not, Top Gun is war effort machinery – part propaganda, part glossy advertising, and heavy on emotional release. Here’s how it works.

Summer of ‘86

Top Gun: Maverick makes judicious use of nostalgia, though you don’t have to have seen the first film to feel the vibes. Flashbacks bring us up to speed on the importance of Goose’s death to the current story, and the permanence of Tom Cruise’s blinding smile.

Still, with a 36-year gap to address, this story is inevitably all about change.

At first, this is disguised as dysfunctional stasis. Maverick hasn’t advanced beyond captain. He doesn’t hang on to jobs for very long. Or airplanes. Or girlfriends (Kelly McGillis’s character, Charlie, doesn’t feature in either the film or its flashbacks at all, incidentally).

More pertinently, Maverick is frozen in trauma. He’s still grieving for Goose, his wingman in ‘86 who died during a botched mission. He may have symbolically thrown away his pal’s dog tags at the end of the first film, but he’s been stewing in guilt ever since.

With this flagged as unresolved tension, the story ups the ante by reincarnating Goose through his son, Rooster (spot the family resemblance?).

Rooster (Miles Teller) blames Maverick for his dad’s death – and because he bumped him from flight school years earlier. Their antagonism makes it tough to get along. For Maverick, it’s also like flying alongside a ghost.

Rooster helps with the mind games, from sporting an identical ‘86 moustache to bashing out his dad’s tunes on the piano. It means Maverick is never far from his past mistakes, with the guilt jeopardising the success of the mission.

So what’s changed?

For all the familiar habits and tics, Maverick is older now. Like, a lot. When the navy orders him back to school, he assumes it’s to fly for them. In fact, they want him to teach. (Also: ouch.)

Cell phones didn’t exist in ‘86 so you won’t spot one in the first film, while the sequel features entire text message dialogues. This sign-of-the-times is loaded with additional significance by Ice Man’s cancer: he communicates through text because he can’t speak.

Kenny Loggins is back, but Volleyball has become beach football. And Charlie has become Penny (Jennifer Connelly).

Actually, the Pete & Penny relationship is the biggest indicator of a more mature, measured story. It’s still strangely fixated on modes of transport – planes, boats, cars and bikes – but it’s also about people.

To that end, the take-my-breath-away sex scene of ’86 is swapped for a blink-and-miss-it moment of laughter and intimacy. And Maverick cries a lot. Not after the sex, cos that would be weird, but at moments of real feeling. This is growing up, you might say.

You might also say it’s Rocky. That is, it’s a story of the washed-up loser who could have been a contender. And, like 1976’s Rocky, Maverick’s biggest battle is against himself.

The countdown to obsolescence

When the Rear Admiral (Ed Harris) orders Maverick back to Top Gun, their conversation is punctuated by a ticking clock. It’s a fitting soundtrack to growing older in world that’s always moving forward.

Maverick may be mentally stuck in the 80s, but he’s much older now. Like all of us, he faces the eventual obsolescence of mortality. But his fate in the film also reflects a bigger redundancy looming over society: automation.

For the film’s aviators, the threat is as much from unmanned drones and AI weapons as enemy fighters. Their future looks uncertain – if it exists at all. This is what the admiral means when he says, “your kind is headed for extinction”.

There’s another kind of extinction in the air, though. When Maverick butts heads with Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) it’s clear the superior officer views the mission as suicidal.

Simpson’s goal is dropping bombs on an enemy target. Dying would be unfortunate – and perhaps unavoidable – but for the greater good. In contrast, Maverick says the mission is complete when the pilots get back safely; that’s what he’s training them for.

That ticking clock from start of the film now returns as part of the suicide mission. The pilots must complete their training route in less than 2.5 minutes but, until Maverick completes it himself, it looks undoable.

They don’t know it until they gel as a team, but they’re all fighting the same war. It’s against a foreign enemy, sure, but also against authority, the unbeatable clock, dying en-route and the inevitability of automation.

Luckily, they have a secret weapon on their side: the lone ranger who always pushes the boundaries to go where no machine can compete.

Cult of the lone ranger

The lone ranger is an interesting – and lucrative – film trope (see also the Die Hard franchise). It brings an implicit tension to military movies because there are no individuals in war. That reflects both the machine-think of effective service, and the machinery of propaganda, especially the largely missing rhetoric around civilian casualties.

This revisits the underlying conflict of the first film: can you really be ‘maverick’ if you endanger your team and mission? Is there any value in cockiness if you keep destroying planes, relationships … people? See also Beverley Hills Cop, which similarly treads the line between hero and zero.

War movies underline the incompatibility of self-interest. Likewise, Maverick’s task is now explicitly about creating a team (or group think, if you’re cynically minded).

Yet films like Top Gun occupy a fantasy middle ground. Their characters defy authority, making them someone the audience can side with, yet they create obedience – so much so that individuals morph into one seamless unit (see also An Officer and a Gentleman).

This brings the rebel character type full circle, too. Maverick won’t listen to authority … the clue’s right there in his name. And yet the film sells the victory of authoritarianism, not to mention bloodless war [i.e., join the navy – it’s quite safe].

If you don’t want to fight, at least internalise the imagery of America as a force for good – or a force for flags, which feature everywhere in the film. The film’s plot and set decorations are good nation-building at any time, but especially in a world that’s never free from war.

This also answers the fixation on planes, trains and automobiles as symbols of success, progress and product placement. Of course, it’s also about cinema as spectacle: its function is to entertain, astound and take us to places that are out of bounds or off the charts.

Heists and heroes

The Top Gun films use beach sports, up-tempo soundtracks and glistening, semi-naked bodies to build team work, though good luck suggesting that to your boss as your next office outing.

In movies, at least, there’s another way: invoking a heist. As per heist movies from Reservoir Dogs to Ocean’s Eleven, this means:

  • Code names rather than real names. In Top Gun they’re call signs: Maverick, Rooster, Phoenix … Bob.
  • Explaining the plan to the audience. The detailed schematics explain what’s going down and the risks to come. This is a tension mechanism, and it enables audience buy-in to seemingly complex or specialist goals.
  • The unexpected deviation from the plan. After cluing us into the blueprints, the plot has to wrong foot us to keep things interesting.

Where else have you seen the heist used in military movies? The Great Escape uses the same building blocks. So does The Dirty Dozen.

The heist structure has a role in storytelling even when there’s no robbery. More specifically, it’s a team-building tool. It removes individuality (i.e., Big X, Mr Pink, Rooster), and turns people into processes (the forger, the acrobat, the wingman).

“You think up there, you’re dead”

Once you’ve got a team, unlocking its usefulness means transforming ordinary people into heroes.

As a rebel, Maverick’s technical expertise goes beyond book smarts: it’s about instinct (also central to The Hunt for Red October). Pete’s crew already know the theory, now he needs to teach them how not to think.

This is a really common way of making heroes, by the way. For male characters, at least, heroism is an innate character trait just waiting to be revealed by the right teacher or circumstance.

Catharsis of grief

It’s surprising how many stories are about grief. Top Gun is more explicit than most: this is absolutely a story about the difficulty of processing death.

Goose’s death looms large from ‘86, but there’s also the unexpected cancer storyline that sees Ice Man brought back … then packed off. His illness gives Maverick the farewell he never had with Goose, and is part of the film’s take on closure.

Similarly, while Rooster stands in for the ghost of Goose as far as Maverick’s guilt is concerned, it works both ways. Maverick has been making a bungled attempt at being a long-distant dad to Rooster – hence cutting him from flight school as a way of keeping him alive.

Substitute or not, their antler-twisting is classic father-son angst, mirroring the tensions of reaching out for love and fighting for superiority. In the end, this older Maverick is a father figure – to his crew, but more specifically to Rooster.

Eventually, Rooster asks for his dad’s guidance from beyond the grave, and even imagines him answering. Actually, it’s Maverick who answers; it’s also Maverick who keeps him alive and guides him home.

The film concludes with mission success against a conveniently unnamed enemy. But, fast planes and fancy footwork aside – a savvy message to America’s future enemies – like most movies, it’s really about family.

Actually, its about two families. Maverick finally settles down with Penny and her daughter showing he can bury the past, grow up and move on. But the bigger resolution is him gaining a son … and giving that boy a father.


Top Gun: Maverick (2022), directed by Joseph Kosinski

What to read or watch next
  • Top Gun (the story begins)
  • Iron Eagle (1986 fighter pilot franchise, movie twin?)
  • Mission: Impossible, Days of Thunder, Collateral (Tom Cruise and transport)
  • An Officer and a Gentleman (military, bromance)
  • The Great Escape (war heist)
  • The Grey (men and grief)

Picture credit: Joshua Hoehne