I just went to see Top Gun Maverick. I went with high expectations as I have only seen and heard good things; I don’t know why…I almost fell asleep twice.
By Nick Astle
I don’t know what ideal the brave pilots of Maverick are defending, or why I should like them. Their world is one without humour, the characters have the kind of wit, emotional intelligence and sensitivity of a tired stag party staggering through a city centre dressed as Spice Girls. The credo Maverick teaches his aircrew: Don’t Think, Do. I lazily wondered if this made the film Trumpist, but it could only dream of having a relationship with reality as tangible as that (though it’s not not Trumpist). The lack of likeability is an issue, as though Cruise is fun to watch, he hasn’t got much to work with as the dialogue is just guff – though mercifully minimal.
Still Gay enough?
The 1986 Top Gun was famous for its beach volleyball scene, an unapologetically homoerotic celebration of the male form, youth and life in the sunshine. As a couple of tokenistic female fighter pilots are chucked into the new movie, I wondered if we would be perving over them in the same way during Maverick’s inevitable volleyball call-back scene – interestingly we were not. The girls wore more than the boys and remained in the shadows while the glistening semi-nude young men (and Cruise) sweated in the sunshine. While this could be viewed as progressive, the women in the film are literally and figuratively in the shadows throughout the film. Any viewers fearing the film would be overly woke can sleep easily, it reaches, in terms of representation, a film from around 2003. This is perhaps understandable when you remember the central theme of the first film seemed to be masculinity (along with militarism and an awkward attempt to reconcile the individualism of American capitalism fits with the collaborative conformist nature of military culture). How do you make a handsome brilliant test pilot and war hero an outsider? Not very convincingly is the answer in this case. The ‘man’, the voice of bureaucratic naysayers is played by Jon Hamm. Maverick’s renegade views are a bit Clarksonesque, the sleepy unimaginative mantra of men of a certain age complaining everything is ‘health and safety gone mad’. Quite how a carrier pilot who is so clearly slapdash has survived this long is anybody’s guess. Can’t imagine Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown in Maverick’s role (though a British Top Gun set in the 1950s would be amazing).
The Darkstar aircraft section is very revealing. Why did Lockheed Martin Skunkworks help with the design of this stealthy Mach 10 aircraft – and allow their logo to be used? Because the virtual absence of F-35s must have been embarrassing. The F-35 cannot be used for the main mission in the plot as the target is protected by GPS-jammers and requires the laser designation capabilities of the Super Hornet. I’m not sure this stands up to much scrutiny, and I guess the real reason is that it was easy to film using Super Hornets rather than precious and security restricted F-35s. Or maybe it’s just hard to film in a single-seater! Without Darkstar, Boeing with its Super Hornet would have all of the glory. Wanking over the hardware of the military-industrial complex is, like the first film, a major part of the film. In a comically shameless defence of the F-35 programme and eternally delayed Lockheed Martin projects, Darkstar is threatened by the usual pencil-pushers who believe that the aircraft project is behind schedule and are threatening to cancel it. The project can only demonstrate the required milestone of development by Maverick risking his life and the aircraft by flying irresponsibly fast – and then flying even faster for no reason other than his own inexplicable need for speed. Making multi-billion dollar warplane acquisition projects vulnerable underdogs is really weird.
The enemies – a chimera of Russia and Iran boringly enriching uranium – are faceless, an utterly childish and dangerously easy way to dehumanise them (Austin Powers had greater sympathy for the ‘bad guys’). They operate Su-57s (as Russia pretends to), F-14s (as Iran actually does) and pimped-up Mi-24s (as pretty much everyone does).
The real hero
The hero of the film is not Tom Cruise – or the Super Hornet – or the CGI F-14 for that matter – It is the Su-57 ‘Felon’ (or rather the CGI depiction of it) described vaguely as an invincible ‘fifth generation’ fighter, that steals the show. It is a real Russian fighter design, and it looks utterly badass in the film, piloted by black-visored baddies in black. It is far more exciting than the rather workmanlike Super Hornet or tired F-14, though predictably as combat effective as a TIE fighter. There is strong Firefox (the film not the web browser) and MiG-28 energy in the ‘Felon’ scenes and these are the high points of the movie.
As in all war movies featuring jets, infra-red flares can fool radar-guided missiles. The pedantically minded may also enjoy spotting that shadow of Maverick’s single-seat aircraft is that of a two-seater.
What, if anything, is the film’s central message? It is far too conventional not to have a central message – and it seems to revolve around ageism. Both Maverick and the F-14 are older, seemingly obsolete, and win the day. This is reassuring to the millions of 40+ plus moviegoers feeling increasingly obsolete in their own lives.
The flying sections are very well done, but much like the first film, do not represent a great percentage of screen time.
The movie is a pointless – and occasionally fun – exercise in nostalgia. Is American cinema a rusty old F-14 expensively limping home with one engine? Unmanned aircraft are villainous threats to the future existence of fighter pilots in this movie, and Maverick would clearly rather have his kicks than entertain a future without friendly casualties. Villianising unmanned aircraft is itself a quite old fashioned view nowadays, it should be noted that songs are sung in celebration of the Bayraktar in 2022. The whole experience was like lying in a long cold bath. It is soupy pointless nostalgia that cost god knows how much to make.
The biggest mystery of the film, apart from the inexplicably universal positive reviews, is that a naval aviator would choose a P-51, an air force aircraft, as his weekend ride.