Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Director: Joseph Kosinski
“It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.”
Bucking the trend of recent years, 2022 was actually a pretty extraordinary year for movie-making. There were some real classics like the rebirth of the dark knight in The Batman, a gripping reimagining of Hamlet in The Northman, an arthouse meditation on the death of crumbling communities in The Banshees of Inisherin, a harrowing new German version of All Quiet on the Western Front, and the highly-anticipated sequel to Top Gun (1986), Top Gun: Maverick (2022). Emerging from what felt like an endless pandemic, Top Gun: Maverick is the film that enraptured a beleaguered public –it presents a story that is hopeful, nostalgic, triumphant, emotional, heroic, exhilerating, and aspirational. It would have been easy for Paramount to take the low road with yet another Hollywood deconstruction of an old fan favorite, however Top Gun: Maverick offers something better, a new way forward for Hollywood to embrace sequels in a way that treats them seriously and with respect. And while I have never been the world’s biggest fan of Top Gun per se, this is undoubtedly a film worthy of admiration.
Tom Cruise reprises his role as Maverick (some 35 years later), the cocky test pilot who, despite his many accomplishments, has been stuck in the U.S. Navy in the role of Captain. His antics have been protected by his former nemesis “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) who has now been promoted to the role of Admiral even though he now suffers from a terminal illness. Thankfully, Maverick is not portrayed as a jaded, embittered, alcoholic former hero whose time in the sun has long-since faded. Instead, while Maverick has aged a bit, he still maintains every ounce of his flare for dynamism as in the first film, often outshining his younger contemporaries, showing them what true risk and success looks like. At the beginning, Maverick has been trapped in obscurity, working on a hypersonic program which is under threat of being discontinued in favor of an unmanned drone program (i.e. artificial intelligence threatens to eliminate his job). Indeed, the looming threat of automation offers an intriguing subtext throughout the film –Maverick reminds his fellow pilots: “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” And despite being an unapologetically patriotic movie, the. U.S. Navy is nevertheless portrayed as a cold, overbearing bureaucracy that treats its young pilots with calloused indifference. As chance would have it, Maverick is suddenly called back up to Top Gun to train an elite group of young pilots for a covert attack on an enemy Uranium Enrichment plant (it could be Russia, Iran, or China –the film does not explicitly state this nameless enemy). Among the pilots is a young man named Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late friend and former co-pilot, Goose, who tragically died in the first movie. Much of the film’s plot concerns underlying tensions between these two men, as well as Maverick’s rebellion against his superior Vice Admiral (played by Jon Hamm). We also learn of Maverick’s rekindled romance with a local bartender named Penny (Jennifer Connelly).
Needless to say, there are some absolutely incredible aerial acrobatics in this film, almost none of which are performed behind the veil of CGI (the actors apparently underwent three months of pilot’s training in preparation for this film) –the whole latter half of the movie is a grueling nail-biter like no other as Maverick leads his squad of four pilots along a risky –possibly suicidal– raid through a narrow canyon, over icy mountainous terrain with a tiny window of opportunity for success. In some ways, this raid is reminiscent of the X-Wing run at the end of Star Wars IV: A New Hope. The planes must fly low to the ground to avoid automated turrets which are stationed throughout the area –once again we see the recurring theme of skilled pilots overcoming the threat of automation. Despite numerous challenges, the mission is a success, even if Maverick is shot down by enemy fire while saving Rooster’s life. Then Rooster returns the favor and saves Maverick’s life. Together, they hike through the woods back to an enemy airbase they just destroyed. Here, they manage to recover an F-14 behind enemy lines and escape under heavy firepower, narrowly making it back to their carrier amidst much fanfare. In the end, we are led to believe that Maverick assumes a father figure of sorts for Rooster and reunites with Penny while garnering the approval of her daughter –it is a satisfying end to a wild ride. For a film that fires on all cylinders, and is undoubtedly a rare sight for today’s moviegoer, Top Gun: Maverick should easily rank among the best aviation movies of all time.
Top Gun: Maverick is dedicated to Tony Scott, the original director of Top Gun who tragically committed suicide while working on the sequel. He leapt to his death off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles following a battle with cancer. He was the brother of celebrated film director, Ridley Scott.