“Top Gun: Maverick” is the movie America needs right now
How the cinematic sequel offers a potent alternative to national pessimism
Sometimes there’s a movie that, well, it’s the movie for its time and place.
That’s Top Gun: Maverick in the summer of 2022 – a blockbuster that’s still going strong at the box office more than three weeks after its release on Memorial Day weekend. It looks set to surpass superhero adventure Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as the year’s top-grossing movie this week and shows no signs of slacking off any time soon.
The sequel to the iconic 1986 original comes at an unhappy time for our deeply divided nation. Widespread discontent over inflation and gas prices, seemingly endless culture wars, and an ever-rising tide of illiberal extremism on the right and political bankruptcy on the left have all coalesced to create the foul atmosphere that suffocates so much of our public life. This dismal national mood makes it hard for many of us to imagine working together with our fellow citizens toward a shared goal, or even come together to determine what our shared goals are or ought to be in the first place.
Enter Top Gun: Maverick. The movie has clearly struck a chord with many Americans – and not just out of nostalgia for its predecessor, either. It’s a great film in its own right, one that delivers outstanding aerial action and edge-of-your-seat thrills from start to finish. But there’s more to the movie’s success than that: it offers audiences a story that runs directly the temper of our times, one that emphasizes teamwork and camaraderie amidst manifest individual differences and clashing personalities. That’s a spirit that helped America through its darkest national hours and finest moments alike, but one that’s atrophied considerably in recent years and decades.
At its heart, Top Gun: Maverick is a movie about a group of disparate individuals who set aside their egos and conflicts to work toward a common purpose. Actor Tom Cruise reprises the role of Maverick from the original movie, this go-around training a cadre of young Navy fighter pilots to carry out an exceedingly dangerous mission. That gaggle includes Rooster, the son of Maverick’s late friend and backseater Goose (played by a perfectly cast Miles Teller), as well as newcomers like Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and Hangman (Glen Powell). Though these naval aviators go hard against one another for coveted slots on the mission – and Rooster has it out with Maverick over their own personal history – in the end they come together and carry out their task under extreme pressure.
In this respect, at least, Top Gun: Maverick resembles what the late leftist philosopher Richard Rorty called a “‘platoon’ movie.”1 These movies, according to Rorty, emphasized the commonalities between members of small military units fighting against enemy forces in combat. Whatever individual differences in background and personality there may be within these units, they pale in comparison to what the team members have in common as Americans. It’s a theme that plays out on a more personal level in Top Gun: Maverick, where individual fighter pilots have to set their rivalries aside and harness their competitive instincts to a common end. But it’s not hard to also notice that the members of Maverick’s team come from a wider array of racial and ethnic backgrounds than those of the original movie - though the film itself wisely remains silent about this fact and instead emphasizes that these pilots are the best the Navy has to offer.
Here, Top Gun: Maverick’s supporting actors deserve a great deal of credit. On paper, these actors don’t have a whole lot to work with, but they bring their characters to life all the same. Glen Powell plays Hangman, for instance, with a smarmy arrogance that’s simultaneously irritating and strangely appealing – when he says “no offense intended” after a sarcastic comment during a debrief, a fellow naval aviator replies that somehow he always manages – while Monica Barbaro’s Phoenix comes across as both empathetic and exceptionally professional. That’s in keeping with the original, where actors like Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards imbued their potentially two-dimensional supporting characters with distinct and memorable personalities.
More than that, though, the movie illuminates the enduring paradoxes of the American character far better than most of what passes for our national debate or cultural life today. Cooperation and competition, individualism and self-importance versus common purpose, camaraderie and teamwork – the tension between these rival impulses can be found throughout American history and define our society down to the present day.
Top Gun: Maverick squares this particular circle with apparent ease, melding the disparate instincts of individualism and common purpose together in ways that exemplify the American character at its best. It’s an attitude that’s made crystal clear in a scene midway through the movie where Maverick demands his students explain to him why they failed their simulated mission – and do so in a way that would satisfy the families and relatives of the team members they let down. For the pilots and crew, it’s not just a sobering ego check but a reminder that they’re ultimately all on the same team, responsible not just for the success of the mission but one another’s survival.
That seems like a foreign concept from a distant past for far too many of us today – one made all the more notable by its absence from contemporary American society. But it’s also why Top Gun: Maverick resonates with so many people, at least in part. The movie shows us what we can be at our best, refusing to leave us stuck in the collective political and cultural morass we find ourselves in at the moment.
Some critics will undoubtedly complain that Top Gun: Maverick glorifies the military, and no doubt it does. The movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is and makes no bones about the fact that military aviation can be pretty cool. Indeed, even die-hard anti-war films tend to glamorize war in spite of themselves by depicting it in highly stylized ways – witness the single tracking shot conceit at the heart of the somber pre-pandemic World War I picture 1917. These rather superficial criticisms miss the point and say less about the movie itself or why so many people enjoy it than the preoccupations of the critics themselves. It’s like fixating on the fact that the transit papers that play such a crucial role in the plot of Casablanca never existed in real life while ignoring the film’s central themes of moral duty and personal sacrifice in times of crisis.
More to the point, however, Top Gun: Maverick puts forward a vision that’s quite attractive to a number of Americans: a blend of competition and cooperation, individualism and common purpose that’s in short supply today. Competent people working together to meet shared challenges together, competing hard to be the best at what they do but remembering that they’re all on the same team in the end. It’s a spirit that’s most definitely consistent with the philosophy we here at The Liberal Patriot hope to help revive moving forward.
At a time when numerous voices on left and right only seem to be able to put forward negative narratives that depict America as irredeemably flawed and essentially immoral, Top Gun: Maverick tells us a fundamentally optimistic story about ourselves and our national character. It’s no wonder so many Americans have flocked to a movie that gives us a more hopeful narrative about ourselves and what we can accomplish when we work together.
Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, p. 100-101.