Standing before a handful of elite F/A 18E/F pilots, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell tells them the hard truth: pulling off this mission will take a miracle. More than one. Looking only at the plot of Top Gun: Maverick, a moviegoer would be forgiven for assuming the same about this film. And he would be dead wrong, because Top Gun: Maverick is the only movie you have to see this year.
On paper, it sounds like a hundred nostalgia-fueled Hollywood cash grabs: an aging Maverick is called into NAS North Island (Top Gun) to train up some young bucks. The top brass distrusts him. The drone-reliant military of the future has no place for him, and seems willing to fall behind in the race for next-gen manned fighters. Mav still rides his motorcycle, racing a setting sun, with that iconic, triumphant music playing in the background. The course his pilots will have to fly is just Star Wars: A New Hope, with Super Hornets. Heck, Goose’s kid is one of the pilots, and he plays piano in the bar, just like his daddy. And yet, as Maverick himself says – summing up everything that’s right with this movie, and wrong with so many others – it’s not the plane that matters. It’s the pilot.
Every once in a while, we encounter a piece of art that’s as perfect as could reasonably be expected. Imagine a cathedral in film, each square foot bearing the marks of obsessive devotion. Though the product of a million hands, the whole hangs against gravity with an organic, almost effortless naturalness. Top Gun: Maverick is like that, a minutely-crafted, tenderly-molded exemplar of its class of art that will make you believe in movies again. This reviewer lacks the film school chops to explain just why the movie works so well, but some things are obvious to even the untrained eye.
Let’s start with Tom Cruise’s fantastic performance. He’s believably the same person as that cocksure young ace from 1986, but a version of that man in whom wisdom has laid down painful roots. Mitchell wears all his experiences, and all of his mistakes – along with his unquestionable expertise – in the lines of his face. There is a joy and a sadness in that face that the younger version of Mitchell, could he somehow encounter his older self, simply wouldn’t understand. And evidently, one of Mitchell’s mistakes was his treatment of Penny, a character only briefly mentioned in the first film, and here played with understated perfection by Jennifer Connelly. Their slowly rekindling romance is not that of hot-blooded youths, driven by impulse. It’s a quiet thing, almost a friendship, as if the two have lived and suffered enough to finally begin to understand what it might mean to love another person. And while they finally do the expected Hollywood thing, their screen romance still feels much closer to authentic human love than anything you’ve probably come to expect from Tinseltown. “Don’t break her heart again,” pleads Penny’s teen daughter, and we can see in Mav’s face that he feels the weight of it, perhaps for the first time.
Meanwhile, there are the young bucks. Brash and brave, and so much like Mitchell, they are still just babies in his eyes. Elite as they are, only one has a real, plane-to-plane kill. Yet they’re the best the Navy has to offer, the raw materials that Cpt. Mitchell must shape into something beyond what the institutional military can still produce. But skilled as they are, they’re just not on his level. Nobody is. Still it is they and not he who will sit in the cockpit, twisting and turning through a hellscape at breakneck speed. Under the circumstances, the Navy regards the probable loss of one or two as an unfortunate, but acceptable concession to reality, yet long years have made Mitchell into something like a father. Perhaps a bad father, but one who refuses to lose even a single son or daughter. Despite this, Maverick’s efforts seem for naught. Briefly discouraged when his plans are thwarted, and tempted, perhaps, to tell himself he did the best he could, Penny refuses to coddle him. She serves up a dish of cold truth: these kids are your responsibility. Make it happen!
It would be a crime not to mention Val Kilmer’s brief, but moving performance in what is probably the movie’s crucial scene. Knowing that the actor suffers from a similar malady as the Admiral he plays, and having myself so many fond childhood memories of a voice that has now been taken, certainly added weight to this moment, and yet director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t milk this for “feels.” Instead, in that brief interaction, we get to see how these two combative hot-shots have grown to respect and love each other. Here is yet another thing Hollywood rarely shows us; doesn’t know how to show us: the love of a genuine male friendship. Top Gun’s quiet message is that the fate of the world rests on authentic, mature love.
That authenticity comes through in a thousand other ways. Not only Tom Cruise, but all of the actors playing pilots learned to fly actual F/A 18 Super Hornets for this film. The cockpit footage you see is real, filmed on special cameras rigged inside each plane. Altogether Kosinski filmed over eight hundred hours of actors flying real jets. We could go on and on about the cinematography, the jet choreography, the use of sound, the solid acting, and the way the theme of doing more than you think you can while also knowing how to let go carries through every layer of the film. It’s almost too much! As for problematic content, there’s a smattering of minor swear words, a scene of implied intimacy in which nothing is shown, and the single most artful use of the F-bomb ever uttered onscreen.
Top Gun: Maverick is a sequel I didn’t even know I wanted. It’s also that rare second act that’s not only better than the original, but which enfolds the first within itself, redeeming its flaws, and adding the kind of gravity that only love of one’s art – and several Gs of American-made Super Hornet speed – can achieve. See it yesterday.