‘Top Gun: Maverick’ And The Longing For America’s Cinematic Past


Much has been said about the summer blockbuster, “Top Gun: Maverick.” Yet, one thing I haven’t heard from anyone else is that the film evoked a touch of melancholy.

Okay, I’ll admit it’s an odd reaction. and it’s likely just a response to the nostalgic references that filled nearly every frame of the film.

Of course, I’m not suggesting the movie itself was in any way sad – it wasn’t. The aerial photography was thrilling. Catching up with Maverick, 36 years later, to find him still doing control tower fly-bys was certainly a blast.

Still, “Top Gun: Maverick” left me with the nagging feeling that, today, America’s best movie moments are ones that draw on their franchise’s cinematic past. It’s worth noting I felt the same way after watching “Spiderman: No Way Home.” It was an excellent chapter in the series, but it was mainly successful because it drew so heavily on the franchise’s nostalgia, leaning on past iterations of the hero and past heroic values that seem to be long gone.

From the beginning of “Top Gun: Maverick,” every choice seems old school in the best sense, starting with a personal greeting from the star and producer, 59-year-old Tom Cruise. It’s in this introduction to the film that Cruise does something unexpected: he looks straight into the camera and acknowledges his appreciation for the audience. Cruise seems like he genuinely wants America to enjoy the film he has created.

This gesture is especially refreshing in an age where Disney feels the need to include a gay main character in “Buzz Lightyear” in order to comport to the times. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, simply chooses to entertain his audience with “Top Gun: Maverick,” rather than construct a story that’s intentionally an affront to the average American’s values. Indeed, the actor/producer seems overjoyed to deliver fans apolitical summer movie fun. 

As an aside, I once shot a very expensive commercial with the director of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Joseph Kosinski. (Yes, Hollywood directors often shoot commercials too). Upon hearing he would helm the new sequel to “Top Gun,” I remembered telling Kosinski that I thought a sequel to “Top Gun” was exactly what America needed at the moment: something Americans could cheer for – together. Kosinski agreed. This was back in 2018 before George Floyd, the summer riots, and a divisive two-year pandemic, which delayed the production of “Top Gun: Maverick”. 

I had no idea how true those words would be – especially now, after all the rancor and division that’s only grown worse. While a movie can’t fix the tearing of America’s social fabric, watching a blockbuster together as a country is still a shared ritual that surely has some societal value. If we can cheer together and laugh together, perhaps, just maybe, we can live together?

Kosinski delivered on that unifying vision. At every turn, he and Tom Cruise appear to make conscious choices that eschew divisive woke politics. For instance, there might be a diverse group of TOPGUN pilots, but they’ve only been assigned to the mission because they are in the top 1% of Navy pilots. It’s a reminder that merit is the requisite qualification for promotion and success in America, not the Left’s new values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The characters don’t complain in “Top Gun: Maverick.” They experience setbacks, as all people do in real life. This is certainly true of the hero, veteran, and ace fighter pilot, Maverick. Yet, we don’t hear Mav whining about ageism or how he got a raw deal in his career when he languishes at the level of Captain – especially considering his former rival, Iceman, played by Val Kilmer, is promoted up the ranks to Admiral. Again, the film seems to harken back to a time when our national work ethos was still “leave it at home,” rather than “bring your full self to work.”

“Top Gun: Maverick” doesn’t apologize for its patriotism or equivocate about America’s leading role in the world, and there’s no global coalition to depend on when a dangerous international threat arises in the film.

I think it’s also worth noting that the movie chooses to forgo naming the enemy “Russia” when it so easily could have – and been heartily applauded for doing so. Of course, this would have politicized the film. Perhaps Cruise remembered the reliable axiom that all of Hollywood used to live by: keeping politics out of movies is almost always a smart decision.

“Top Gun: Maverick” features a romance, of course. After all, what else would you expect from the ageless ace pilot, Maverick? But it’s – gasp – a heteronormative romance, and there are no tawdry sex scenes. In fact, even in comparison to the 1986 original, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a bit tamer in every way – with less gratuitous language, for instance. Indeed, it’s a kinder, gentler Maverick we are reintroduced to, but he’s still full of male bravado and yet to be fully domesticated. However, this is why the character works. Maverick, the sensitive beta male, would never fly with America’s audiences.

The film’s main score also hasn’t changed, nor did it feel like it needed to. What was composed when Ronald Reagan was still president, still feels right today – and somehow even more fitting. The music, though nearly four decades old, retains a sense of optimism, possibility, and confidence in the American spirit, and the choice to leave the original score on the sequel – whether for that reason or not – felt so perfectly timed for the current American moment we find ourselves in.

“Top Gun: Maverick” even draws on the past in another way. Only one jet is up to the task of the impossible mission laid before the elite TOPGUN pilots in the film: The F-18 Super Hornet upgraded from the original F-18 design, not the newer fifth gen, F-35. It’s a two man job, demanding the increasingly antiquated two man plane. Of course, there’s a practical reason for this: to capture the authentic flight scenes, a two-seater cockpit is needed so one person can fly while the other one acts.

Ben Shapiro recently declared that Tom Cruise may be the last Hollywood star. I couldn’t help also thinking that Tom Cruise may just be the only star left in Hollywood that’s still able – or willing – to read the room. Americans want to get back to living, and Cruise seemed to perfectly intuit the current zeitgeist. He also seemed to sense the average American’s impatience for our national preoccupation with self-loathing. Wokeness is exhausting. It’s a social virus that poisons our shared national rituals, like singing the national anthem together, watching sporting events collectively, and, yes, catching a blockbuster seated next to other Americans simply seeking cinematic escape.

The theater where I viewed “Top Gun: Maverick” erupted in applause at the end – something I haven’t witnessed in years. It felt like a rare glimpse of national cohesion and a return to, dare I say, a sense of normality – especially after two very contentious years marred by racial tensions, vaccination debates, and ultra-divisive politics.

I know, I know – it’s just a movie. But still, it felt good.

And though it all certainly put a smile on my face, at the same time, the experience also left me with a touch of longing.

For what exactly?

For our cinematic past, where most movies didn’t shy away from our nation’s exceptional values. Where people – of all backgrounds – plopped down in a chair with popcorn on their laps and laughed, cried, and cheered at those very American cinematic moments together.

Brett Craig is EVP, Creative at The Daily Wire. He has created multiple Super Bowl ads and was featured on Adweek’s Top 50 movers and shakers list.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Daily Wire. 

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