Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun: Maverick

Ever since the "couch jump" incident of 2005 punctured his too-good-to-be-true star persona, and especially since around the time his last wife fled with their child under cover of night to escape the cult in which he is a high-ranking member, Tom Cruise has pursued a number of strategies to defend his status as the Greatest Living Movie Star. First: he has kept his nose to the grindstone and carried on as if it is still 1996 and he is still the biggest movie star in the world. However, because it's not actually 1996 anymore, he has had to become more conservative in how he manages the Tom Cruise business. There was a ten-year period during which he made a Stanley Kubrick movie, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, a Michael Mann movie, a Robert Redford movie, and two Steven Spielberg movies. Now he makes Tom Cruise movies, and they are slick and expensive and exert utmost confidence that the star alone is enough to get you in a theatre. He doesn't submit to anyone else's vision anymore, and he doesn't show up in other people's franchises (no Marvel superheroes for him). At some point in the 2000s, Cruise evidently realized that he could either continue being the biggest movie star in the world, or he could win an Oscar, but he could no longer do both. He chose the former.

To do this, he had to create strategies to deal with the baggage that had accumulated from his personal life. Jerry Maguire is built on the assumption that you find Tom Cruise handsome and sexy and charming and you want to just bask in his company for over two hours. After the couch jump, that spell was broken. Tom Cruise was suddenly a weird cult member in an awkward sham marriage with a much younger actress who looked like a deer in the headlights every time they hit a red carpet. That million-dollar rictus grin started to look like it was covering... what, exactly? Is there anything behind those twinkling eyes anymore? Something is seriously off with this guy, and possibly even #problematic, and we're not buying him in a romantic comedy with Cameron Diaz anymore. It took Tom Cruise Enterprises a little while to figure out a convincing response to this, but with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011), they finally settled on: "Yes. Tom Cruise is crazy. Now let us make that work for you." Deep into his 40s, he decided to take over Jackie Chan's mantle as the movie star who does extraordinary stunts. Now in Top Gun: Maverick, we see him actually flying in actual U.S. Navy planes mounted with IMAX cameras to capture every terrifying angle. I don't think it's out of line to suggest that the last decade-plus of his career has been an exercise in suicidal ideation. He would rather die than not be the Greatest Living Movie Star. To him, no longer being the Greatest Living Movie Star is death.

In recent years, Cruise has positioned himself as not just the Greatest movie star, but the Last one. While Harrison Ford is signing up for a Yellowstone spin-off, Cruise is telling adoring crowds at the Cannes Film Festival that he will never make a movie that premieres on streaming. In this context, Top Gun: Maverick invites an autobiographical reading. It opens with Maverick disobeying his superiors to take a death-defying hypersonic flight, in the process saving a high-speed jet program from having its funds redirected towards drone manufacturing. In this metaphor, the high-speed jets are the theatrical experience, the drone program is streaming, and Maverick is the Greatest Living Movie Star. He is then reprimanded by a crusty old admiral played by Ed Harris, who tells him that his kind of pilot (movie star) is obsolete, and that high-tech drones (franchises and IP) are taking his place. "That may be true sir, but not today," says Tom, all but winking at the camera.

Top Gun: Maverick is an absurd vanity project, but Tom Cruise has the talent to back it up. He really is a fucking great movie star - his huge, toothy grin and hyper-real affect filling every foot of that IMAX screen. The ridiculous plot returns Maverick to teach at the navy fleet where only the Best of the Best train, and where he once again proves himself to be the Best of the Best of the Best. The movie is shameless in depicting Cruise as the coolest and most awesome motherfucker who ever lived, but is also smart and professional enough to give him a healthy quota of scenes where he is lightly razzed and humbled, lest we start to resent him. The whole movie is just a well-oiled entertainment machine, deploying one cliché after another with utter confidence, knowing that the reason they became clichés in the first place is because they fucking work. The aerial action scenes are mind-boggling, and as my gf pointed out, they smartly use the training sequences to establish over and over and over again what the climactic mission is going to look like, so that when it finally comes, you know exactly what you're looking at and what the stakes are. I saw this in IMAX in a row that was just a little bit too close to the screen, and it felt like an out-of-body experience, just swimming in movie magic for 131 minutes.

It perhaps goes without saying that this movie, like the original, can be fairly criticized as insidious U.S. military propaganda. Your mileage may vary, but I'm willing to put my leftism to the side in this particular case, mostly because it's such a nostalgic enterprise, celebrating things that it acknowledges as being in decline: the American Empire, the theatrical experience, and even Tom Cruise. The movie believes that these things are all still the best of the best, but also suggests they won't last forever. I also think it's funny how this movie - an example of what Zizek would call "pure ideology" - tries so hard to be non-ideological. In the 1986 original, the faceless enemies were the Soviets. In this one, the faceless enemies are simply "the enemy." Though the navy fleet is stationed in the Pacific, most of the test runs occur in what looks like the Middle East, and the final act takes place in a snowy country that could only be Siberian. Anyway, whoever they are I'm sure they're bad. Tom Cruise is the only decaying American institution that still works, and I trust him.

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