It’s been observed that the American populace of the Great Depression loved to watch films about millionaires. Ironic though it may seem, the dire straits of the average citizen manifested itself in a deep desire for escapism. Nevermind the reality that the depicted wealth would be partially to blame for the suffering, nor the wide gap of relatability between such rich characters and the economically insecure viewers. The need to imagine a world where money isn’t a concern superseded them all. It’s unfair to say that we live in a Depression-like era nowadays (for one thing the government response to contemporary malaise is hardly so radical), but to look at the modern condition and not understand a need for escapism is delusional. Whether it be the perpetual job insecurity, deadly bouts of student debt, pandemic anxiety, large scale reappraisal of police and institutions or any of the other thousands of reasons why we’re all miserable, we’ve entered a moment where we need films to let us think happy thoughts. Top Gun: Maverick, the long-belated, nostalgia-infused blockbuster sequel to Tony Scott’s military aggrandizing (and possibly gay analogizing) not very good classic, is that escape. It’s a hideous, uncritical, bechdel test failing, conservative, belligerent contraption starring Hollywood’s favorite problematic cultist… and it’s utterly magnificent.
It isn’t particularly incisive to point out that Top Gun: Maverick is military propaganda. Besides the reality that this fact has been disseminated in nearly every review of the film, whether it be as a side note or as a crux of the criticism, it’s also in the foregrounding text of the film. Compared to the Marvel and DC films that have been populating the top of the box office for the last decade or so, Top Gun doesn’t dress fascism in a cape and a mask. Rather, everything is out in the open and deeper reads are simply unnecessary. Maverick therefore functions as a thorny film with no fear of its own thorniness.
Tom Cruise’s path between two Top Gun films has been eclectic, to say the least. Entering the 1990s as one of the biggest stars in the world, Cruise ended the decade with a year containing two performances in grand auterist epics: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Two brilliant performances, the former netting him his third (and most recent) Oscar nomination, were followed by a messy semi-fallow period. Nestled in between revelations of the dramatic split between Cruise and his screen partner Nicole Kidman and an infamous 2005 Oprah interview, audiences were exposed to a rare on-screen villainous turn in Michael Mann’s Collateral. Sporting silver hair and a beard as a sinister Los Angeles hitman and (spoiler alert) dying on-screen, Cruise betrayed a brief moment of vulnerability (in front of and behind the camera) which may have been the ultimate decline of any other madman’s traipse through Hollywood.
But Tom Cruise isn’t any other madman, and, after a period of decline, his last decade has proved to be his most iconic. In that time, he has returned to a strange sort of Kubrickian oeuvre: the kind which has manifested itself in a death defying perfectionism compelling him to genuinely replicate dangerous stunts conceived for his larger-than-life characters. The Burj Khalifa stunt in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (where Cruise actually hung from the world’s tallest building), served both to set a dangerous standard and to create a mythology around the new Tom Cruise. Here, he can be seen piloting fighter jets with glorious in-camera fashion, a dedication to defying death by bringing himself right to its threshold. Until the day that his demise is actually captured on film, the reality behind the fantasy remains exhilarating, and the myth of Tom Cruise lives on.
More generally, Top Gun serves as a feat of contemporary mythmaking. Few viewers have any allusions surrounding the toxicity of its star and the false embrace of a fundamentally broken institution, but there’s an undeniability in them. There is something comforting of perceiving Cruise as beyond conventional mortality, and equally alluring about the fantasy of a benevolent protective force tracking down and tackling unknown enemies who seek us harm. There’s comfort in the nostalgic needle drops which have been inexplicably disseminated beyond their sources and are finally returned to the glorious silver screen. Even its opening contention: There exist people powerful enough to resist the endless and anxious tide of automation stoppers the fears of a world in which the transition seems inevitable. It isn’t surprising that Top Gun is a compelling piece of escapist entertainment for our times, though perhaps it’s depressing how dire our situation is that such a film can be so resonant.
This is the fourth article in a series covering each of the Best Picture Oscar Nominees.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]