He is backand its accessories – the motorcycle, the fur-collared jacket worn in California summers, the Ray-Ban sunglasses that were as trendy as their soft rock soundtrack after the release of Top Gun in 1986. To recap the plot for the uninitiated, against his commander’s better judgment, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a wildcard naval pilot played by Tom Cruise, has been sent to an elite air combat academy in Miramar. Much of the dialogue was a variation on “Goddammit, Maverick!” or “Damn, this kid is good!” His buddies loved him, his superiors forgave him, he earned the respect of his rivals. After some fun, he won the dogfight and got the girl.
It’s not just Cold War fashion sense and Mr. Cruise making a return in Top Gun: Maverick, a much-delayed sequel releasing this week. Just like the footage from the cockpit that causes nosebleeds, the haze over the runways, the sweat on anxious faces in the blue-lit control rooms. Maverick once again races a fighter jet on his bike; his new girlfriend seems to live in the same neighborhood as his old one. The lost element is his best pal Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in the original. But Goose’s son Rooster (Miles Teller) is one of the prodigies that Maverick, back in Miramar, has to train against his better judgment for an impossible mission in a nameless rogue state. After some fun he’s faced with a dogfight and – you get the picture.
As in many film franchises, Top Gun: Maverick is both a sequel and an homage, taking the catchphrases of its predecessor and remixing old themes and scenes. But there are differences in the facial expressions, and they tell: about then and now and the distance between them.
For example, Maverick’s ’80s-style courtship technique looks like harassment today. When he spotted his love interest, played by Kelly McGillis, at a nightclub, he bet Goose $20 that he could have sex with her on the premises. Rejected, he chased her into the ladies’ room; She was soon delighted. It seems like an excuse of sorts when the modern-day Maverick visits a bar, two young pilots make another $20 bet over a harmless game of darts.
But the relationships that are central to both films are those between the testosterone-starved flyboys. Both are stories about men growing up learning to be nice to each other. The first, however, was the electrifying friction between Maverick and his colleague Iceman (Val Kilmer), who exchanged delighted looks in the dressing room as they competed to become number one. Their embrace on the deck of an aircraft carrier was the real climax of the drama. The new movie has a beach soccer game instead of a memorably oily volleyball game, but the tingle of homoeroticism is gone.
As for headline politics, Top Gun: Maverick seeks to glide across them and through an airtight world of entertainment. But recent history is visible as a negative impression, like the shadow of an enemy jet on the clouds.
As is well known, in 1986 Navy recruiters were waiting in American cinemas to sign the wannabe Mavericks and Icemen inspired by Top Gun. The adrenaline and high spirits of the new film are contagious again. Check it out, and the next time you bring the groceries home, half expect your family to cheer like crew members high-fiving Maverick’s landings. However, in Goose’s tearful death, the original let darkness into the idyll. Its successor offers the same simple vision of heroism, the same fantasy of benign American power, only more innocent, as if responding to a deeper need for validation.
Change was inevitable: after all, nostalgia is another name for loss. Nobody, not even Maverick, can jump into the same cockpit twice – although he does, when I think about it. At the beginning of the new story, he tests a hypersonic jet, after which his rides become more and more antiquated. He flees in an 1980s plane and ends up in a World War II plane, incessantly carried back by the wings of the past.
His real enemy now is the passage of time, with all its barely mentioned but inevitable wars, failed leaders and political grudges, all the accumulated disillusionment with America, its heroes, even its fading movie stars. Of course, sequels always have an eye on the rear-view mirror. So did the original Top Gun, which took a look back to Vietnam, where Maverick’s father had died. But in 1986, Maverick transcended history and the future opened on the horizon. Now history is his goal. “Let go,” he is told, and he replies, “I don’t know how.” He is not alone.
Read more from Back Story, our culture column:
“Navalny”, “Tango with Putin” and the editorial office in the Kremlin (May 13)
Philip Guston’s paintings are controversial. But here they are (April, 30th)
“Atlanta” combines method with message to sensational effect (April 16)