Children have some of the best lines in Top Gun: Maverick, directed by Joseph Kosinski and following not very hard on the heels of the original, which came out in 1986. When Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly) reintroduces her long-term, on-off love interest to her daughter as Captain Pete Mitchell, the girl says, ‘Captain? Still?’ She obviously knows a lot about time and the navy, and probably guesses a lot about Pete (Tom Cruise, of course). Perhaps she alone can see the wrinkles, because Cruise looks pretty much as he did all those years ago, and he still comes across as an extremely charming pain in the arse. (For the record, Cruise was born in 1962.) Val Kilmer also returns, but he doesn’t look so young. His character is dying (Kilmer has had a long struggle with throat cancer), and he looks like the faded memory of what used to be a film star.
Pete has been busy not getting promoted, either by design or as a result of certain persistent character traits, behaving well enough to stay on the job (and win an array of medals), but badly enough not to rise in rank. His speciality, now as then, is going one step further than he’s meant to, and not coming home when he’s called. In the first film a commanding officer says to him: ‘Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash.’ Maybe so, but there are more attractive ways of describing his performance. For instance, Pete takes after his father, also a pilot, who disappeared with his plane in 1965. One character says of Pete’s work that ‘it’s like … flying against a ghost.’ In truth, Pete is flying for a ghost.
This aspect of things is underlined in the new film by another child. At the opening, Pete is serving on a military project that is about to be dropped because it hasn’t earned its keep. A new plane is supposed to fly at the speed of Mach 10 and hasn’t made it beyond Mach 8. Naturally, Pete won’t settle for any less than too much and manages to reach Mach 11, in spite of repeated calls from the base. We don’t know exactly what happens to the plane – obviously it’s nothing good – but we do see Pete asking the relevant question. Battered, smoke-stained and parched, he walks into a nondescript American diner, carrying some of his gear. He asks where he is. An amazed little boy answers: ‘Earth.’
Still a captain and on the earth some of the time: that about sums Pete up. The new film repeats much of the old one and does it well. Pete doesn’t save the Mach 10 project, but he gets a transfer to the Top Gun school as an instructor. Fighter planes take off and land in the dusty air, they make twirls and take dives, they fight real and imaginary enemies, they sometimes crash. Pete races around on his trusty motorbike. But it is less of a sequel, in terms of its story, than an act of moral repair. Pete is haunted by the death of his friend and navigator Nick Bradshaw (‘Goose’) in the original film. He was cleared of any fault, but it’s still the case that Goose died because of decisions Pete made while flying.
Goose’s son, Brad (Miles Teller), is part of the team of pilots Pete is responsible for. At one point Brad says: ‘My dad believed in you. I’m not going to make the same mistake.’ Later, he defends his own Pete-like behaviour as ‘what my dad would have done’. Pete is training Brad and the others for a mission to destroy a uranium enrichment plant in a deep (unidentified) mountain valley. The trick is to fly in and out without being killed by the enemy or the landscape. It looks as though it can’t be done, and at one point the senior officers seem ready to give up the scheme or to pay a price in human lives. Our question, since we have been to the cinema before, belies more optimism: how is Pete going to shift from being a teacher to being the pilot at the head of things? The answer is that he is taken off the project, and then rebelliously demonstrates in the air that his plan of attack will work. How could they not let him fly?
There is an intriguing mismatch – perhaps it is a form of displacement – between the mood of the men and the stakes of what they’re doing. The men are full of laughs, fired up by masculine, grinning competition – their version of ‘Nice guys finish last’ is ‘There are no points for second place’ – but they could die any day. World politics are entirely absent. In the first film a senior officer says: ‘Although we are not at war, we must always act as if we’re at war.’ In the second film the situation seems to be reversed. The US is at war, but its men act as if they are just taking out global garbage. The country was also at war when Pete’s father died.
There is a curious nostalgia about the whole Top Gun affair, as if, even in 1986, hearty hi-tech games for men were dying out. In both films ‘aerial combat’ is described as a ‘lost art’, and it’s true that hitting a square box in a valley, however risky, is not much like a duel. But the mortal danger is still there, and we might ask how much risk it’s fair to take in an inevitably risky line of work. Is every war game a good game? Should every technological advance unquestioningly become part of the state of play?
This is where the ghosts come in, those that haunt both Pete and Brad. When Brad follows Pete’s example and disobeys orders with confidence and panache, the lesson isn’t that risk is always good and that you should assert your independence when you can, but that both risk and cost are complicated affairs, and that someone could die of a move you’re convinced is right. Chance is an essential player in these games and can always intervene to overrule or overstress the best intentions. Pete’s mantra is ‘Don’t think, do,’ and this is the policy Brad eventually adopts. There is no guarantee that intuition or instinct will win the war or save lives, but they are at least prompts of good faith, and offer an active contrast to the lazy wisdom of the teaching at Top Gun: ‘Better to retire and save your aircraft,’ or that a victory can also be ‘an example of what not to do’. Prudence is always unappealing, but in a danger zone it looks like a criminal delusion.