1. Tom Cruise is playing himself
Right: Tom Cruise always plays himself. He has been playing himself since All the Right Moves, a movie about how his character has them. Every so often, Cruise plays himself in ways that strike a chord or scrape the zeitgeist or result in Oscar nominations: the ass-wiggling ingénue of Risky Business; the beautifully rumpled white-collar striver of Jerry Maguire; the bewildered, speculative cuck of Eyes Wide Shut. In Edge of Tomorrow, he plays a guy who’s so determined to get his intergalactic mission right that he keeps killing himself, over and over again—the performance of a lifetime, and maybe the ultimate Cruise-ian allegory, except of course for the Top Gun duology. No Cruise character feels more like self-performance—and self-revelation—than Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who in 1986 was in the exact same position as the guy playing him—an ascendant, Nautilized hotshot turning figure-eights in the sky above the rest of us. Maverick remains tethered to his actor twenty-five years later, a figure simultaneously commanding respect, deference, and a bit of bemusement at his steadfast refusal to change—with the times, to act his age, etc. The basic message of Top Gun: Maverick is the same as Interview With the Vampire, which is that Tom Cruise is eternal, but now we don’t need makeup, special effects, or supernatural pretense.
2. Tom Cruise is a great actor
Tom Cruise is not a great actor in the sense that he can “disappear into a role”—a critical cliché that doesn’t really apply to too many actors, especially not recognizable ones of above-the-title stature. (I’m hard pressed to think of one, anyway.) Rather, in conversation with my first point about Tom Cruise always playing Tom Cruise, I’d say that greatness here is more a matter of always keeping himself visible, which in turn contextualizes the roles in surprising and emotive ways. In one of the best scenes in Top Gun: Maverick, Pete goes to an Air Force bar and tenderly observes a gaggle of hardbodied younglings clowning around the way he did in his own cocksure youth; the formula works because we can’t divorce the character’s mix of yearning, envy, and melancholy from what I imagine to be Cruise’s own as he stares down his sixtieth birthday. Cruise isn’t really historically a Method actor, and he doesn’t talk about sense memories or Stanislavski or technique. It may be that the similarly self-mesmerizing precepts of Scientology do the same trick for him. Some of his best performances have been for obviously great directors, like Stanley Kubrick, but Joseph Kosinski isn’t Stanley Kubrick and Cruise is still great in Top Gun: Maverick. Credit where it’s due.
3. Joseph Kosinski is a good director even if he’s not Stanley Kubrick
Tom Cruise keeps directors as pets these days. For the Mission: Impossible series—all good to great movies, and examples par excellence of how Cruise has finessed his obvious suicidal ideation into an on-the-job ethos and an onscreen alter ego—he’s employed the one-time Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie also did Jack Reacher, which was less successful at fusing star and character together because as anyone who’s read the Jack Reacher books knows, Jack Reacher is, in a fashion, relaxed; he’s a hulking, nomadic killing machine but he’s comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t need to be liked. Tom Cruise is not relaxed and needs to be liked like Tracy Flick did in Election (he could have played Tracey Flick to great acclaim). McQuarrie, who is not a particularly gifted director, knows his job, which is to hone, refine, and benignly weaponize the ruling tensions of his friend’s self-image. He has figured it out, and his reward will be generational wealth for himself and his family. Joseph Kosinski is more of a pure action director than McQuarrie, and because he isn’t the steward of a single running character like Ethan Hunt, but rather the facilitator of a more free-floating Cruise persona, he has a bit more freedom to show off his chops. His Tron remake, which did not feature Cruise, was a sleek, beautifully designed exercise in legacy aesthetics that re-created the original film’s imagery (and characters) while pulsating with serene confidence. Oblivion, starring Cruise as humanity’s last hope against alien invaders and their high-tech drones, elegantly incorporated color schemes and hardware from 2001: A Space Odyssey as if giving its headliner another, posthumous opportunity to work with Kubrick. Top Gun: Maverick is filled with nods to the “warnographic” style of the late Tony Scott, but its clean, precise physical and aeronautical blocking is recognizably Kosinski’s, and so are its coolly adoring, contractually obligated Cruise close-ups. Admittedly, it has not been a great year for new American movies, but if I were voting for the Oscars right now, Kosinski would get Best Director.
4. Miles Teller is actually pretty good
The first time I actively enjoyed Miles Teller was in Nicolas Winding Refn’s insane, hypnagogic Amazon Prime crime series Too Old to Die Young, where he played a sullen, possibly fascistic LAPD officer who comes to a spectacularly brutal end. Top Gun: Maverick is the second time that I have actively enjoyed Teller, who plays the son of the late, lamented Goose from the original Top Gun. Having never had any reason to think about whether or not Teller resembles Anthony Edwards, I did not see the brilliance of this casting coming, but while Teller is physically very different than the erstwhile Dr. Mark Green—a thick-lipped, broad-shouldered, dead-eyed hulk—the combination of Navy whites and a beautifully considered mustache complete a seamless illusion. The relationship between Maverick and Rooster (the perfect callsign for Goose’s son) recalls the displaced paternal pathos play of Creed, which is the movie Top Gun: Maverick most resembles, even more than the original Top Gun, which, being a slick, superficial piece of opportunism conceived and financed by coke fiends, had no emotional component to speak of, and certainly no metaphysical dimension. The metaphysical dimensions of Creed and Top Gun: Maverick pertain to the conjoined durability and fragility of American institutions, icons and intellectual property. When Goose dies in Top Gun, it’s a plot point; when Maverick saves Rooster’s life in Top Gun: Maverick it’s mythic retribution, as well as a hint that Miles Teller can’t replace Cruise so much as be his hand-picked wingman. The fact that these events are completely obvious and mechanical somehow only heightens their effect. It helps also that, as I said, Teller is very good in the part, and if we’re being honest, he was the one who made me cry.
5. Jennifer Connelly is very good
The character that Jennifer Connelly plays in Top Gun: Maverick is probably the funniest thing about the movie, insofar as she’s been manufactured to give Pete an age-appropriate, long-suffering romantic partner who feels like a carryover from Scott’s movie but isn’t. Because Kelly McGillis is now 60 and has aged like a normal person, there was no chance of her returning; Connelly, who at 51 is virtually indistinguishable from her younger self, matches perfectly with Cruise as a resident of the flesh-and-blood uncanny valley and is also a gifted, resourceful light comedienne who can parry and deflect his innate ridiculousness. Her Penny is your average, flawlessly preserved American small business owner, smilingly presiding over the aforementioned Air Force bar and its revolving door constituency of wannabe flying aces. When Pete shows up at the bar, there is a five-minute dialogue scene in which it’s revealed—with the same flat, expository affect as stereo instructions—that Penny has been the great love of his life since precisely the moment Top Gun ended, and they’ve had all kinds of exchanges and experiences over the years, and she has a teenage daughter who dotes on him, and it’s only a matter of time before he has to choose between what’s left of his career and a life piloting yachts and picking up tabs with her. As the movie goes on, she proves that she’s worth it by always being in the right place at the right time, which is about twenty yards from Pete, in flattering beachwear, bearing sympathetic witness to every phase of his self-actualization, including, of course, shirtless touch football on the beach. This all works in the same way that almost all of Top Gun: Maverick works, which is via a grateful suspension of disbelief that, inasmuch as it’s possible to earn such a thing, is earned by the skill and professionalism of all involved.
6. It’s better that we don’t see Tom Cruise have sex
Many reviewers and social media commentators have singled out the scene—or rather, the lack of a scene—in which Pete and Penny rekindle their love affair. Pete drives Penny home on the back of his motorcycle; she walks into her perfect little cluttered beachside house and pointedly leaves the door open; he follows her in; and then Kosinski cross-fades into an ostensibly post-coital shot of the two of them laughing and talking (silently) in bed. It’s hilariously chaste, but it’s ok because Cruise is so supremely narcissistic at this point that watching him have sex would be difficult, like looking directly into the sun. Kubrick understood this in Eyes Wide Shut, which is at its core a comedy about Tom Cruise not having sex, sometimes due to circumstance, sometimes due to his own cowardice, and always in a perpetual rhythm of coitus interruptus that only humourless, Paulette-style critics could fail to laugh at (which explains the film’s lousy reception in 1999, when humourless, Paulette-style critics had most of the staff jobs in American media). Note also that in Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise is plagued by mental visions of Nicole Kidman—who, as if you need reminding, was not only his onscreen wife but his actual wife, once again cinching the idea that he was playing himself—fucking a guy in Maverick-style military dress whites. I am fairly certain that this, like every other funny thing in Eyes Wide Shut, was intentional.
7. John Hamm is a TV actor
Speaking of intentional: the CO who most wants to bust Maverick’s ass is played by Jon Hamm, who became famous too late in his career to be the next Tom Cruise and is also widely considered to be a “better”—or more “nuanced”—actor than Cruise owing to the Emmys he won for Mad Men (a show I have not watched all the way through). Whenever I see Hamm in movies, I see, fairly or not, the Face of Prestige Television (which was not true of James Gandolfini, a great actor regardless of medium), and so his scenes with Cruise are rife with subtext. Other people have analyzed Top Gun: Maverick as an allegory in which Pete Mitchell is not only the only guy who can fly Mach 10, train a team of pilots to blow up an Enemy uranium stronghold, and tame Jennifer Connelly, but he’s also a symbolic figure holding the line against the dronification of warfare, which is to say, the dronification of moviemaking itself. When he stares down Ed Harris, it’s a reference to the latter’s performance as John Glenn in The Right Stuff; when he stares down John Hamm, however, he’s defending the honor of old-fashioned, self-contained, money-at-the-concession-stand movies—which Tom Cruise loves—against the luxurious, insidious passivity of serialized, longform, visually drab Prestige Television. Eventually, Hamm’s character sees the light, but he’s not one of the film’s many heroes; he’s an avatar of an inferior entertainment-delivery device who gets put in his place; Tom Cruise, who supposedly goes to every new release in disguise in order to sample the wares, doesn’t even own a TV. This is what gives him his edge.
8. Giorgio Moroder > Lady Gaga
I cannot hum “Take My Hand,” Gaga’s torpid, strangely hookless contribution to the Top Gun: Maverick soundtrack. The Instagram photos of Gaga with “big fan” Tom Cruise are of course remarkable. I can hum—and sing, credibly— Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” and will be able to do so for years to come. One of these songs has already stood the test of the time, and the other one won’t. Some other sub-observations about the soundtrack here. The original, neo-Wagnerian Top Gun theme by Harold Faltermeyer, interpolated into Hans Zimmer’s new score, owns in a way that bypasses I-Love-the-80s-irony. The deployment of “Danger Zone” for the opening overture is lame—a cheesy example of I-Love-the-80s-Irony— but at least it’s the original song and not some nu-rock cover, like Nonpoint’s non-essential version of “In the Air Tonight” in Miami Vice.
9. Top Gun: Maverick is fascist
Oliver Stone called the first Top Gun “fascist,” and so it stands to reason—assuming you believe good old left-hook-throwing Oliver Stone, last seen hagiographizing Edward Snowden—that a virtual replay of its contents would be the same. (In 1986, Top Gun made the most money of any US movie at the box office while Stone’s Platoon won Best Picture, powered by a performance by Charlie Sheen, who went on to impersonate Cruise in Hot Shots.) Both Top Gun movies exult fetishistically in shows of American military power and hardware, supplied pro bono by the weapons manufacturers themselves; the same script approval granted to the Navy in ‘86 applies here, which may be why nobody mentions Iran or Russia, only “The Enemy,” which lends the narrative an absurd, Orwellian dimension. (We have always been at war with The Enemy, and we always will.) Kosinski’s rapturous, great-man-of-history angles on Cruise only add to the delirium. (If it wasn’t so tasteless to call him Cruise’s Riefenstahl, I would, and I guess I sort of just did, though I’m also sure Kosinski voted for Biden.) In her recent Cannes roundup for Film Comment, the excellent critic Devika Girish described the movie’s “American-exceptionalist fervour,” and noted its below-the-line complicity with the Navy, before concluding—adroitly, I think—that “Maverick isn’t ‘a good film but with bad politics’; it’s a good film in part because of its bad politics, and it requires that we interrogate what we experience, often in spite of ourselves, as ‘good’ art.” The only thing here to take issue with, hypothetically, is that this movie even requires interrogation, since the bad politics are put across with the same cheerful grin that Cruise uses to sell everything. The last thing that this very smartly engineered movie is is oblivious: rather, it’s confident, and shameless, and it deserves to be, because it puts its—again, fascist, while also, paradoxically, strictly apolitical— agenda across without any hesitation, bashfulness, or compromise.
10. Tom Cruise only wants the best for us
Cruise is the engine of the film’s confidence, and the starting and end point for how to think about what the film is, and what it means. I have thought a lot about it—and him—in the days since, and whether it’s possible to square an affection based on his being the Last Real Movie Star with my suspicion that he has almost certainly condoned slave labor in his various palatial homes. The extent to which one of the more consistently mud-slung celebrities of my lifetime has gone clear, PR-wise, in the last few years is genuinely astonishing and while it can’t all be due to him delivering the goods onscreen, that’s gotta be part of it. (If Mel Gibson came back with Lethal Weapon: Riggs instead of mouthing anti-woke talking points for S Craig Zahler, I think people would go for it.) Cruise appears in promo bumpers before Top Gun: Maverick, as if personally welcoming us to the theater and thanking us for our time and hard-earned money, money that could have gone to gas or groceries or opioids or whatever else. Tom Cruise knows the value of a dollar. I’m pretty sure that if you could prove, under oath—or under the influence of sodium pentathol—that you were somehow not entertained by Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise would privately scourge his flesh with barbed wire, First Reformed-style, as penance. It would sting, but not as much as the idea that he failed to deliver the goods. I won’t perjure myself here, however. I had a great time.