Is there anything more to be said about this movie—arguably the most analyzed film of the last 20 years? I think, perhaps, one point has been overlooked.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is not “Citizen Kane,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” or even “The Godfather.” By which I mean, it makes no pretense to being arthouse or “serious” or even epic cinema. Its goal is to entertain the hell out of you, and it does that brilliantly—which is the main reason it’s so successful.
There are other reasons for its wild popularity. Nostalgia—both for the original film and for a sadly bygone America. Outstanding action sequences shot in real planes with minimal CGI. The excitement of being allowed into an elite secret society that we’d all kill to be a part of but that’s forever out of our reach. The fun of learning insider lingo and jargon. A truly winning performance by Tom Cruise—and, for that matter, the entire cast.
Many have noted that “Top Gun: Maverick” is not politically correct and have made the case that this explains its success. While there is some truth to this explanation, I don’t think that it quite captures the full significance of the point.
The closest we get to any hint of political correctness in this film is the introduction of the new crew of naval aviators. Unlike the nearly all white squad in the first film—only “Sundown,” Maverick’s second backseater or “radar intercept officer” (RIO), was black—the new bunch is diverse. Two of the 12 are black (or, with the surname “Machado,” one is maybe afro-Hispanic). Another is clearly Hispanic, and another Hispanic or perhaps Filipino (“Fritz” doesn’t get a lot of screen time so it’s hard to tell). Two are definitely Asian, and the rest are white. And two, including one of the main and most memorable characters, are women.
When you first see them gather around the pool table at the Hard Deck bar in North Island, San Diego—or at least when I did—my gut response was, “Oh, no! Here comes a lecture on diversity!” It’s a conditioned response to so many ham-fisted Hollywood propaganda fusillades.
Except this time the lecture never comes. No mention of the pilots’ race or sex is ever made, either in the dialogue or implicitly in the story. The filmmakers and the various ex-Navy consultants they hired to give the movie a degree of verisimilitude have all said that the diverse cast is realistic. That’s the way the Navy looks now.
I know full well that’s true. The issue is not the depiction but its implications. In the movie, everyone is treated as an individual. Each officer is there because he (or she) graduated from the Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (a.k.a. “TOPGUN”) at the top of the class. They are called, and call themselves, “the best of the best,” and the internal logic of the film demands that, despite the pilot’s evident confidence (or arrogance), the audience doesn’t dismiss this as a mere boast.
The ensuing competition to be selected for an exceptionally difficult mission is brutal. This is a cutthroat environment and either you make it or you don’t. Just to be there in the first place, suggests it’s because you deserve to be. No one is punished or overpromoted for diversity, or elevated or held back because of paleness.
I admit also that my first response to LT Natasha “Phoenix” Trace was, “OK, there are capable women pilots, but that actress is way too small to handle the Gs.” But all the actors playing pilots had to fly in real F-18s and pull real Gs, and unless the press is lying (sadly, a too-real possibility), actress Monica Barbaro toughed it out better than all the dudes. So who knows?
Another moment that had me reeling on first viewing (I’ve now seen the movie three times) is the introduction of LT Robert “Bob” Floyd. He’s first shown as a quintessential nerd, bespectacled (something the Navy did not used to allow even for backseaters), and self-effacing to the point of invisibility. I immediately thought, “There’s the obligatory white male dufus and butt of jokes.”
But Bob’s stature rises as the movie progresses. He is shown to be smart, capable and valuable. Not a stereotypical super-alpha stick-jockey by any means, but a badass nonetheless.
In a beautiful parallel that I only noticed on my third viewing, Phoenix shows her trust in and reliance on Bob by repeating what is perhaps Maverick’s signature line.
The original “Top Gun” famously opens with a montage of carrier flight deck operations, and then cuts quickly to the Combat Information Center (CIC) of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65). We hear the Commander Air Group (CAG) complain aloud that Maverick and his RIO Goose are aloft in a tense situation.
Cut to the skies above the Indian Ocean. Maverick, in the front seat of his then-cutting-edge F-14, speaks his first line: “Talk to me, Goose.”
These words become the emotional center of both films. They encapsulate the deep friendship between Maverick and Goose, but also, and more important, Maverick’s deep reliance on and respect for Goose.
Maverick repeats the line throughout the first film, even after Goose has died, appealing to his lost friend’s spirit for guidance. In the sequel, he says it, sotto voce, in an exceptionally poignant moment as he flies his experimental plane at an insanely high speed.
That one repetition would be enough for “fan service,” as the saying goes. But “Maverick” does not leave it there. Phoenix, who meets Bob for the first time at the pool table in the Hard Deck, comes to rely on him as Maverick had relied on Goose. She trusts him, believes in him, and respects him. She is the only pilot in the second film who talks to her backseater as Maverick had talked to Goose. “Talk to me, Bob,” becomes an urgent cry, one that signifies the unquestioning teamwork that makes seemingly impossible missions possible. It is also, I believe, meant to show that Phoenix is Maverick’s true successor, not because she is independent and alone but precisely because she knows she is not, as he knew he was not.
This is the real secret to the success of “Top Gun: Maverick.” It depicts a fantasy 2022 America as tens of millions of us would like our country to be. The promise of the civil rights movement was that all would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The film shows what the world would have looked like if we had kept that promise. Nonwhites are not discriminated against—but neither are whites. Nor are nonwhites favored simply for not being white. Every place is earned. Everyone respects one another and gets along.
“Top Gun: Maverick,” in other words, is a Boomer wet dream. It shows the America that the Boomer supporters of the 1964 Civil Rights Act thought they were getting. That future never really came to pass, and after 2020 especially, seems more distant than ever. Yet “Top Gun: Maverick” not only makes no concessions to the racial favoritism of 2022; it pretends it doesn’t even exist.
What “Top Gun: Maverick” depicts is what the majority of Americans, and virtually all white Americans, have always wanted: a true meritocracy in which talent and virtue are rewarded, regardless of race or sex, and in which all Americans respect excellence, respect one another, come together as a team, love their country, and fight for it.
We don’t have that country today. But the success of this movie shows that millions of Americans still want it.
Without trying or intending to be, the box-office triumph of “Top Gun: Maverick” is the strongest possible proof that America is not afflicted by “systemic racism.” Audiences root—and cheer—for those 12 aviators not in spite of their race and sex but because of them. American audiences want to see minorities succeeding, and they want to see whites and nonwhites working together, bonding together, winning together. The vision shown is the country they were promised and the country they want to live in. A country that, today, sadly exists only on the big screen.
I grew up around the Navy. In the 1980s, I went out on MSOs, FFGs, DDGs, CGs, CGNs, SSNs, SSBNs, BBs, CVs and CVNs. I was allowed to operate things, as a teenager, that it would be unwise to disclose today lest I get one of my benefactors in trouble.
America, and the Navy, were less diverse then, but neither were things segregated or off-limits to minorities. In the 1980s Navy, there was no hint of “affirmative action” or any kind of preference. The unquestioned assumption was that, if you were there, you belonged and knew what you were doing. Certainly, I never saw anything that caused me to suspect otherwise.
One of the many benefits of that exposure was that I made a lot of friends, many of whom I kept in touch with. One of them advanced to become the executive officer (XO, or second in command) of a ballistic missile submarine. When his boat came into New York Harbor in the late 1990s, we met up. This was at the height of the Clinton Administration attempt, under left-wing Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, to “modernize” (wokify) the Navy. Over drinks, I gingerly expressed my misgivings. My friend objected strongly—not on substance, but on my standing. I hadn’t served. Even if my objections were correct, and he didn’t say they weren’t, I had no business criticizing a service to which I had no direct connection.
So in that spirit, take the following for what it’s worth. I fear that “Top Gun: Maverick” does not reflect the real Navy, much less the real America. The real Navy’s recent track record is not so good. Sailors are crashing ships, crashing planes, and not getting the job done. The brass appears to be promoting not according to merit but to demographics. I say this from a posture of genuine sadness over a service I genuinely love. Are the best still selected because they’re the best, regardless of race or sex, like in the Navy that 12-year-old me watched in awe firsthand in 1982, or the Navy that “Top Gun: Maverick” depicts on screen? I can’t be sure, but I don’t think so.
As for the real America—have you been paying attention?
Americans want more than anything to put race behind us. “Top Gun: Maverick” shows that idealized America, and that’s the biggest reason why it’s so popular. Unfortunately, the most powerful Americans, from the president on down, are determined to ensure that this particular American dream can never be.