Hell Yeah, Tom Cruise

The seductions of Top Gun, a movie about a bunch of killing machines vrooming around

Getty; Everett Collection; The Atlantic
Getty; Everett Collection; The Atlantic

About the author: Caitlin Flanagan is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She is the author of Girl Land and To Hell With All That.

Top Gun came out in the spring of 1986, a movie so big, so wall-to-wall, so resistance-is-futile that you just had to coexist with the damn thing until it finally went away. Now—like one of those flowers that comes into bloom only once every 40 years—it’s back.

Apparently Paramount had been after Tom Cruise to make a sequel before the original even opened, which is no surprise. In the 1980s studio executives began to operate more like hedge-fund managers, strip-mining any possible asset in a movie by making sequel after sequel until the thing was finally taken off life support. We can blame Francis Ford Coppola for that; in the 1970s he did the stunning and unrepeatable thing of making one of the greatest American movies of all time—and then making a sequel that was even better. In the ’80s Hollywood tweaked this golden formula by making horrible movies and then a series of progressively worse sequels (unintentionally giving birth to the greatest title in movie history: Rambo: First Blood Part II).

And now, after all these years: Top Gun: First Blood Part II. Or, as it is formally known, Top Gun: Maverick.

I kind of wanted to see it.

I was 24 when Top Gun came out, and everyone in my generation saw it. The references and proto-memes and Academy Award callbacks have been part of my entire adult life. But I never saw it. In fact, the first time I saw the trailer, I thought, There’s no way in hell I’ll ever see that movie. This was partly because it looked like it was going to be really loud, and partly because it looked like there would be a lot of very boring parts. But there was something else—I flinched when I saw that rollicking, need-for-speed trailer.

But I wanted to see the new one, because it seemed like some kind of generational marker. I’m exactly the same age as Tom Cruise (in dog years, not in comparative physical preservation) and Top Gun was, even more than Risky Business, the role that started it all. I had a nostalgic feeling about the whole thing—I mean about Tom Cruise, not so much about this movie. I would go! But first I would have to get over 36 years of stubbornness and watch the original, so I would know what long-ago setups were being paid off.

It took 45 seconds for me to realize why I’d responded so strongly to that trailer. All was revealed in the opening words that appeared on the screen:

On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world.

They succeeded.

Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it [wait for it] TOP GUN

I knew why I’d flinched at those glorified planes. Because Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise can call the airplanes at the center of the franchise whatever they want—F-14s, Tomcats—but I knew what they were: killing machines.

In 1969, the United States military was not interested in reviving any lost arts. It was interested in continuing what would come to be known as “the longest and heaviest aerial bombardment in history,” one that involved America dropping more bombs on the impoverished country of Vietnam—and on the equally impoverished nations of Laos and Cambodia—than were dropped during the entirety of the Second World War.

In 1986, the questions and sorrows of Vietnam were still very much unresolved. Maya Lin’s monument to the American dead had opened on the National Mall just four years earlier. I lived in Washington at the time, and I remember visiting that extraordinary place several times in those early years. It was not like any other monument, because it was a living place, alive with the sobs of family members looking for the names of their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands. There were young men, looking for the names of friends they’d watched die. People were praying; people were holding their hands against names. Thirty percent of the men who died in that monstrous war had been drafted, sent against their will and cut down before their lives had really begun.

So, 45 seconds in, I realized what Top Gun really was: propaganda. Never again tell me you can’t make a conservative movie in Hollywood. After its release there was a 500 percent increase in applications to the Navy’s flight program.

Here’s the story. (Spoiler alert for any other Rip Van Winkles out there.) Top Gun is about a romantic friendship between two men, Maverick (Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards), which is strengthened when they are both selected for Top Gun training at the base in Miramar, California. Goose has a wife, a son, a home. Maverick has no one: “You’re the only family I’ve got,” he tells Goose. Cruise’s official love interest in the film, Kelly McGillis, lumbers in and out, and watching these two fulfill their contractual duties of performing sexual attraction to each other is embarrassing. We want to see Maverick with Goose.

The movie shouldn’t have much dramatic tension. America was not at war at the time, and almost all of the (endless, loud, super-boring) flying scenes are merely training exercises. But Tom Cruise takes hold of that movie and doesn’t let go; whatever deal with the gods he’s made, when he wants to glue you down in your seat, he does it with a single glance.

And then Goose is killed, and in a way that might have been Maverick’s fault. Maverick’s plane goes into a death spin over the ocean, he can’t pull out of it, and both men eject from the plane, but Goose hits the canopy. The most powerful and true scene in the movie is of Maverick cradling Goose’s body in the water as a rescuer yells that he has to let go to be saved. (I don’t mean true in the sense of the mechanics of the scene. I mean true in the sense of Cruise’s love for Goose being fully realized, both emotionally and physically.)

We next see Cruise in the hospital, standing over a sink in his briefs, splashing water on his face after shaving. His commanding officer comes in to buck him up in one of those war-movie scenes where the CO suddenly becomes paternal and kind, so that he can get the kid back to the front: “You fly jets long enough, something like this happens.”

When a person tells you something like this, you probably want to have your clothes on, but this is Top Gun.

“My squad in Vietnam, we lost eight of 18 aircraft,” the officer tells him quietly. “10 men.”

“First one dies, you die too,” the officer says. “But there will be others. You can count on it.”

The CO runs his hand lingeringly over Cruise’s bare back. “You gotta let ’em go.” (This thing may have nothing real to say about the lost art of aerial combat, but it’s a gorgeous illustration of the lost art of suppressed homoeroticism.)

In Freudian terms, Maverick has become impotent, his crisis of manhood rendering him unable to fly. But it turns out that doesn’t matter, because—get this—he already has enough credits to graduate. (Imagine being the screenwriter forced to jimmy the plot by introducing this sterling bit of business.) He reluctantly shows up at graduation, and it’s a good thing he does, because the champagne has no sooner popped than an instructor announces, “Some of you have to depart immediately. We have a crisis situation.”

A crisis? In San Diego? Volleyball net torn? Surf too gnarly? No, the “crisis” takes place somewhere in the Indian Ocean, where a disabled American vessel has drifted into “foreign territory.” (What? Which hostile nation-state is threatening ships in the Indian Ocean in 1986? Think of it as Madagascar. Anyway, the ship must be rescued.)

So they book it over to the Indian Ocean (Hang in there, disabled American vessel! We’re almost to the Strait of Hormuz!) and then get up in the sky and engage with the enemy. The Americans take heavy fire, return it, and end up shooting down four of the enemy’s planes. The whole incident seemed a bit Gulf of Tonkin to me, but geopolitics is not the point. Maverick getting his courage back is the point.

Cruise is cleared of responsibility for Goose’s death; he’s a naval hero. He throws Goose’s dog tags into the ocean (in much the same manner and spirit as Rose throws the Heart of the Ocean necklace overboard at the end of Titanic). In the final scene, he’s back in San Diego, a man at peace, drinking a beer and reading a newspaper when Kelly McGillis shows up, and we actually muster some interest in the moment because we want a sense of fulfillment, and—The End.

An excellent script actually, except for all of the vrooming around, the unexplained international incident, and the way McGillis keeps popping up like the Freddy Krueger of heterosexuality.

Thus informed, I went to the AMC theater for an 11 a.m. showing of the brand-new Top Gun. There was only a smattering of people in the audience, all of them old (they were my age), and I took my seat among them. Then AMC—which I presume wants to encourage people to return to the movies—subjected us to 40 minutes of hell. First, something called “The Noovie Trivia Show,” hosted by Maria Menounos, which produced actual groans in the audience. Then there were so many trailers—one stinker after another—that a quiet sense of panic began to spread. Were we even in the right theater? By that point, my last Milk Duds were rattling around in the box. Finally, Nicole Kidman (Tom Cruise’s ex, of all people!) appeared on the screen, talking about movie magic, and we all laughed at her because no one who has just seen “Noovie” believes in movie magic. And then, at last—the film.

What do you want from me? You can’t bet against Tom Cruise. I might have even cried a little at the end.

Something happened at the beginning of the movie that no one expected: Tom Cruise came to talk to us. “Hi, everybody,” he said, “and welcome to Top Gun: Maverick.”

A few people sort of giggled. It felt manipulative and mercenary, but also strangely intimate. It was like being on a date with the most confident guy in the world. He knew we were infatuated with him, and he was only trying to make us feel comfortable. “Thank you all for being here,” he told us.

He said that everyone involved in the movie had put their heart and soul into it. “We’re so happy you’re here in this theater and seeing it on the big screen,” he said. “We all made it for you.”

He put a spell on me a long time ago. He’s not a television star. He’s an honest-to-God movie star, and I love him. He’s a complete loon in real life, but we don’t spend any time together in real life.

Well, the movie turns out to be excellent. Here’s the story, minus the spoilers, because this time some genuinely exciting and unexpected things do happen.

We’re supposed to consider Maverick very old—“thanks, Pops,” a young aviator says to him—despite the fact that Cruise looks better than most of the world’s 35-year-olds. The call to adventure comes walking into the hangar, a Naval official saying that Maverick is needed back in Miramar to help with a big crisis. (It’s one of those “I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back in” scenes.)

Cruise meets with Jon Hamm, who really needs to call his agent, because this is the worst role of all time: the tight-assed officer who is forever being made a fool of by Maverick. But he needs Maverick, because only he can select and train a group of pilots to carry out a … mission impossible.

In a far-off and evil land, an enemy has built a secret uranium-enrichment facility and will soon receive a shipment of raw uranium. Maverick’s team must fly into the valley where it is located, bomb the hell out of the facility, and then climb out of the resulting canyon in a way the planes may not actually be able to do.

I wanted to wave my hand at the screen and say “Tom! Over here! It’s me. Just wanted to remind you that we fought a very bad war that started exactly this way. Are you sure about this uranium? Was Judith Miller involved in any of this?”

But I couldn’t get his attention (he was super-focused on logistics), so the challenge gets accepted, and Top Gun is up and running again.

It might seem that there would be no way to top the shirtless volleyball scene from the original Top Gun, about which the director, Tony Scott, later said, “I didn’t have a vision of what I was doing other than just doing soft porn.” But this new one … mercy. The shirtless football-in-the surf scene justifies the 36-year wait. (The second-worst role in the movie goes to the actor who had to play the role of “women also attend the Top Gun program now,” and she’s there in the surf too, and she’s pretty good with the football, but no woman can break through in this picture—it’s Top Gun!)

Maverick has arranged this football game, but he is not playing in it. He’s sitting on the dry sand and trying to act like an old guy who can’t risk tweaking a hip. He looks like he could easily step into Tom Brady’s shoes and do a better job of it, but you just have to go along with the conceit.

In real life, Val Kilmer, an essential part of the first movie, has suffered tremendous health challenges. He has been diagnosed with throat cancer and now speaks through a voice box. The film found a way to include him: Cast as an admiral who is himself suffering from cancer, he meets with Maverick and gives him advice by typing on a computer. Kelly McGillis is a healthy 64-year-old woman, so she was not asked to participate.

The mythic aspect of the movie is that one of the pilots under Maverick’s command is Goose’s son, Rooster. The two of them have a lot to work out. Maverick is old and fading; Rooster is young—everything belongs to him now. The plot finds a brilliant way to resolve his anger and Maverick’s guilt about Goose’s death. The young actor who plays Rooster, Miles Teller, has charisma to burn, and you can easily see him picking up the franchise, although the series’s commitment to using the pilots’ call signs means that the movie would have to have the wet-blanket title of Top Gun: Rooster.

Top Gun: Maverick isn’t a Vietnam movie. It’s certainly not a movie about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are never mentioned, but loom in a “Don’t talk about the war” kind of way). What it is is a World War II movie, without the war. Antiseptic, safe, filled with valor and sunshine, it celebrates the military capability of the United States and provides a fictional—but sound—representation of the excellent young men and women who stand up to serve.

Nothing could feel less like combat than a Top Gun movie. It’s more like a children’s game or a video game, with the characters’ huge helmets and silly names. Death is bloodless and exceedingly rare. New lives are granted—Goose evolves into Rooster. Nothing is for keeps.

And what about the first movie’s beginning, with that nonsense about 1969? Did Paramount get rid of it? No. Once again, it’s right there at the start, with the lost art and all of that crap, as if Vietnam were only an exciting theater of aerial excellence and not a country soaked with civilian blood, and the cradle of 60,000 American deaths.

That’s the thing about war: We have to forget what it’s really like. We move past our sorrows, and then Hollywood performs its act of reverse transubstantiation—turning blood into movies—so the next generation (maybe your children, maybe mine) can more easily be summoned to combat.