‘Top Gun Maverick’: Yeah, Worth The Wait

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First, a nod of thanks to John Lehman Jr. Without him, this thing would never have gotten started. Lehman was Secretary of the Navy in 1984 when Jerry Bruckheimer approached him about doing a movie on the Navy Fighter Weapons School. Lehman saw it as a recruiting bonanza—he was right—and his greenlight begat “Top Gun,” which led straight to last weekend’s release of the sequel, “Top Gun Maverick,” albeit three decades in the oven.

Anyone who was perched on the edge of anticipation waiting for this release won’t be disappointed, I’m sure. I wasn’t among the bated breath crowd, but “Top Gun Maverick” is probably the best of its kind for a flight-based shoot-‘em-up movie. The original 1986 release had a paltry $15 million budget ($40 million in 2022) while the sequel burned through four times that amount. And does it ever show in stunning cinematography, seamless special effects, crazy good flying scenes and, maybe not that it matters that much for this kind of film, impressive acting against a storyline that’s—let’s face it—about as deep as a Marvel comic.

About the fifth time I saw the original, I finally accepted that this is how you have to view movies like this that take such ridiculous license with reality as to stretch believability to its elastic limits. “Top Gun Maverick” does this here and there, but overall it hews more to realistic events than the original did. And where it departs, it does sufficient penance with jaw-dropping flight scenes to make up for it. I’m pretty sure, for example, early in the movie they filmed a real vertical rolling scissors from the outside. Pretty sure I saw that twice and it’s an eye-popper.

Tom Cruise, who reprises the lead character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, was a top line executive producer apparently with a lot of influence. After the original, he learned to fly and is now type rated in at least a couple of jets and owns a two-seat P-51. The sequel hews to the original in basic structure so, predictably, there are a few must-have touchpoints from 1986, updated to modern sensibilities. Whether it was Cruise or the writers, they managed to de-cringe the new version. No hokey hangar scene with the cowboy hat and locker room beefcake, either. The real Top Gun pilots hated that and had other script issues throughout production, according to Admiral Pete Pettigrew, who served as technical advisor on the first film. For fans of ancient motorcycles, Cruise rides into work on the original Kawasaki GPZ900, but later upgrades to a Ninja H2.

Also retained was, wait for it, the volleyball scene, but in deference to there being a woman pilot in the group, no over-the-top homoerotic flexing, but a clean game of touch football on the beach. Team building, you know. The original version didn’t take itself entirely seriously; the sequel even less so. There are enough humorous bits, some at Cruise’s expense, to suggest the script writers and rewriters had fun. Poking at the fetish for callsigns, one of the F-18 RIOs—I guess they’re WSOs now—is asked his callsign. “It’s Bob,” he says. “Just Bob.” It’s even stenciled on his helmet. In the set-up to Maverick’s return to Top Gun, he’s testing a new Mach 10 aircraft which disintegrates when he pushes beyond 10.1, ejecting him somewhere over California. (I know … just go with it.) Channeling Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” after he ejected from the NF-104, Maverick stumbles into a diner, dazed, face blackened and charred helmet in hand.

“Where am I,” he asks a wide-eyed kid at the counter. There’s a long pause. You know what’s coming. And the director knows you know, too. That doesn’t make it any less funny. “Earth,” the kid says.

Following the original, the film opens with a carrier scene reprising Tony Scott’s moody, artistic shots of the flight deck at work. It’s a hard act to follow and I’m not sure “Top Gun Maverick” director Joseph Kosinski got it so much better as different. His cuts were shorter and he got breathtaking hi-def detail of an arresting cable snaking back into battery and the cat shuttle taking up the slack for a shot. I longed for more of that. Scott’s work was obsessive about the golden light of late afternoon and is more, well, painterly, I guess. Before his death in 2012, Scott himself told the story of the carrier captain changing course during his shooting. (It was the Enterprise.) When he demanded a down sun heading, the officers reminded him what it cost to run a carrier. Scott produced a checkbook and sent a $25,000 check to the bridge. He didn’t say if it was cashed.

For “TG Maverick,” the basic plot line here ain’t War and Peace. Maverick’s called back to Top Gun to train pilots to bomb a nuclear site in some unnamed country. Wherever it is, it has snow and pine trees. And a lot of SAMs. They have to fly an impossibly low profile, dive into a mountain crater then do a 9G pull-up to escape. Glossed over is why F35s can’t do this or just a few Tomahawks but … comic book mode.

For much of the flying, Cruise is in the back of an F-18, including a carrier launch. A Navy pilot is in the front seat doing the flying, but the camera work disguises this. Bloomberg reported the production paid $11,000 an hour for the aircraft and the Navy specified that only the Naval pilots would be hands on. (Bet that got fudged.) The other principal actors were similarly situated although some of this flying may have been CGI, which has gotten so good it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. For example, for the grand escape denouement, Cruise is flying a stolen F-14—just go with it—of which there are no accessible airworthy examples. So it’s done with a cockpit mockup and CGI. When you see that scene, with the cotton candy blooming off the wings, remind yourself to compare it to the scenes that are real. All of the actors went through a three-month flight training course that included F-18 rides.

The script gets some traction with one of the characters, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw played by Miles Teller. He’s cast as the son of Goose Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), who died in an ejection accident in the original film. This sets up a natural if predictable tension that just as naturally dissolves in bro hugs on the flight deck after the bad guys are dispensed with. In body language and mannerisms, Teller nails the very son he is supposed to be. Superb acting.

And now, give Cruise his due. To be honest, I am not a fan for reasons there’s no need to mention here. But as an actor, Cruise has become far more seasoned than he was in 1986. Maverick is, after all, a cardboard cutout of a character. But Cruise, nonetheless, gives Maverick a depth not necessarily obvious from the intent of the script which is, of course, the essence of acting. He does much of this with facial expressions and gestures and manages to convey the sense of a once-brash man whose sharp edges have been sanded off by the consequences of his ego-driven excesses. This is a very subtle thing, but it is also unmistakable.

No more so in what I thought was the gutsiest turn in the script. Of the original cast, only one actor—Val Kilmer—appears in the sequel, as Admiral Tom Kazansky. As Iceman in the original, he had been Maverick’s nemesis but, as alluded in the sequel script, he became his loyal friend and wingman. While Maverick’s rank stalled at Captain (O-6), Kazansky became an admiral and commander of the Pacific fleet. It’s made clear that Kazansky became Maverick’s Navy guardian angel.

In real life, Kilmer lost his voice to throat cancer. Fortune reported that Kilmer would employ an AI-synthesis of his own voice for the film, but in fact he communicated through a keyboard. The face-to-face meeting between the two is a short scene, but I found it emotionally powerful. It seems apparent that the two actors have a genuine affection for each other or are just good enough to make the audience believe they do. For the purposes of the story arc, what’s the difference? They didn’t need to include that scene, but that they did was a wonderful, uplifting surprise. It was reported that Cruise insisted on it.

When the first film debuted, MTV was five years old and still a thing. Resonating with the culture at the time, “Top Gun” had a music video quality to it. Watched today, it’s actually a little cloying. The sickly, bassy guitar in “Take My Breath Away” still reels me back to 1980s big hair that hasn’t improved with age. Right in tune with the current culture, “TG Maverick” has music, but it’s agreeably toned back. You know it’s there, but it’s not pounding. “Danger Zone,” the worst ear worm in the history of music, is woven briefly into the opening. Lady Gaga has a nice ballad at the end, played against Cruise flying his Mustang. Hey, if you got it, flaunt it. Also, be prepared for a loud movie. The jet noise sounds like it’s boosted through most of the scenes. The seats in our theater vibrated.

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, “Top Gun Maverick” was delayed in release for two years because Paramount wanted it to be seen on big screens. Wise move. I saw it on an IMAX screen and would watch it again if I have time. For all its groaning flaws, the original “Top Gun” has become a classic. But it’s not even in the top 200 of high-earning films, even though it was highly profitable. “TG Maverick” may just outdo the original. But even if it doesn’t, it will go into the aviation movie Hall of Fame.

Researching Lehman’s role in making “Top Gun” happen, I found what a New York Times article once said about him interesting. Lehman had once been an A-6 B/N known for his rowdy ways. His boss, the SecDef, said the Times, “appears to regard his 43-year-old Navy Secretary as a prodigy with delinquent tendencies.” Makes me wonder if Lehman saw himself in the character of Maverick Mitchell.

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67 COMMENTS

  1. Never a fan of ‘Top Gun’
    Immature brats whose stunts
    Would have them out of the military without a trace
    The jets were the stars not the actors
    I can only take so much of odd facial scenes in a cockpit
    I’d rather watch jet flybys at Oshkosh
    The dialogue was ridiculous
    And the love story vapid

  2. Memorial Day commemorates the men and women who died while in military service. To memorialize our heroic fallen, many people visit cemeteries and memorials, participate in parades, and countless volunteers respectfully place American flags on each grave site at national cemeteries.

    As stated, Paramount delayed the film’s release for two years due to Covid because they wanted people to see it on a big screen. I’m at a loss why the release couldn’t have waited a few more weeks for a more appropriate, glove-fitting July 4 celebratory fireworks holiday weekend.

    Well researched and interesting analysis nonetheless. I didn’t see the first one, not interested in seeing this one.
    Interestingly, the dynamic message sign today on my local highway read: ‘To be Mavs wingman, you need to Buckle Up’ – so even city councils are evidently excited about the movie.

    • I’m with you, Dave. Most folks use Memorial Day as the unofficial gateway to summertime and totally forget the true meaning and reason for the Holiday. Those of us who served — a small subset of the population — at least fully understand the meaning. I will see it but NOT tomorrow; I’ll be at the small town gathering. July 4 would have been a more fitting day to roll out this cinematic extravaganza.

      A PB article and only five comments … are ya’ll out boating or … ??

      • Hey Larry- Yeah, this fantasy flick redux released on a reality check weekend just hit me wrong this year.

        Around anything hyped I usually get very sleepy, yet this ‘need for speed’ movie hype that seemed to be everywhere – (I was hesitant to open a fresh bar of soap to shower for fear Cruise’s face would be imprinted on it – thankfully, surface smooth as butta)
        …and it was smothering the solemn quiet of MemDay weekend, and getting under my skin.

        It almost seemed deliberate, and obtusely out of touch – until I slapped myself awake from my dozing and realized, as Randy Newman crooned, ‘It’s money that matters’.
        Of course, geez, now all is in its rightful place. 🙂

      • As someone who has served, and have lost many friends, I never understand that philosophy. I don’t like “Happy Memorial Day,” but the fact that a movie opens, or beaches are full or there are sales in stores, are EXACTLY why we served, sacrificed and some gave all. To live and enjoy America.

        • Why the fallen served was not mentioned by anyone. For my part, questioning the status quo was prominent.

          Yes, we served so people could freely say “Happy Memorial Day!’ or “Get a job!” to a homeless veteran, or that corporate greed could freely misuse the holiday to make money with a film, concert or a sale.
          No argument from me. We all served – this is what we got.

          Seeing a local gun store advertise “Top Gun Memorial Day Sale!” while our collective consciousness is still blood-wet from a school slaughter is as American as apple pie, baby!
          And yes, we served for that freedom of expression, too.

          Questioning the status quo and head-bobbing acceptance of a huge, corporate money making, over-hyped fantasy film on a somber national holiday – just because it had airplanes in it – is perfectly legit in my mind. If the movie was about climate change or how Musk spends his days with that level of hype and promotion on MemDay weekend, I would still object to the effort.
          And yep, we served for all that, too.

          But not to worry, carry-on – it’s just a pause of thought if you dare until the next assured, status quo school massacre or Veteran’s Day sale of bedsheets and condoms soothes us back to the familiar, safe space ethos we all know and love.

  3. I was at an outdoor concert on a military based platform. I wasn’t, nor will I, see that silly pointless movie. I think honoring our departed is more important than to make Thomas Mapother even more richer than he already is.

  4. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the similarities between the big attack in this movie and “633 Squadron”. Both flying up a twisty valley, against ground defenses, fighters poised above, having to drop the ordnance on a small target, etc.

    For THAT matter, the same plotline was used as the climax in the original “Star Wars.” Do a Goggle search along the lines of “video 633 squadron star wars”. It’ll bring up a video where they take the video of the attack sequence from 633 squadron, with the audio soundtrack from Star Wars. Amazing how the two match up….

  5. It’s a movie, people. Entertainment. Not political statement. I agree with Paul 100% – the flying scenes are incredible, and Cruise did a great job of portraying a man who has learned much since he was a brash 20-something, trying to pass some of it along to the brash 20-somethings he’s ordered to train.

    Four of us saw it opening night in a fairly full theater. All four of us loved it, and that seemed to be the general concensus of the whole crowd. The man in front of me was retired Air Force, and he was quite literally on the edge of his seat for much of the second half of the movie.

    • Haven’t seen it yet. But excited to do so. I’m looking forward to just a fun, fun, exciting, airplane action filled couple of hours of entertainment. That’s what it’s about folks. You don’t need to think any deeper than that occasionally. And I liked comic books too.

    • Thanks for a sensible reply. Just cause I want to see a movie on Memorial Day doesn’t mean I’m disrespectful. I can both watch a movie like this AND be grateful to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. Now if I only had an IMAX nearby…

    • Thanks Brian, it is and was a dang movie for us flyer types, and we enjoyed it for the entertainment. How often do we get to do that?

      As to Tom Cruise, thanks. We don’t know who you are as a private person, and really don’t or shouldn’t care. You did your job just as all of us do, and I don’t see what else anyone should expect of you.

      I’m looking forward to anything aviation related, good bad or indifferent mainly because it helps all of us escape this insane world and we need those few moments.

  6. Saw it three days ago. The best aviation related movie experience for me since watching the Apollo 11 movie in ’19, on the very day of it’s 50 th. year anniversary, in the West Yellowstone IMAX theatre with a mostly Asian tourist crowd who sat quietly throughout, while I had all I could do to not jump up and scream like a maniac when the Lunar Lander touched down with just seconds of fuel remaining. Yeah I know, TGM is just a Hollywood movie, but go see it, you won’t be disappointed.

  7. Bar-bet winner: Tom Cruise does NOT own a P-51. He owns a North American F6-K Mustang–the photo-recon version–restored as a P-51. But who among us could get dates boasting that we owned an F6-K?

    • It was built as a P-51K and modified as F-6K (prior to delivery), not an F6-K (no such thing). It was restored back to look like a P-51D (basically removed the cameras, changed the propeller and added a second seat). And it is registered with the FAA as P-51K and owned by Valhalla Aviation Inc., of which Tom Cruise is president. So, his company does own a Mustang, but Tom Cruise technically owns neither a P-51D, P-51K nor F-6K, but certainly no F6-K.

  8. They filmed the mountain scenes right in our backyard in Seattle, in the Cascades. Based out of Whidbey Island for the filming they were in pretty secure. Used the VR routes. So it’s Douglas Fir on the west and pines to the east of the crest of the mountains.

  9. Went and saw this movie this weekend because of this review, it was good but hard to beat the first (unfortunately). Lady Gaga just didn’t do it for me on the song. There was just more depth on the first and the youth and what you expect from a top gun team was more believable. This movie lost me on the stealing of military F18/F14’s and what it takes to actually put one of those in the air in ground team work, coordination and logistical cooperation.

  10. Excellent write up Paul, and an Excellent Movie. Not perfect, but really good, and like the previous one, it will have a profound long-term positive impact on aviation, both civilian and military.

  11. This is basically a remake, not a sequel.
    It was painful having all the old lines and scenes thrown in every few minutes.
    As said in the movie: “let it go” but they never did.
    There was no spark of creativity as each scene was predictable right down to the dialogue.

    • Your “old lines and scene” are my “homages”. It was done deliberately to reward those of us loved the original and wanted continuity. Some of them were slightly modified so that we knew it was presented with a knowing wink.

      Sorry you missed the subtlety.

      • I honestly would have enjoyed it if they were subtle. I felt like I was at some weird drunken party where young people kept using old Top Gun movie quotes. It’s fun for the first few minutes, but then after each old quote it starts to be like the drip drip drip of water torture to where it drives you to scream the message of the move: “IT’S TIME TO LET GO”.

  12. First non ‘woke’ movie I’ve seen in a long time.
    No global warming, no feel sorry for me because of my race, sex, etc…
    It is weird… like the movies were back in the 1980s.
    With a clear story line that blends perfectly with the first movie.

  13. No need to apologize to Paul. He wrote one of the best reviews of the movie I’ve read (and there have been a lot of them) most of which are not nearly as aviation-savvy. Maybe you’ll like “Dune” better.

    But, hey, my wife loved “Mamma Mia”. Think you could pinch out a troll of that for me?

  14. Paul Sir!, I lover reading your articles and watching your videos. I’m especially appreciative of your dry wit and your on-the-mark accuracy.
    In the interests of encouraging the accuracy… “ …Cruise is in the back of an F-18, including a carrier launch. A Navy pilot is in the front seat doing the flying, …” It’s interesting that the Navy allowed a harbor pilot whose job it is to guide ships in and out of harbors fly one of their F18s. I’d have thought they would have INSISTED upon an actual Naval Aviator. ;>)

  15. Paul Sir!, I love reading your articles and watching your videos. I’m especially appreciative of your dry wit and your on-the-mark accuracy.
    In the interests of encouraging the accuracy… “ …Cruise is in the back of an F-18, including a carrier launch. A Navy pilot is in the front seat doing the flying, …” It’s interesting that the Navy allowed a harbor pilot whose job it is to guide ships in and out of harbors fly one of their F18s. I’d have thought they would have INSISTED upon an actual Naval Aviator. ;>)

  16. Quite true how the story is pretty shallow. I’m wondering why on earth a movie like this can’t fetch a good story. It is a ‘set your brain at the door’ sort of flick. You go here and ignore the story and wait for the flying sequences.

    The first eye-roll I had was in the beginning when Maverick takes off with the test plane and looked behind him (his helmet would block his view and so would the cockpit) as he blasted the admiral standing at the end of the runway. I’m not convinced that admiral wouldn’t have been at least slightly singed from being blasted by an afterburner.

  17. I am a NFWS graduate, right as the first movie released. Other than a few flying scenes, I thought it was embarrassingly stupid. The “plot” was which infantile pilot would do the dumbest thing while trying to get their name on the trophy. To hell with aircraft, to hell with RIO’s, to hell with the mission, just get your name on that (completely fictitious) trophy.

    The actual school as you might expect, was completely different, the most professional training I ever attended anywhere, with the best lecturers I’ve ever seen. One of the best aspects was that we learned to give far better presentations ourselves, which served us well throughout our lives. Crews took the information back to their fleet squadrons, and gave the lectures and shared the latest and greatest tactics and training with their unit.

    I heard this one as a plot, which is to take out a target that a single Tomahawk Land Attack Missile could do after a few minutes of programming, and a Tactical Officer pushing a button while drinking coffee.

    The movie is heavily promoted as it the lead in a massive push to get customers back in theaters. Not in any hurry, but I’ll have a look in due course. Probably on my nifty 4K HDTV in a few months. BTDT, have the patch.

    Whatever you think of Cruise personally, he generally makes good movies. Nothing wrong with putting your mind in neutral and just enjoying the fun.

  18. Well worth masking up for. Managed a matinee in the IMAX and some social distancing too.

    Can’t imagine seeing this on a wide screen after IMAX. It is immersive. The plot stretches it a bit, some ranks seem to manage to get transferred all over the world at a drop of a hat to keep the story going and some operational points are simply eliminated. You know – the usual movie “some events have been condensed” type disclaimer.

    There are some lovely nods at the original, some nods at a few other Tom Cruise movies too. Anyone get the one at “An Officer and a Gentleman”? And the Dambusters and Star Wars get their nods too. But at the end of the day – while knowledge of the first movie adds to the experience – this movie stands on its own. And with a lot more hardware in the air and at least three “acts” featuring different hardware – you get a lot more flying for your money. It’s better than the first.

    Sure there is some CGI in there. The F14 is real on the ground, but in the air – well…… But a chunk of this flying is real. And it’s just worth it for that.

    Of course the good guys win – but so what?

    For the folks who think it “would never be like that”. Here are two YouTube videos showing this is trained for all the time by a whole raft of the NATO inventory.

    First video – from the cockpit

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyzAAcpsdEQ

    Second video from the plane spotters’ viewpoint (watch out for a flight of 4 x C130’s flying the profile)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1F1YWgwSMEI