September 30, 2022
'Top Gun: Maverick' Isn't a Recruitment Ad. It's All About Tom Cruise: Movie Star — That's Why It Works

There’s no way that the sequel to one of the most toxic blockbusters of the 1980s should be as entertaining as it is — and the reason is the name above the title

A project midwifed into existence when producer Jerry Bruckheimer spied a magazine photo spread of fighter jets and pitched a high-concept idea — “Star Wars on Earth” — to his even-higher producing partner Don Simpson, the No. 1 hit movie of 1986 was a lot of things. It’s a classic story of a hero’s journey, from arrogant young punk who doesn’t play by the the rules to older, slightly wiser but still-pissing-on-the-rulebook adult. It’s a great example of the MTV aesthetic that was the hotshot producers’ stock-in-trade, and would become something close to a multiplex house style throughout the decade. (Tom Cruise initially turned down the role because he was afraid the movie would end up being “Flashdance in the sky,” a reference to Bruckheimer and Simpson’s then-recent runaway smash.) It’s home to some of the most iconic lines and the corniest dialogue ever typed on a word processor; the list of groaners is long and distinguished, though we’re susceptible to “His fitness report says it all: Flies by the seat of his pants, totally unpredictable!” and “Every time we go up there, it’s like you’re flying with a ghost!”

Given that director Tony Scott was supposedly hired not because he’d made The Hunger, a stylish, sexy-violent vampire flick, but because the duo had seen his Saab advertisement where the car went toe-to-toe with a jet, it makes sense that Top Gun would also be one long commercial for a variety of things: aviator sunglasses, leather jackets, its vintage-boomer-singles-meet-skinny-tie-synth-pop soundtrack, the pleasures of shirtless volleyball, gung-ho hypermasculinity and, the biggest product of all, American exceptionalism. Most of all, though, it’s a nearly two-hour promo for the Navy’s pilot-training course, partially paid for by the Pentagon and responsible for a record-breaking uptick in recruitment; the oft-quoted number was a “500 percent” boost in youngsters wanting to sign up to shoot down MiGs. Legend has it that recruitment booths were set up right outside theaters, so that moviegoers high on 100-watt smiles and the need for speed could be easily convinced to keep the movie going in real life. Cruise had been adamant that Top Gun not be a tale of warfare — he always saw it as a story about competition and “excellence.” It ended up being both.

That last part is what makes Top Gun so toxic, and not just in retrospect. As a 15-year-old who saw the movie at my local suburban 18-screen theater when it first came out, I don’t recall spotting recruitment stands and impeccably uniformed military tag teams outside the venue. (In my high school parking lot, at shopping malls and fast-food joints, around the local arcade, by public pools and sporting events — definitely. But not outside the movie theater.) I do remember, however, seeing and hearing a lot of other young dudes get really pumped about flying planes and taking on Russkies (the enemy is never named, they’re just faceless avatars representing a Cold War nemesis, so… you do the math) and being the best of the best as my friends and I walked back to our car. You didn’t have to be a kid weaned on punk rock and Reagan-inspired mistrust to feel icky about jingoistic chest-thumping. I don’t know how many of my slightly older peers got seduced by the movie’s vision of high-fiving flyboys and joined up, or what happened to them after that. I thank them for their service regardless. I also hope they didn’t get taken in by a pop fantasy, only to be greeted by an exceptionally harsh reality.

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