The snow is thick, and you’re not in friendly territory. You don’t have a plan, other than to just walk in, look like you belong. Your top-of-the-line craft has crashed, you’ve been left for dead. But in that hangar over there: rusted hope. To get out, all you need to do is relax, go back in time, let muscle memory take over.
I have found myself, of late, leaning into a dangerous brand of nostalgia. If only I could return to that place of things were better and. Of things were better and I didn’t know it. Of oh-possibilities-lie-ahead. Of mystical yes nights no end to them no horizon.
Dangerous because, of course, nostalgia is always a fallacy. The golden days always lie just out of reach, in a past you never really knew. Knowing this doesn’t matter, nor does it help: you still want to be back there, that mythical moment in amber when, as Fantine would say, the world was a song, and the song was exciting…There was a time…
But we no longer dwell in it; we are permanently post-then, in the went wrong phase, a perpetual human state, a feeling of having let something shiny slip through our fingers when we weren’t looking, of standing on the concrete looking at our empty hands and wondering what it was, exactly, that we lost.
Top Gun: Maverick opens with the confidence that it doesn’t have to be that way. From the opening strains of Harold Faltermeyer’s reworked main titles, we feel suddenly, rapturously, that it’s all going to be okay. Things were better and somehow, impossibly, now we’re back there—don’t question it! “Tears of joy came to me just by the opening soundtrack alone,” one commenter on the YouTube clip of the opening score says. “I’m playing that first track when Im [sic] entering heaven ,” says another. The image, too, when it comes, sweeps you up in a comforting blanket: everyone tinted slightly golden, every surface edged with sunset, every bare chest reflecting a shimmering glow. For a little while, it’s as though the good old days no one ever actually seemed to inhabit have been conjured up for us by some benevolent, Air Force-loving god.
What Top Gun: Maverick manages to do, though—surprisingly, quietly—is take this timeless, amaranthine atmosphere and put it inside the crucible of a ticking clock. Director Joseph Kosinski juxtaposes a nostalgic ambience with the looming threat of mortality, harnessing the energy generated by the resulting tension. From the moment Tom Cruise’s titular Maverick enters the film, Kosinski frames him as fragile, small. We see him from a distance, dwarfed by a plane in the foreground—and then by his motorcycle. We peer at his older body, out of focus in frame, as our attention is directed to old photographs in which he was young, unblemished, unwrinkled. He is carefully, deliberately introduced as inseparable from the giant forces and objects his body is in thrall to: the military, oversized metal vessels, vehicles that offer no protection of the flesh from the impact of the road, the inexorable march of years. In the exhilarating opening sequence where Maverick attempts to achieve—and then surpass—Mach 10 (a speed that no human alive has ever come close to traveling), the camera pulls out from his POV to a surprisingly quiet, universal one: the plane passing softly across the globe’s surface. Maverick is the fastest man alive, but he’s still tiny when viewed from the stars.
We understand the stakes immediately. This is not, at its heart, a story about what one man can achieve. It is, instead, an exploration of whether Man even matters. After all, as Cyclone (a perpetually unimpressed Jon Hamm) explains brusquely, we are developing planes that won’t need pilots. Maverick’s achieve-Mach-9 program is on the verge of being shut down because the potential legacy of the program seems not worth the effort. Humans are slowly being written out of the military’s future. Higher-ups in the Navy seem to value metal over flesh, machine over man. (Would honestly love to have seen David Cronenberg take a crack at this film.) Crucially, technology is advancing at a pace that doesn’t allow for the natural human learning process; the uranium enrichment plant will be operational earlier than expected; the cadets must begin practicing phase two of the mission before mastering phase one. What will it take, Top Gun: Maverick asks, for a person, a real, live, sentient chunk of fallible muscle and bone, to be needed over a perfectly designed contraption?
Strange, then, for Tom Cruise to be so perfectly cast in this film, considering his sometimes alien chemistry with his fellow actors. Cruise, who usually shines in parts that ask him to be inaccessible. Something about reprising this role seems to give him the comfort necessary to let legacy speak for itself when it comes to being an Action Hero™, and to instead explore a softer energy onscreen. There are moments when he seems downright frangible, able at any moment to shatter in pursuit of his all-consuming need to push the limits. Simultaneously superhuman and dangerously mortal: the man in the middle-of-nowhere diner gulping water, unable to hear or walk properly, singed and seared, but seen by a young boy as undoubtedly more than man.
“Where am I?” a disoriented Mav croaks out. “Earth,” the awed boy responds—a punchline emphasizing Mav’s precarious straddling of two realms. Rarely have we seen Cruise so wobbly, or so divine.
Your fingers know the switches; your torso knows the seat. The past is never dead. It’s not even past. The wings extend outwards. It’s not a runway, but you can make it one.
I have become aware that aging is both a process of slow bodily degradation and a gradual realization that regret is a central piece of the human experience. The exquisite pain of being alive has something to do, I think, with how impossible it should be to have these moments of beauty—this sea breeze, that inquisitive finch, this small foot in a bunk bed, that laughter after a fall—but perhaps even more to do with how many choices we slowly realize we can never relive, never re-choose. We know how stupidly absurd it is that our cells took shape in these forms to begin with. We know how thankful we ought to be for every opportunity to take flight. But we are also saddled with the awareness and memory to process how our past actions have, inevitably, pushed people we love away. Made our careers harder. Complicated our search for inner peace. Trapped us in cages built out of guilt.
Maverick’s defining feature in this film is the trauma he still carries from Goose’s death in the first film, 30 years earlier, a secret solid rock in his heart. This is, perhaps, its own form of nostalgia. “Seems like we’re not the only ones holding onto old relics,” Cyclone quips early on—implying, of course, that Maverick himself is a relic of sorts, an old model, a carryover from a less advanced time that really ought to have already been replaced.
But as Top Gun: Maverick unfolds, it becomes clear that Maverick holds Goose’s death in a case in his brain on a pedestal under a spotlight, like one would a relic. His primary internal conflict centers around Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, who is up for a spot in the mission that Maverick is training young cadets for. Having previously tried, unsuccessfully, to keep Rooster from becoming a pilot, he must now decide once again whether to shut him down (in order to save him, he believes), or let Goose’s son take part in something that could result in his death, an impending reflection of his father.
Maverick claims he is trying to move on—tells Rooster, even, that what’s past is past for both of them—but in reality he is still right there in the ocean, clinging onto the body of the friend he loved. He trains the pilots under his care through a haze of guilt, manipulating them with that primal fear whenever situations grow strained. This is just practice, but in real life your wingman would have died, Maverick attempts to communicate to them over and over. When one of the pilots tries to explain why a failed training run unfolded as it did, Maverick states bluntly, “Don’t tell me. Tell it to his family.”
He already lives with a ghost. He wouldn’t wish that kind of haunting on anyone else.
“Talk to me, Goose.”
As we age, moments we can’t move past begin to accumulate in odd corners, dust bunnies of resignation and panic, resistant to any broom. Perhaps I am not saying anything new here; but that, too, is its own sign of aging—the tendency to repeat what you realize you have already become notoriously boring for repeating. Top Gun: Maverick could feel predictable and clichéd in the hands of lesser actors, a lesser crew; it would have been all too easy to roll your eyes and dismiss it as throwback American military propaganda (as some have done). And yet. The imagery unfolding onscreen seems, to me, not less patriotic, but scarier, smaller, sadder: the waning potential of the complex and burdened human in a sea of clean, mechanical, bureaucratized procedure.
There are moments in Top Gun: Maverick that I’d even dare to call Faulknerian in their understanding of history and human fallibility. In the previously referenced exchange Maverick has with Rooster (“What’s past is past for both of us”), it’s hard not to hear echoes of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in Rooster’s response: “You’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you?” Rooster, of course, is right. As Quentin knows, the past is never past. (Did you ever have a sister? Or, in this case, a father?) Faulkner’s best works are about the struggle to rectify a corrupt history with a mottled present, the desire to understand your ancestors in order to grasp your current purpose, the attempt to transcend a journey rooted in perverse pain, a human heart divided against itself. We see in his books how familiar stories can buoy us up in the face of forces wanting us to understand less about who we are. What is Top Gun: Maverick, really, but one of those familiar narratives?
It’s the character of Rooster who acts as the most explicit nod to the film’s interest in exploring what it means to inherit a heavy past. He carries the mantle of his father not only in his looks, but in his actions, in his desires. When Maverick looks at him, he cannot help but see both joy and pain—he cannot separate him from what came before. A child carries in their body the unspeakable pain of the joy of love, or the unspeakable joy of the pain of love, I’m not sure which. If you think too much about it, you can’t help but find yourself alone and peering into a window at a singing crowd, suddenly leveled. Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.
The opponent makes gestures you’ve never seen before. Our decisions are harder when we’re not alone. Hard to tell whether it’s beautiful to be stuck in this old piece of metal, or just stupid. Hard to tell what kind of chance you have.
At the high school where I work, we’ve begun to have serious conversations about the rise of AI—what it means for our students, what it means for us. Many industries are grappling with this question; what is the role of the artist when a computer can generate on-demand “art” that doesn’t require time or labor or a paycheck? Does it matter if you are an expert in your field if someone can just use the internet or an app to generate all the “information” you spent years of your life learning, understanding, framing, and processing? Why should you bother to read that book if AI can spit out a perfect summary for you, each bullet point concise and clear?
There is even a moment in Top Gun: Maverick that nearly rested on the back of an AI program. From the moment the sequel was announced, we all knew there could be no Maverick without Iceman; Val Kilmer needed to appear in this film. And wanted to appear, despite his protracted and public battle with throat cancer. Beginning in late 2020, he worked with the UK-based software firm Sonantic to clone his own voice, resulting in a text-to-speech program that can mimic his intonations, emotions, and tone. It seemed likely that his role as Iceman would be made possible through the use of this program; however, Kosinski ended up going in another, more human direction. Rather than regenerating a pristinely nostalgic version of Kilmer that no longer exists, the film leans into his real-life health issues, portraying Iceman himself as living with cancer. We learn it’s painful for him to speak, leaving most of his dialogue to unfold through text message exchanges with Maverick. At the end of their single in-person scene, Iceman finally stands and summons the strength to say a few lines out loud.
Kosinski clarified that they did not use AI for these few lines of dialogue; some digital alteration and blending was necessary for clarity, but Kilmer himself did speak those words. “The navy needs Maverick,” he intones, his voice halting but firm. “The kid needs Maverick,” he continues. “That’s why I fought for you. That’s why you’re still here.” These lines form the emotional crux of the film in many ways, for us and for Maverick—a reaffirmation that the individual is irreplaceable. That who you are, specifically, still matters.
When the two actors hug, you feel every square inch of their unreproducible human connection.
The craft can only be advanced to a certain degree—you can still use the terrain to your advantage. Granite walls embrace you; evergreen tops flatten as you contort yourself too low against the frozen ground. You are better with another pair of eyes in the back.
Realizing that interpersonal relationships matter more than technical knowledge, Maverick knows exactly what he needs to do: take his pilots out to the beach for a sweaty, glistening sports montage. In an homage to the iconically homoerotic volleyball scene of the original Top Gun, Maverick and his ragtag team of competitive youngsters throw a football in the surf, all abs and thighs and chiseled grins. Again, the screen is awash with a golden glow, capturing the dreamy potential of youth. Maverick holds his own in the game, him (and Cruise) reminding us that he is still vibrant, still virile, still capable of impressive physical feats. Earlier in the film, he warned his students, forebodingly, “Time is your greatest enemy.” His own journey—as a man haunted by the ghost of what he didn’t do, a man whose identity is wrapped up in a young person’s game—seems braced precariously against the clock.
But “There’s still time,” Iceman counters in their meeting. Re-energized with purpose, Maverick seems on his way to finding a healthy acceptance of his limits—he can still play the game, yes, but he knows when it’s time to sit down and watch from the wings. Cyclone finds him like this—grinning widely from a beach chair as he basks in the vicarious glow of “dogfight football”—and, frustrated, wonders why the pilots are not in their classroom, studying, reading, practicing, learning. “Why are we out here playing games?” he asks Maverick with disdain.
“You said to create a team, sir. There’s your team,” Maverick responds.
Even Cyclone can’t help but smile.
Machines, after all, can’t kick sand up after them as they celebrate their teammates reaching the end zone. They can’t make that brief moment of eye contact that says something like You got me? You ready?—that prefaces a perfect pass. But people? We can collaborate, cooperate, make decisions in the interest of someone not ourselves. We can believe in the impossible, and, in believing, make it so.
It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.
Sunset: a collection of warm colors in the sky that lets you know something is ending. A street you imagine to be hopeful, warm, full of money. A soft retirement after a long reign. You take a picture of it, knowing the picture can’t possibly capture it. Sunset: what you ride off into when it’s your time to ride off.
But pilots are mortal, and mortality is even scarier when you have people around you who care about you. Maverick’s tendency to flirt with death—to pull beyond accepted limits—to bend his airframe—feels so possible for him, as Rooster points out, in part because he has bought himself risk-taking freedom by burning emotional relationships. “No wife. No kids. Nobody to mourn you when you burn in,” says Rooster cruelly. Despite leaving an indelible imprint on the Top Gun program, Maverick has also, ironically, isolated himself in history. He has no lineage, no one to pass on his name, carry out his legacy.
Word of Ice’s death ends his tense confrontation with Rooster. Some have bemoaned the way Top Gun: Maverick leans away from the concentrated and complicated homoerotic undertones of its predecessor, but Maverick’s relationship with Ice is still its emotional core. It makes sense that a younger man, a man in his 20s, would lean into more explicitly sexual tensions with other men he may or may not have the conscious capacity to desire; it also makes sense that an older man, a man in his 50s, would be more inclined to express these desires through less physical abstractions of romantic devotion. The tension between Maverick and Iceman, weighted by their history, delicate and familiar, painful and new, feels about as full of yearning as you could ask for. I know there are many who made fun of the film’s un-sex scene, in which Maverick and Penny’s foreplay awkwardly and abruptly cuts to post-coital pillow talk. But it seems appropriate that the embrace the camera lingers on the longest is the one between Maverick and Iceman in the latter’s study, hazily backlit, speaking volumes.
And so yes, it is our inability to fly through life solo that makes us matter—yes, it is our naked need for relationships that ensures our significance. The greatest possible stunt in Top Gun: Maverick is not one requiring complex technical execution or countless rehearsals; it is simple: a man in a plane fighting to stay conscious despite the rising Gs, when consciousness means being able to harness the power of the lifeline of a team. Black out and you are cut off, alone—effectively dead. And in order to enter the climactic final sequence, Maverick must say goodbye to the easy, surface-level relationship that is his budding romance with Penny (an ageless Jennifer Connelly) and dive, instead, into the ocean’s darker parts. He has to reach back out to the ghost of Goose; he has to choose to partner with Rooster (whom he calls “Bradley” right before they begin their mission, in a rare moment of paternal acknowledgment).
At times during the final 30 minutes, I found myself wondering if Maverick would die. It would be a controversial move, but one I thought the film had earned. What better way to honor this immortal character than by sealing him permanently in the spectacular living mausoleum that is a film? (I think of Shakespeare, cheekily noting in Sonnet 18’s final couplet that by writing a poem about his loved one’s beauty, he has preserved that beauty eternally in the lines of the poem.) But, of course, it’s not death itself that Maverick’s emotional arc mandates—it’s the willingness to die for someone else. To bring closure to the cycle of grief and guilt.
In a way, dying to save Rooster would have been easier for Maverick than living to see it through (and being saved, in return); he would have felt justified in giving his life for the life of Goose’s son. An eye for an eye, a wingman for a wingman. His death would also have been confirmation, for me, of the validity of some of my own worst emotional assumptions—the feeling that to earn the love of others we must sacrifice ourselves completely, or that we aren’t truly alive until we have slowly drained ourselves dry for the people we love. Or even, perhaps, my tendency to see only the narrative of contemporary human civilization that ends in floods and fires and hatred and fear and greed, rather than the narrative that dares to imagine a story less apocalyptically predetermined. But (thankfully, joyfully) this isn’t that kind of movie.
Maybe we are headed for extinction, Top Gun: Maverick acknowledges.
But not today.