Top Gun: Maverick – Well Structured and a Blast (4*)

Top Gun: Maverick is this year’s most popular movie. It tells a relatively simple story well, bursting with visual and aural excitement. First of this year’s “popcorn movies” and worth every kernel. (4*)
Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun: Maverick – Snapshot

Top Gun: Maverick is this Oscar year’s most popular movie and for good reason – it knows how to tell a story.  As a 35-year sequel, the film seems to occupy its position naturally.  It tells a well structured, but relatively simple story, in a language bursting with visual and aural excitement.  This is the first of this year’s “popcorn movies” and is worth every kernel.

Where to Watch:

Stream: MGM + / Paramount +

Rent: Multiple Sources ($6) or wherever you get your discs

Top Gun: Maverick – The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Adapted Screenplay (Kruger/Singer/McQuarrie/Craig/Marks)

Film Editing (Eddie Hamilton)

Visual Effects (Tudhope/Hill/Liston/Fisher)

Sound (Weingarten/Mather/Nelson/Burdon/Taylor) WINNER

Original Song (“Hold My Hand”, Lady Gaga/Blood Pop)

Top Gun: Maverick – won the Oscar for sound this year, a win I didn’t anticipate, but was definitely well deserved.  While I have no idea what things sound like when traveling at ten times the speed of sound, the audio effects were exhilarating, if not realistic.  

Reflecting its technical excellence, the movie also received nominations for Editing, Visual Effects and Lady Gaga’s song “Hold My Hand”.  Once you understand how the in-flight scenes of Maverick were actually filmed – with small cameras located inside the cockpits of Navy F/A- 18 aircraft, then you can understand how editing became crucial.  Tom Cruise, apparently, insisted that as little CGI and green-screening be used as possible and, so, the spectacular flying sequences are, mostly, practical effects, requiring a lot of human work, instead of computer cycles.  The song, performed emotionally, and unexpectedly,  at the Oscar ceremony doesn’t exactly occur during the ending credits (a pet peeve of mine), but it does play as the film is ending and is transitioning to the final credits, so maybe it is a little more relevant.

The screenplay was nominated in the Adapted category because, as best I can tell, it is a sequel to the 1986 original Top Gun, and derives many of its themes and characters from that film.  It was nominated in the Best Picture category, not only because it is hugely entertaining, but also because it has nearly single-handedly saved the movie theater business, bringing home nearly $1.5 billion (worldwide) in ticket sales.

Overall, Top Gun: Maverick comes in seventh of all 25 of this year’s general interest movies just below Tar and Elvis based on my Oscar Quality Score (updated to include this year’s wins.).  Of the six movies reviewed so far this year, it is the first real “popcorn” movie, bristling with entertainment values, and is just so much fun to watch.

Top Gun: Maverick – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Top Gun (86) : Acting, Themes, Characters, Music (Tom Cruise/Composer Faltermeyer/Writers source material)

Only the Brave (17) : Director (Kosinski); Screenplay (Singer); Sound (Nelson)

The Usual Suspects (95): Screenplay (McQuarrie)

American Hustle (13): Screenplay (Singer)

Jerry Maguire (96)/Magnolia (99)/Born on the Fourth of July (89): Acting (Tom Cruise)

A Beautiful Mind (01): Acting (Jennifer Connelly)

Whiplash (14): Acting (Miles Teller)

Dunkirk (17): Composer (Zimmer); Sound (Weingarten); Visual Effects (Fisher)

Life of Pi (12): Cinematography (Miranda)

Blade Runner 2049 (17) /Deadpool (16): Visual Effects (Tudhope/Hill)

Interstellar (14) : Sound (Weingarten); Visual Effects (Fisher)

If you’ve seen the original Top Gun from 1986, then you have a pretty good idea what this one is about.  (You don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this film, but there are lots of references to the original so it enhances your enjoyment).  The director of the original film, Tom Scott, died a decade ago, and this film is dedicated to his memory.  Life of Pi is especially relevant to this film because of how the filming is done – Miranda borrowed a lot of ideas from his earlier movie.  And of course the visual and audio effects of three sci-fi movies are used extensively here but in a more realistic setting.  If you liked the drummer in Whiplash (Miles Teller), he delivered another good performance.  And what is not to like about Jennifer Connelly who plays a character that never appears in the earlier Top Gun, but is mentioned several times.  But when all is said and done, this is a Tom Cruise movie.  Even at age 56, he is still doing most of his own stunts and the crossovers between Cruise in real life and Maverick in the movie are all part of the excitement.

Top Gun: Maverick – What Others Think

Audience reaction to a movie is, ultimately, all that really matters and, of our 25 general interest movies this year, Top Gun: Maverick is rated #1.  And – to reflect that – it has generated nearly $1.5 Billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide.  (Should be noted that Avatar: The Way of Water, which was released 7 months after this movie, has already far surpassed Maverick, bringing in nearly $2.3 Billion in worldwide ticket sales.  But because the Tom Cruise film started earlier, it is given the credit for driving at least a partial return to the theaters.  (For this, the industry is eternally grateful).  Without a doubt, this film is a “popcorn movie” that keeps you on the edge of your seat for more than two hours.

But then there are the critics.  Out of this year’s 25 films, they generally placed Top Gun: Maverick at #10, or definitely in the middle of the pack.  If you look at their higher-rated films, you can see that they tend to favor heavier themed movies, like Tar and Banshees of Inisherin. James Berardinelli (ReelViews ) wrote “As was the case in the first movie, there are too many secondary characters for any of them to achieve anything resembling three-dimensionality…”.  MaryAnn Johansson (FlickFilosopher) takes a very cynical and, in my opinion, much too serious tack suggesting extremely broad implications like questioning “Is the entirety of Top Gun: Maverick an acknowledgement that the American century is coming to an end?”  On the other hand, A.O. Scott (New York Times) disagreed saying that “…Top Gun: Maverick has nothing to say about geopolitics and everything to do with the defense of old-fashioned movie values in the face of streaming-era nihilism.” And, in that vein, Tomris Laffly (RogerEbert) wrote that Tom Cruise is “…one of the precious remnants of bona-fide movie superstardoms of yore, a slowly dwindling they-don’t-make-‘em-like-they-used-to notion of immortality these days.”  

I suspect that the critics, who make a living identifying and critiquing serious and subtle themes and techniques in movies, simply have a hard time dealing with a movie, like Top Gun: Maverick, that is really just an experiential bombshell.

Top Gun: Maverick – Special Mention

SpeedTop Gun: Maverick is, at its core, a movie about the human fascination to continually go faster than they have ever gone before.  Early in the film, Maverick is piloting a test aircraft, named the Dark Star, and manages to take the plane to a speed greater than Mach 10, or ten times the speed of sound.  I realize this is a work of fiction, but I questioned whether Mach 10 was even remotely achievable.

My research turned up some very inconsistent answers.  One of my questions was just what exactly was the speed of sound.  surprisingly there isn’t just one answer to that – I derived answers ranging between 710 and 767 mph.  I suppose the explanation for the variance might be that it differs depending on factors like air temperature and pressure, but still, I’m surprised there isn’t some set standard.  Otherwise just what does Mach 10 mean?

So the next question is just how fast have we gone in a flying airplane?  First, let’s set some parameters.  Astronauts in a spaceship travel at “astronomical” speeds and we can’t really compare to that.  So the standard is pretty much defined as in a vehicle that breathes air, meaning it uses air as part of its combustion process.  That would include a lot of vehicles using jet and ramjet engine technology, but not rockets propelled by their own supplies of oxygen.

Given those definitions, the first supersonic speed record was apparently set in 1976 by Eldon W. Joersz and George T. Morgan Jr. flying a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.  It achieved a speed of 2,190 mph or, roughly, Mach 3.  Ten years later, in the same model, Brian Shul claimed that he flew in excess of Mach 3.5 in order to outrun a missile in Middle East airspace.  The first Top Gun movie was released that year.

After that the evidence becomes very cloudy and I think the reason might be because much of this technology remains highly classified so the details are very obscure.  An unmanned ramjet test plane (the X-7 Kingfisher) was designed and built to achieve Mach 4.3 (2,910 mph) in the 50s by Lockheed.  But it isn’t clear that it did that.  However NASA’s X-43 achieved Mach 9.6 in the early 2000s, but it, too, was unmanned.  Another NASA plane, the X-125, a manned aircraft, supposedly hit Mach 6.72 (4,520 mph).  But I can’t locate a date for such an event nor does the mph and the Mach number resolve to the speed of sound.  So, like I said, the evidence is inconclusive.

I guess the point of this exercise is that it is not at all likely that Maverick actually achieved Mach 10, because even the available public evidence suggests that we humans can’t do that yet.  (It also does not appear to be possible for a pilot to eject from an airplane traveling at Mach 10 and survive.  But a movie is a work of fiction so we can simply pretend, right?)

Women in the Navy – One of the interesting aspects of this movie, especially as compared to the original Top Gun of 35 years ago, is the presence of women in the Top Gun school and, importantly, in the mission itself.  I was curious just how representative that is.

It turns out that as of 2020, a year before the movie was released, women make up 20% of the Navy, second only to the Air Force.  But there is a long history before that.  The first women commissioned into the Navy as officers occurred in 1948.  The first female helicopter captain, Roseanne Roberts, was appointed in 1972 and Alene Derki became the first female Admiral that same year.  

The rule banning women from ships was ruled unconstitutional in 1978 and, a year later, a woman pilot was qualified to land on an aircraft carrier.  The first woman commander of a ship was appointed in 1990.  A woman pilot joined the Blue Angels in 2014.  Although a woman completed the Navy Seal screening, and, reportedly, completed the training, but she was transferred to another unit.  There are no active female Navy Seals.

Becky Calder, who graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1998, has also successfully completed her training at the Navy’s Strike Fighter Weapons School (aka TOPGUN), as an F/A-18 pilot, the same aircraft used in the movie.  So women in TOPGUN is a real concept!  There are now several other women pilots of various fighter aircraft in both the Navy and the Air Force.

Top Gun: Maverick – Michael’s Moments

Top Gun: Maverick is simply and fundamentally a fun movie.  There are some amazing photographic moments, especially the scenes in the cockpits which were filmed in live flying sequences (piloted by Navy pilots) and filmed by some elaborate camera tricks, operated by the characters themselves.  The cast of actor pilots endured weeks of real physical training and, reportedly, many of them threw up daily after enduring the stresses of G-force flying.

And, of course, there is Tom Cruise himself.  While I’m not sure I see him as the “last real movie actor” as was attributed to him by at least one critic, you have to give him kudos for being such an active participant in the movie-making process especially at the age of 56.  Doing most of his own stunts and insisting that minimal CGI be used in this film, he definitely reinvigorates older standards of movie making.  His chemistry with Jennifer Connelly seems real although, in a PG-13 movie, there never is any real sex, but it is definitely implied.  So we have the Tom Cruise we really want – an man of action who constantly surprises everyone and still gets it on with the ladies.

The movie is two hours and ten minutes long, but you don’t feel that.  Instead you sit on the edge of your seat for most of that time as the film repeatedly ramps up the tension and then releases it in a sequence that builds throughout the movie.  What I appreciated most about the film has to be its structure.  And while that might sound like a rather arcane and esoteric way to look at the movie, it really helps understand why the movie is so successful.

A good story has three basic parts – the introduction, the development, and the resolution, or climax.  Top Gun: Maverick develops the structure so well that it probably should be a textbook study.

The movie opens with beautiful flying scenes incorporating the sights and sounds that bring us back to the original 1986 film.  The song “Danger Zone” plays from the first movie and there are some iconic visual references to the first film. So the stage is set.

Next up is the main character, Maverick.  We learn that, despite looking a tad older, Maverick hasn’t changed a whole lot in 35 years and there is a definite reason why he is still a Captain.  It is during these relatively early minutes that we see Maverick exceed Mach 10 and the element of speed is established as a key part of the plot.

The other major characters of the film are introduced and we learn a lot about them in these introductory minutes.  Phoenix is a woman and we wouldn’t have seen her in the earlier film.  Hangman is a narcissist who, in the end, helps save the day.  Bob is, well, Bob and he has an important role.  Rooster (Miles Teller) is the most important character, next to Maverick, and has a very complex relationship with Maverick.  

The mission, and the development phase,  is introduced around the 25 minute mark as Maverick begins his interaction with all these younger Air Force over-achievers.  But what the younger folks learn at the 36 minute mark is that Maverick isn’t the old codger they thought he was.  Maverick continues to press on and raises the stakes with both his superiors and those younger than him. The next 45 minutes are where the dimensions of the mission and the intensity of what they must endure become apparent.  And, after all that, it appears that the mission is going to fail.  The critical pivot occurs at 1:20  when Maverick actually accomplishes what no-one believed was possible – the kids, and the mission commanders, are ‘wowed’!

The development section is now complete – we understand the characters and their mission.  What’s left is to see exactly what happens.  There are some powerful twists and turns in the mission, and the relationships mature.

Top Gun: Maverick is a classic movie in so many ways.  But especially in how it is structured.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons it succeeds so well – it knows how to tell a story.

Top Gun: Maverick
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