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Top Gun: Maverick (2022) By Joseph Kosinski - Movie Review

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) By Joseph Kosinski - Movie Review

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Director: Joseph Kosinski Writer: Jim CashJack Epps Jr. (based on characters created by) and Peter Craig (story by) Stars: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell, Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Bashir Salahuddin, Lyliana Wray, Ed HarrisVal Kilmer Runtime: 126min Rated: PG (Canada Alberta/British Columbia) G (Québec) PG-13 (MPAA) for sequences of intense action, and some strong language

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review includes some spoilers)

Top Gun still flying high!

Capt. Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is sent to the United States Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI otherwise known as Top Gun) to train a team of the Navy’s best pilots for a clandestine mission. With only weeks to prepare and faced with unresolved personal relationships from his past, Maverick must gain the respect of his students and prepare them for their seemingly impossible assignment before a foreign military-grade uranium enrichment facility becomes operational.     

Director Joseph Kosinski is proving to be a bit of a Top Gun himself by again delivering a riveting sequel to an iconic 1980s film. Previously he accomplished this feat with his sequel to Steven Lisberger’s cult classic sci-fi film TRON (1982) with TRON: Legacy (2010). With that film Kosinski nearly perfected the balance between audience expectations and nostalgia while still giving filmgoers something new, fresh, and compelling yet remaining faithful to the original film. His Top Gun: Maverick (2022) comes even closer to perfection, further honing his skills and showing he can accomplish this task across genres which should make him a highly sought-after Hollywood director. Had he been given the opportunity to direct even one of the recent STAR WARS films it might have stemmed the tide of disappointment and disenfranchisement sweeping through the franchise’s fandom.

Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick is everything Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi (2017) is not. Where Johnson sought to subvert audience expectations, Kosinski sought to exceed them. Both directors succeeded in their goals the difference being Top Gun fans will still be Top Gun fans after watching this new film. In fact, they may appreciate the original even more after seeing what Kosinski has accomplished. In Johnson's The Last Jedi the character Kylo Ren embodies the philosophy of the Disney STAR WARS film franchise at the time when he says, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That's the only way to become what you are meant to be,” — a philosophy Disney, with the help of Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, is struggling to move away from. Both TRON: Legacy and Top Gun: Maverick show that Kosinski is more interested in honouring the past than killing it. As a result, fans of these films will love him! Top Gun: Maverick is proof that a sequel doesn’t have to vandalize or kill the past to become what it’s meant to be. Even casual fans of Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986) can walk away from this sequel entertained and satisfied.

The impulsive Capt. Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell’s knack for avoiding advancement makes him a highly decorated naval captain but at great personal cost leaving a life-long trail of unresolved personal relationships. Over and over he manages to narrowly avoid being drummed out of military service based on his skills as an aviator and shielded by Adm. Tom 'Iceman' Kazansky (Val Kilmer). With his unexpected assignment to the Top Gun school Maverick must sort out two of his unresolved personal relationships. These provide a bridge linking this film to the original Top Gun: one is a repeated romantic entanglement with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) a character only mentioned in dialogue by Nick 'Goose' Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) in the original Top Gun. She was an Admiral’s teenage daughter Maverick dated. While Jennifer Connelly at 51 is more age appropriate for Tom Cruise at 59 if their respective characters are the same age as they are in real life it only further solidifies Maverick’s double-edged impulsive character trait. Take away the 36 years between the two stories and Maverick would have been around 23 in the original Top Gun making Penny Benjamin a girl of 16 or 17. While that seven or eight year age difference doesn’t matter as much later in life it’s not an appropriate age difference when one of the people involved are in their teens making her Admiral father’s disapproval more than understandable.

That same sort of hot shot romantic desire to chase after another inappropriate intimate relationship underscores Maverick’s attraction to the “almost” off limits civilian contractor Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) in the original film. These romantic relationships outside of the cockpit are clearly connected to his impulsive character which constantly spurs him to push the envelope to the edge and sometimes beyond in the cockpit. Of course, 36 years will temper these qualities and in the arena of love and romance Maverick is more constrained as he rekindles his relationship with Penny. Audiences expecting the same sort of unbridled white-hot heat of the original will need to make do with a more restrained smoldering pragmatic passion. Penny is a divorcée with a teenage daughter, Amelia (Lyliana Wray). For her any relationship with Maverick would need to be more than a fling and they both know this.         

The other key relationship is a failed paternal-like relationship with Goose’s son Lt. Bradley 'Rooster' Bradshaw (Miles Teller) whose desire to follow in his father’s footsteps as a naval aviator was hampered by Maverick both due to feelings of guilt surrounding Goose’s death in the original film and a secret off-screen deathbed promise to Rooster’s mother, Carole (Meg Ryan), to keep her son from potentially dying like his father. After Goose’s tragic death Maverick wanted to be a father figure to young Bradley but over time this all back-fired creating Rooster’s resentment towards Maverick. Resolving this relationship is the heart and soul of Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick. And while the way this relationship is eventually resolved is a little hokey and predictable it is nevertheless oddly satisfying. The less said about this the better; it’s something audiences will want to discover and evaluate on their own. What can be said is that from a Christian perspective Maverick’s relationship with Rooster, and by extension Rooster’s deceased parents, finds him struggling to find the best way to fulfil the commandment to honour mother and father. In this case for the sake of their living son Maverick must find a way to honour their memory and role of mother and father in Rooster’s life. When men and women stand up for a child being baptised there is an expectation that as sponsors/godparents they would fill the role of guardian if the parents met untimely deaths even if it’s not in the capacity of legal guardianship. Maverick’s care and concern for Rooster can be seen in this light.  

While Maverick’s relationship with Rooster is not spiritual in the Christian sense it is one where he provides sage advice from a wiser and seasoned father figure to the younger son. The nature of this advice is interesting. Building on his personal impulsiveness, safety-netted by thousands of hours of skills-based training and inside-out knowledge of their aircrafts, Maverick wants Rooster and the other Top Gun pilots to operate on instinct and intuition because in the most crucial of moments at extraordinarily high speeds thinking can eat up the clock and bring death. Why is this advice interesting? It’s not like the advice given in so many other films where the hero is encouraged to “trust their feeling” or “believe in themselves” without having put in the thousands of hours of training, practice, and study to fall back on. Many films, including the recent MARVEL Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (2022), want to leapfrog over the hard work straight to the heroism. The other component of this advice is linked to an idea that comes up repeatedly: it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot flying the plane that makes the difference. All the technology in the world in the hands of someone who hasn’t put in the same amount of time and training won’t make a difference in the end. Of course there is always the unexpected, but experience and intuitive split-second reactions make the difference between life and death in the cockpit.

Why is this important? At the beginning of the film while being dressed down by Rear Admiral Chester 'Hammer' Cain (Ed Harris) for risking his life in an unauthorized test run of experimental hypersonic plane called “The Darkstar” Cain says, “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction,” to which Maverick replies, “Maybe so, sir. But not today.” Cain doesn’t mince words explaining that soon unmanned drones would replace pilots. This early scene and the subsequent focus of Maverick’s advice and training with the younger pilots emphasizing instinct and intuition—basic qualities currently missing in artificial intelligence— makes Top Gun: Maverick a decidedly anti-transhumanist film. Taking all of this into consideration Kosinski has made an interesting film with an underlying conviction that the human soul/spirit is vital and important in the face of scientific advancement and should not be discounted. While Christians and viewers of many religions will gladly embrace this sentiment it’s worth asking why it’s an underlying aspect of this film.

This practical fusion of physical, mental, and spiritual excellence displayed in Maverick as played by Cruise may have its roots in Cruise’s Scientology beliefs. Like in the Mission Impossible films Cruise may not be involved simply in a vanity project as much as he may be engaging in an act of shear will towards ultimate self aggrandizement as the public face of Scientology. Remember, Cruise and fellow producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been developing this project for more than ten years and elements of Cruise’s faith may have influenced the end product. Even though Christians are encouraged to strive for perfection in this life, as Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) a Christian knows this is unattainable in this life and will only be truly attained in the resurrection on The Last Day. Scientologists on the other hand believe it is possible to attain perfection in this life and Tom Cruise is an individual working with every fiber of his being to prove this belief true. What he, Kosinski, and all the people they have assembled around them have accomplished in this film is remarkable, exciting, and extraordinary; a truly daring work of filmmaking that uses real planes and captures true effects of G-forces, computer-generated images can’t duplicate. That said, audiences should remember that the original film was supported by the US Department of Defence as a potential recruitment tool and Cruise may view it as a potential recruitment tool to drum up interest in Scientology. The thought might be, “If Scientology can produce a specimen of humanity like Cruise perhaps people should consider joining?” So, while Christians can applaud the film’s anti-transhumanist agenda and its emphasis on the importance of the human spirit they don’t need to embrace Scientology to do so or enjoy the film.

That said, Top Gun: Maverick has a lot to offer the general audience. Its emphasis on honour, valour, and vocational excellence, when understood as service to neighbour over and against personal development, is welcome and its desire to portray its hero as a hero and not as a bitter disillusioned washed-up old curmudgeon, as Luke Skywalker was depicted in The Last Jedi, is also welcome. Everything about this film harkens to a bygone era of Hollywood film making only better due to Kosinski’s access to the highest quality film crews and equipment. There is a synergy between the philosophy that drives the film’s story and the film’s production. This care for authenticity extends even to the incorporation of Val Kilmer as Adm. Tom 'Iceman' Kazansky into the film. The way Kilmer’s real-life struggle with throat cancer is woven into the plot is admirable. They don’t sidestep the truth of his condition but rather provide a way to honour him in a fitting way. The tactful and poignant scene between Maverick and Iceman will be as memorable as the aerial acrobatics and stunt flying.   

If viewers are on the fence about checking out Top Gun: Maverick and are likewise tired of the overuse of CGI in modern action films then bite the bullet and support the film. Go out and see it in the theatre. Its release date was held back due to the Covid pandemic because Cruise, Bruckheimer, and Kosinski wanted people to see it on the big screen. It is worth the wait. For action fans it has a lot in common with George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) due to its emphasis on practical effects. And a bonus feature is the absence of the modern Woke agenda that permeates so many modern films. Yes, the film has a vague faceless enemy fought in an unnamed country, but so did the original film. Beat for beat in many ways it follows the pattern of the original Top Gun but somehow this doesn’t come across as derivative or shallow like J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens (2015). It also doesn’t suffer from the modern parasitical approach where filmmakers are only using beloved films for personal self-advancement or virtue signalling without caring for the fans, sometimes not even understanding the source material they are building on, like Paul Feig's Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016) or Tim Miller's Terminator: Dark Fate (2019). Rest assured Top Gun: Maverick is the sequel audiences deserve after all the dreck and broken promises they’ve endure in the past decade of reboots, remakes, re-imaginings, sequels and prequels.        

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!