Highway to the Tidy, Winnable Danger Zone
Top Gun: Maverick works because it offers a fantasy of state capacity
All movies are fantasies. Once the house lights go down, justice triumphs, problems have solutions, lessons are compact enough to be learned and applied before the last reel. Even art-house cinema tidies life up in beguiling ways. The central character always has a smart comeback ready, the nerd finds nerdy redemption. At the other end of the box-office spectrum, if superhero movies have dominated the last decade in American cinema, it’s because they offer the spectacle of power magnified, concentrated and — most appealing of all — simplified. Real life keeps certainty forever out of reach; the Avengers give it back. On one side, three guys wielding a hammer, a shield and a credit card. On the other side, a guy trying to snap his fingers. At last, a conflict you can understand. That the aftermath of their big fight was stalled by COVID-19 — a global catastrophe in endless futile search of a satisfying narrative — only underscores how distant Marvel’s world is from the one we’re stuck with.
I am burdened with these thoughts because I finally saw Top Gun: Maverick last night, during a brief vacation in Europe. (I’m home next week. Festivities on this newsletter will then resume their accustomed tempo.) It’s awesome. Go see it if you haven’t yet. Get ready for strange looks from your kids while you pump your fists during the battle scenes. “Dad, is mom all right?” The rest of this post contains minor spoilers, mild salty language, and an extended middlebrow flex.
The mystery of Maverick is why, by next weekend, it will pass Doctor Strange in the Convolution of Fan Service as the year's biggest movie, why it is the biggest film of Tom Cruise’s charmed life — why it strikes such a chord in this moment, even though its premises, visual vocabulary and soundtrack are 36 years old. In terms of chronological distance from the original Top Gun, it’s as though the top-grossing movie of 1986 had been a sequel to 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun. (“And there has never been a star as sensational as Betty Hutton!” Annie’s trailer proclaims. Switch Tom Cruise in for poor Betty and suddenly the claim may actually be true.)
The simplest hypothesis is that Maverick is just big and loud, so you can leave your brain at home and enjoy the spectacle. But lots of lousy movies nobody watched were big and loud, including Matrix: Resolutions and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, so there must be some fuller explanation.
This being a Substack newsletter, I suspect I’m contractually encouraged to argue that Maverick wins because it isn’t woke. I’m afraid I can’t oblige. I mean, the movie definitely makes only the barest acknowledgment of taking place in the 21st century. None of the hotshot young recruits pauses from the action to specify their pronouns. None decorates their flight helmets with empty square brackets to acknowledge their privilege. The film’s few concessions to cultural change since the MTV era have the effect, not of engaging today’s fights on provocatively old-fashioned terms, but of declining to engage. Joseph Kosinski, the journeyman special-effects technician brought in to direct this film in note-perfect homage to the style of the original Top Gun director Tony Scott, doesn’t even bother to make the film’s racial politics as minimally complex as Scott did in 1995’s Crimson Tide. Maverick’s young recruits, diverse in gender and ethnicity, are awesomely interchangeable in every other way. One smirks, one has a moustache; the others have no identifying characteristics. (When half the recruits get cut from the big mission at the 90-minute mark, there is no dramatic payoff because it’s impossible to tell these people apart. “Sorry, Component A, I’ve decided to go with Component B.”) Nobody under 30 in this film has sex for either pleasure or procreation. Yearning for intimate touch is plainly something only old people do, like writing in cursive script or owning books.
As a cultural argument, Maverick is so close to being tabula rasa that there’s no real point interrogating it. But on another front, it succeeds resoundingly in popular art’s primary function of tantalizing simplification. It started to make sense when I realized that Cruise’s character, despite the denial inherent in his call sign, is a career civil servant.
This is a movie about the action of a large modern state. It’s a film about public policy. Its central claim is a cathartic feat of Avengers-level denial. Just as the superhero movies offer us a made-up universe in which we have any hope of telling the good characters and the evil characters apart, Maverick posits a world in which modern governments can get anything done at all.
I may be influenced in this reading by the fact that I work in contemporary Ottawa. I’ve been writing variations on a simple question — Can Justin Trudeau get big things built? — since 2017. I’m hardly alone. And it’s hardly just a question about Trudeau, Ottawa or Canada. It’s been fun reading about chaos at Toronto’s Pearson airport, but last week the Financial Times ran a “big read” feature story about global airport chaos that didn’t even mention Pearson, Toronto or Canada. Joe Biden promised to Build Back Better. It’s not going great. Here in France, Emmanuel Macron is the first president to be re-elected in 20 years, a genuine feat, but it’s not going great. Brexit? Don’t ask.
A generic term for the ability of governments to do stuff is “state capacity,” and there’s a vague sense in the quasi-academic literature that it’s in decline, although, the real world being the real world, every element of this claim — that state capacity is declining, that it can be measured, that it even exists in any measurable form — is open to dispute. Still, it feels true, don’t it? The world was never great. In important ways it was worse than today. But it used to feel like it was possible to improve the thing, and now it just feels like everyone’s just firing blind and hoping for the best. COVID is a dynamite demonstration of this. Three successive Canadian federal health ministers were told, by a prime minister who prides himself on his ability to read the room, to get cracking on plain-paper packaging for tobacco products. And then the biggest public-health disaster of our lifetimes opened up its jumbo can of whup-ass, and it wasn’t even in the mandate letters. And it’s hard to blame anyone involved. All the chaos that has ensued had its roots in the original chaos. Real life doesn’t have a plot. As Homer Simpson said, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.
Ah, but in Maverick… In its simplest terms, here’s the movie’s plot. The government identifies a very big problem. It is correct in its diagnosis. It figures out how to fix the problem. Its plan is correct. All of this has already happened before the opening credits. Twenty minutes in, Tom Cruise is briefed on the situation, using really simple computer graphics in primary colours that wouldn’t have looked out of place in John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape From New York. He and his recruits spend the movie’s middle hour training to implement the plan their bosses handed to them. Then they implement it. The plan works.
My God, it’s a land of milk and honey compared to how things happen in real life. No complicating element is permitted to intrude. How do we know the bad guys are bad? Because we’re told they are. Who are they? That’s not your problem, soldier. Is there anything even remotely surprising about the target environment, which the enemy bad guys have helpfully designed to resemble a bullseye? Nope. Do the Americans need to lead from behind to avoid offending local sensibilities, or stage a big logistics dump just outside the combat theatre to avoid provoking a grumpy autocrat? It is to laugh. Maverick and his young charges don’t even need modern jet fighters. The enemy has fifth-generation fighters, but that is because the enemy is decadent and soft. Tom and his trainees Wingnut, Backwash and Lug Wrench are happy to fly F-18s, rustbucket kit nearly as old as the movie’s soundtrack. Their cause is so pure they cheerfully fly into harm’s way using the sort of equipment that’s usually fit only for Canadians.
At first I thought Maverick was a lusty throwback to the Reagan era, when America, at least in sufficient numbers to win two successive presidential elections, believed itself to be right and to be advancing some notion of good and freedom in the world. But again, that would have been a political argument, and Maverick doesn’t have a political bone in its body. That’s why we never learn who the bad guys are, and why the fight ends after one battle. The America portrayed here isn’t a country that can help or even one that cares what helping would look like. It is, simply, a country that can get its shit together.
Watching it all, I was eager to set Tom to work on other problems in further sequels. In Top Gun: Screening, Tom and a crack squad of designers (“Maverick, I want you to meet T-Square, CAD-CAM and Invoice”) build a big-city airport that isn’t clogged and soul-destroying. In Top Gun: Groundbreaker, Tom’s infrastructure budget builds stuff you actually notice improving your life. In Top Gun: Industrial Benefit, Tom and his young colleagues manage to buy a navy frigate and two helicopters before their grandchildren retire. In Top Gun: Official Residence, Prime Minister Tom Cruise decides where he lives.
You’re right, it wouldn’t work. Some plots would strain the credulity of even the most cheerfully uncritical summertime audiences. The arena within which Cruise is permitted to win is the tightly constrained arena of military prowess, rendered in the 8-bit Atari world of vintage video games. No other arena can even be believably caricatured.
There was actually another movie this year that built its plot on the decline of state capacity, rather than pretending it hasn’t happened. That movie was Matt Reeves’ The Batman. Its young caped antihero defines, indeed identifies, himself as “Vengeance,” and he swings around Gotham City beating people to a pulp for assorted transgressions. Unfortunately, like the authors of Trudeau’s assorted mandate letters, he never has any idea what’s about to happen. He never solves the puzzles set by Paul Dano’s Riddler unless Dano gives him the answers. And when Dano hatches his evil master plan, the Batman is powerless to stop it. The Batman is a movie about bullshitting. The only character who gets this is Dano. He kills members of Gotham’s corrupt leadership class, calling them “all those slick, sleazy, phony pricks.” Gotham’s true face, he tells the Batman, is “corruption, it’s perversion masquerading under the guise of renewal.” The movie’s framing event is a municipal election in which none of the available votes, even a vote for the telegenic young challenger, will make a real difference. It’s a deeply cynical movie, but its cynicism isn’t cheap, it’s weary and entirely contemporary. The Batman’s one concession to optimism is its central figure’s closing transformation in mood and technique from “Vengeance” into, perhaps, “Care.” He stops trying to figure the world out and is content to bind up the city’s wounds. The Batman, unlike real-world leaders, finally admits his limitations. He may be saved by the simple fact that he doesn’t have to run for re-election.
I loved The Batman, more than I expected, but yeah, it’s a downer. Maverick is the feel-good, even-if-you-don’t-feel-much, movie of the summer. It’s a classic of the “get it done” genre. I am confident that Doug Ford has already seen it.