For those of you who weren’t alive in the 1980s -- or were and lived under the largest of rocks during that time --Top Gun follows a dozen hotshot fighter pilots as they navigate six weeks of Fighter Weapons School where they learn the art of aerial dogfighting.
The film launched the blockbuster career of Tom Cruise. He’s back as a Top Gun instructor, and the sequel’s subtitle bears his call sign: Maverick.
I look fondly upon many things from my childhood, and so it was hard to admit that this second flight was better than the first, from both filmmaking and theological perspectives.
After a test pilot flight begins well (Maverick’s jet reaches a mythical Mach 10) and ends not so well (but he miraculously survives), the Navy assigns Maverick a final posting to train the next generation of Top Gun pilots.
The first time he taught pilots came at the end of the first movie. Early on in the sequel, we learn that stint only lasted two months.
The second go-around lands with measured results. Never one to lead with the textbook or didactic methods, Maverick has to demonstrate through his own flying that the perilous, eventual mission to take out a uranium plant is possible.
The sequence reminded me that Jesus’ best teaching came through the action of His Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection.
He spoke all he could about being raised after three days, but only after it actually happened was it possible for the apostles to believe, follow and spread the Gospel message.
Side note: Maverick shows little care for rank, advancing at a glacial pace of lieutenant to captain in three decades. But he’s still the best pilot in the Navy, irrespective of rank.
I thought the Church here, too, could learn a lesson. If we could be less concerned about who receives or doesn’t receive red cardinal hats in dioceses half a world away and more attention paid to the people of God in front of us, we might be better off.
Humanity & Technology
The thematic spine holding the film together is the mantra questioned throughout the film: “The pilot or the plane?”
Taking the latter to the extreme, leaves us with drones. Taking the former to the extreme elicits the much more watchable, Maverick.
Yes, advancing technology does marvelous things. The filmmakers are very aware of this, having waited patiently for the right technology to pull off this film.
However, it’s how the human person can manipulate the technology for storytelling purposes that counts.
Getting this thematic element right also aids characterization. Maverick succeeds not just because he’s provided a serviceable plane or possesses enough know-how, but ultimately because he can operate just beyond where reason takes you: relying on instinct where decision-making occurs in nanoseconds. Astronauts refer to it as having “the right stuff.”
This was my problem with recent space-exploration films, First Man and Ad Astra. In First Man, they made Neil Armstrong too emotional; in Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s fictitious character, too philosophical.
As the viewer, too, I found the film made the best case for humanity returning together for in-person events. I saw an early morning showing in a packed theater, where the crowd cheered three times throughout the course of the movie.
It would have been a far less inspiring film had I watched it alone, on my computer, in my hovel of a room in the rectory.
The Power of Movies
And we shouldn’t underestimate the power of movies to inspire. The 1986 version lead a high-school friend of mine to the Air Force Academy, then flight school and now a colonel in Washington, D.C. May the 2022 version do the same.
The world will always provide us bad guys, even those contemplating nuclear war. I have a hunch, then, the United States wouldn’t rely on a top drone, but rather, humans. The best of the best of humanity.
And for both technical execution and some bold themes I’m fully on deck with, of all the 1980s reboots, Top Gun: Maverick is the best.
Image: Paramount Pictures
Click here to visit USC film school graduate Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.