Sunday, June 26, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick, Reviewed by the Son of a Naval Aviator

I am not an aviation authority by any standard, but as the son of a late Naval aviator, I am only one degree removed from the cockpit of an A6 Intruder. I’ve heard stories and met people, so I feel like some kind of expert on military culture. As a result, Top Gun: Maverick rings pretty true to my ears, so it is cool to see a relatively accurate and sympathetic depiction of the American military crushing it at the box office.

Maverick opens, Captain Pete Mitchell is posted to a Naval Air Station in the Mojave Desert. Presumably, this is China Lake NAS, where I was born, because it’s the only Naval Air Station in the Mojave that I know of. Maverick is testing an experimental hyper-sonic aircraft, in a scene that compares to Chuck Yeager’s final flight in The Right Stuff film. China Lake would be the perfect place to do so—because it is in the Mojave.

Maverick thought his defiant final flight would be the end of his checkered career, but his old
Top Gun rival-turned-buddy, Admiral Tom “Ice Man” Kazansky saves his butt one last time, transferring him back to Top Gun, for a final mission—a training mission.

Maybe the most unrealistic aspect of the original film were the cool sounding call signs. These handles are not chosen, they are bestowed on pilots. Typically, they refer to an incident or hang-up that will keep the aviator humble. In
Top Gun 1, “Goose” was probably the most true-to-life call sign, so in addition to its symmetry, “Rooster” is also a believable call sign for his son, Lt. Bradley Bradshaw. “Hangman” might sound cool for Lt. Jake Seresin, but it is actually an unflattering reference to his showboating. In practice, the call sign “Bob” wouldn’t work, because it could confusingly apply to other pilots, but it seems to fit the apparent blandness of nebbish Lt. Robert Floyd.

dialogue is not bad, but it can’t match the spot-on perfection of the first film. Original screenwriters Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr just nailed Naval Aviator attitude and humor with gems like: “Whose butt did you kiss to get in here?/The list is long but distinguished” and “The plaque for alternates is down in the ladies’ room.” If that offends you, I don’t care, because it captures the swagger you need to dogfight with enemy planes in a multi-million-dollar piece of hardware that experiences mechanical failures far more often than it should.

Perhaps even more than the original film,
Maverick does a nice job fleshing out the other pilots at Top Gun. Bashir Salahuddin is a notable standout playing “Hondo,” Maverick’s non-commissioned sidekick. I’ll defer to other experts, but to my untrained eye, Kosinski does a great job recreating the sensation of pulling multiple G’s. The dog-fighting sequences maintain the high standards of the first film. Admittedly, Maverick and Rooster’s adventures behind enemy lines are a bit far-fetched, but they are fun to watch.

is also one of the best decades-later sequels (2010 and Psycho II are also surprisingly successful examples) because it explains how Maverick got to where he is in ways that stay true to original character. Despite countless commendations for combat bravery, he just kept sabotaging his career, simply by being Maverick. Admittedly, his bad blood with Rooster is a bit contrived. However, the way the tactically conservative Rooster’s rivalry with the hot-dogging Hangman echoes Maverick and Iceman in the original Top Gun adds a lot of fan resonance to the new film. Some might miss Kelly McGillis, but do you really think it would have worked out between those two? If you rewatch the original, Penny Benjamin is indeed mentioned by name and Jennifer Connelly appeals to 1980s/1990s fan nostalgia (thanks to classics like Labyrinth and Rocketeer).

Maverick, Naval Aviators save the day and the world is loving it. Also give a cheer for the Taiwan flag patch the was un-airbrushed off Maverick’s flight jacket. Somewhat disappointingly, the enemy power is not identified (in the original, Maverick explicitly shot down Russian MiGs). Still, by making the target a nuclear reactor and surrounding it with snowy, mountainous terrain, the film maybe implies it all goes down in northern Iran.

Regardless, it should be safe to say there is an appetite for heroic American military pilots, so some channel or streaming service ought to acquire rights for the vintage
Steve Canyon series. It was the most expensive TV drama of its day, produced in close collaboration with the U.S. Air Force, to ensure authenticity. I recommend it at the risk of raising Dad’s angry ghost, since the Navy and Air Force are great rivals (it is actually the only service branch not represented in my family, since Dad was Navy, Mom was Army, and my grandfathers were Marine Corps and Coast Guard). In any event, Maverick is flying high right now, so Go Navy. Highly recommended, Top Gun Maverick is playing everywhere.