Here’s a problem I had when I was prepping to review the new “Top Gun: Maverick” movie: I’d never seen the original one.
In fixing that, I thought it would be more fun if I watched it with the biggest Tom Cruise fan I know. My friend and fellow movie media person Marc Rivers — a producer for NPR’s “Morning Edition” — has seen both movies and just recently appeared on the NPR podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour” talking about the sequel.
So I asked him to re-watch the original with me for my first time, and discuss these movies, masculinity, militarism and Tom Cruise. (At the time of this conversation, I hadn’t yet experienced anything “Top Gun” related, ever.)
SCOTT GREENSTONE: This is the most ‘80s movie intro that exists.
MARC RIVERS: This opening is basically pornographic. The whole movie is like this. This movie is very turned-on by this world of badass jets.
SG: Careful — this is a family newspaper. Just because we’re not on NPR doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules.
MR: Like Maverick (the Tom Cruise character), I am a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules.
But already, just look at these flying scenes. “Dunkirk” before “Dunkirk.” At the time, probably the most vivid and realistic around. Putting cameras in the cockpit. Cruise, ever the athlete, went to flying school. This is the beginning of Cruise the stunt nut: Authentic in everything except (according to many critics) human emotion.
SG: One thing I’ve always wondered about “Top Gun” is, this is a Cold War-era movie. There aren’t going to be the World War II dogfights in old John Wayne movies, like “Flying Leathernecks.”
MR: That’s kind of what makes it dangerously harmless. Or innocuously dangerous? It’s not a war movie. It’s boys’ club. It’s a frat. Makes war games fun. (See key song: “Playing with the Boys.”) There’s no enemy. There’s just “the enemy.”
You are Goose.
SG: That’s great; I love Anthony Edwards.
MR: One minute he was young, the next he’s in “Zodiac.”
THERE IS SO MUCH SWEAT. SWEATIEST BLOCKBUSTER OF THE ’80S.
SG: I WAS JUST WRITING, ‘WHY IS THERE SO MUCH SWEAT?’
The bar scene
MR: Val Kilmer was very pretty. And those ice tips.
SG: Starting to think it’s not a compliment to be Goose.
MR: You’re a good wingman. 🙂 This heavy flirtation between Kilmer and Cruise …
SG: WHY ARE THEIR FACES SO CLOSE?
MR: This is actually perfectly Cruise. Instead of having normal human interaction, he has to perform (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”). He’s always acting.
SG: Introducing yourself by your call sign is what we today would call a soft boi move.
MR: Real douche energy.
The volleyball scene
MR: (Director) Tony Scott said he lathered them up with oil and said this was basically shooting soft-core.
Cruise had never played volleyball until shooting this scene. I’m sure of it.
SG: I was going to say, is that a fact? Because knowing him, I’d have expected him to spend at least a week in volleyball camp.
The romance scenes
MR: Not a single one of their interactions is happening on planet Earth.
SG: Wow. Yeah, this is the weirdest dialogue. “IT LOOKS LIKE YOU NEED ANOTHER SHOWER”? It’s incredible how much more chemistry he has with Val Kilmer than with her!!!
THIRD NEEDLE DROP OF — what’s the name of the song?
MR: OSCAR-WINNING SONG “TAKE MY BREATH AWAY.”
SG: Now I’m glad you said I’m Goose because that means I’m married to, and have a child with, Meg Ryan.
FOURTH NEEDLE DROP OF “TAKE MY BREATH AWAY.”
MR: A generation of boys learned the wrong way to kiss from Tom Cruise.
SG: I’m sorry, that sounds like it was hard for you.
MR: “Take me to bed or lose me forever!” Amazing.
SG: And yet, the movie is like, “enough of that — now back to PLANES! And ANOTHER ‘DANGER ZONE’ NEEDLE DROP!”
MR: You know when you’ve just found a banger, and you should listen to something else, but it’s like “nah.”
SG: These flying scenes make no sense. The MiGs are 2 miles away until the next shot, where suddenly Tom and the boys are right on top of them. And maybe that’s part of the charm.
MR: The flying scenes in “Maverick” are way more coherent.
SG: “First one dies, you die too. There will be others,” is a great line (from local legend Tom Skerritt!) and really effective delivery in a sea of strange lines and strange delivery.
MR: This is where the movie sags for me. I’m supposed to feel sad now? This movie wants me to feel sad? Not buying it.
SG: Yeah. We were in the air and suddenly we’re having to comprehend the findings of military review panels.
But at least it gets all that out of the way fast and we’re very quickly back to the synth needle drops!! “GET HIM FLYING, AND SOON.” It’s like Tom Skerritt is the director talking to the screenwriter.
MR: Where’s Moses Lake, Washington? That’s where the (lone) Black actor playing Sundown is from. Clarence Gilyard.
SG: That’s a small town near Seattle. Less than three hours’ drive.
MR: What would your call sign be? I think mine would be SlowJam. Or TasteMaker.
SG: Maybe NiceMan. Because I’m nice.
I’m really bad at this. I would not hack it in the Navy.
MR: There’s a character in the sequel whose call sign is Bob. That’s you.
SG: His real name isn’t Bob?
MR: It is.
The final battle
SG: These bullets are far slower than the planes.
MR: It’s a great pro-military movie … It doesn’t even matter who the enemy is. No sense of geopolitics. It’s just ‘bang bang.’
SG: Yeah, this feels like a film adaptation of a Blue Angels performance.
MR: Ah, my favorite type of end credits. Everyone alive and well, smiling over their names … END.
MR: So what did you think?
SG: I thought it was …
MR: The ‘80s distilled? Into like, a Red Bull? Just like, the ‘80s in an energy drink.
SG: In a movie.
It feels like a recruiting movie, and it’s startlingly un-self-aware, even, I want to say, by ‘80s standards.
MR: Yeah, it’s like I look at this movie and like there’s such a kind of shamelessness to its identity. It’s a Maxim ad for the military.
SG: I think that one of the clear ways in which that comes across is the relationship between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. It is as if he is the only man who has ever hit on her.
MR: It feels the most itself when it is unapologetically self-promotional. Whether it’s promoting Tom Cruise’s body and his smile or promoting these planes. The shamelessness of it is so fun for a while, until it gets somber. And once you have to start caring, and you’re just like, “Oh, what is this?” For me at least.
SG: Do you have one thing you would say about why the new one’s better?
MR: This movie, to me, is a joke. I think it’s a good joke, but it’s a joke. The new one is trying to redeem the joke. You feel like with this one, that they put all of their attention and time and interest into all the flying scenes and didn’t care about the characters, or the emotions, or any of that stuff. That all felt very hastily sketched.
And in the new movie, you actually feel like somebody put some thought into the script, into the characters themselves. It feels almost embarrassed by the gung-ho military vibe of this first one. The youthfulness of this movie is what the sequel is commenting on. The kind of stupidity of youth.
The Tom Cruise of the “Mission: Impossible” movies, you start to feel kind of exhausted by it all because like, “Oh, here he goes again, proving he can still run 1,000 miles or fly planes, and he’s never gonna die.” And with “Maverick,” he has a sense of, “to what end am I still doing this to myself? And what do I have to pass on to the next generation?” The next generation of stars / the next generation of pilots.
SG: You’re definitely right on with the thing about, they put all the attention and time and interest into the flying scenes. It felt like this movie was written by someone reading a flight manual on how to make a movie. It works really well for the flying scenes and not so great for the people, because it only makes sense in machinery terms. And it feels jingoistic, without (targeting a specific country) — it’s like America is the only country that exists in the world.
MR: I think one thing against the sequel: They kind of have a similar climax. It’s better, but it’s a similar situation in the sense that they’re completing some important mission, but you don’t know who the enemy is. It’s another one of these, “Well, who are we fighting?” And that’s an interesting question to pose in this current climate we’re in. And the movie almost completely sidesteps that.
SG: It’s like the enemy is the plane. (In the first movie) it’s the MiG. The more maneuverable, smaller, plucky —
MR: And they do the same thing with the new one. They’ve got better technology. Better planes. It’s like, who’s this?
In the sequel, there’s this idea that Maverick is like a fossil. Pretty soon, everything’s gonna be unmanned drones. But even that is not taken a very serious political way. It’s more so just meta, where the blockbusters today are unmanned, they’re driven by IP, they’re flown by the brand and no person behind. No personality.
Cruise, in the sequel, he’s basically fighting against that future. He believes in this idea: well, blockbusters can be driven. By me! By an actual movie star.
What did you think of Tom Cruise here? Because this was his supernova role. This was his star-making shift.
SG: Ummm … I’m saying this as someone who is not an expert on Tom Cruise. I’ve never seen a “Mission: Impossible” movie. I think that he’s obviously having a lot of fun, and he feels very present in the movie. I mean, like, he’s into every scene. You feel his eye contact.
He has such a strange script to work with, and he’s just such a strange guy. I’m not sure I have thoughtful things to say about Tom Cruise.
MR: I honestly don’t know why I like Tom Cruise as much as I do. I can’t fully explain it. There is something about his demented focus and attention that is so compelling to me. Any other respectable American actor, any other actor who was not British — because Brits look at acting as a job — would just be bored in these scenes. And Cruise is so, just, there. So weirdly there. And he’s like that in all of his movies. He knows the camera is there, and he knows the camera is there for him.
He’s such an interesting kind of evolution in the male star. You had the kind of laconic star, like Humphrey Bogart, then you have some of the more animalistic and sweaty stars like Brando and James Dean. And then you have this kind of post-human human star.
SG: Like Nic Cage and Tom Cruise.
MR: Cage is different, because Cruise to me is — like “Minority Report” feels futuristic, where it’s like, “I am perfecting manhood.” It’s like if you put in some computer thing, like “what is man” or “create best man,” Tom Cruise would come out.
And he’s just so sure of himself, of his ability to entertain. “I can do this for you. And I will do this for you. Or die trying.” There’s no other star like that. And there never will be ever again. So yeah — he’s the best. He’s the craziest, but he’s also the best.
SG: I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks for watching with me.