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From One Maverick to Another

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022, USA)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

          The first Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott and released in 1986, was not only a grand celebration of Reaganism - the militaristic doctrine, the praise of virile masculinity and family and patriarchal values, the liberal economy open to the most visceral competitiveness, and an America reasserting pride in its conservatism and power after the open wound of the Vietnam War - but also the reintroduction of a specific prototype of character, suitable enough to become the surplus value of his time. The omnipresent testosterone-scented maleness in the elite aviation group, the electric guitars that served as a soundtrack to the camera pyrotechnics showing, in stunning shots, the aircraft - which are less about warfare and more about playing with the exhibitionism of their war power - the country songs sung on the piano by men wearing leather jackets and holding a long-neck in their hands, and, finally, the much talked about, and now camp, volleyball sequence where muscular men show off their bodies, scream cheerful cries and do symbolic, intimidating arm-wrestling to prove themselves better than each other; all these situations in a very particular ufanistic tone were accompanied by the need to expose the psyche of a figure, the irreverent hero of an America that wanted to rediscover itself as the master of the world and leave behind the traumas of the lost struggle. If a significant part of the New Hollywood of the 1970s was dedicated to condemning the senselessness of the Vietnam endeavor, the fierce consumer society of the following period didn't want to learn from the mistakes of the force: it simply wanted to be able to forget them, to let go, to live its own hedonism. In other words, if, for example, De Niro in Deer Hunter (1977) took the lesson that when you're on top of the mountain, you shouldn't shoot the deer, Tom Cruise in Top Gun is well-liked because he provokes his opponent in the MIG - he pirouettes to take a picture and send him a 'fuck it' since, in times of Cold War, he can't just machine gun him down - but spends more than half the film anxious to, with phallic desire, have a justification for pulling the trigger.

          This model hero had a nickname. His codename was 'Maverick,' a word that goes back to nineteenth-century cattle that were not branded by iron on Texas farms, and therefore belonged to no one. Over time, it has gained a specific connotation in American culture that refers to visionary and untamed subjects, lone wolves who are difficult people with questionable methods, but who are ahead of their time in terms of idea and brilliance. While we can find mavericks galore throughout the history of American cinema, the self-centered bad boy with an army jacket, an anti-institutional attitude, a motorcycle and sunglasses embodied by Tom Cruise was quite particularly the restoration of the reactionary model in the light of the necessary technological, cinematographic and political transformations that had taken place earlier. A kind of James Dean without anguish, without emotional needs, whose suicidal impetus is seen in the optimistic motto 'I feel the need, the need for speed', a positive adventurer who wants to show off at all costs and be the best in his class (by the way, without this obsession being problematized); an attitude that finds a perfect aesthetic correlate in the accepted cuts and in the daring angles of the impressive aerial shots of the North American army fighters, eroticized to the point of being too much. What in the rebels of the 1950s and 1970s was an irremediable sore was beginning to be institutionalized, to serve as a celebratory model on which the USA under Reagan would rise: the irresponsible 'Maverick' as the hero of competitiveness, who should be expelled from the institution, but who is so good at dogfighting that he ends up staying there. No wonder that his big conflict, in the end, is neither with his class opponent Ice (Tom Kazanski), nor even with the Russians he faces at the end. These, he, all along, could already beat. It is with himself: he needs to overcome his own conscience, the 'accidental' death of his friend Goose (Anthony Edwards), in order to become once again what he always was - the best of all. The speech is clear: instead of learning from the past, US needs to forget it, in order to regain his confidence and return to being the potency of his manifest destiny.

         Between the original and the sequel, thirty-six years have passed. The ideological demands of the time are different, and we see it forcing the film to rearticulate its discourse before the world. For example, the troupe of elite pilots is no longer a den of masculinity; it now includes women, blacks, and nerds, in addition to the tough guys from before. The owner of the bar is an autonomous woman and she dictates the orders of the place. However, it is still the 'maverick' its stated theme, with the codename now elevated to the subtitle of the work. In the preamble to Top Gun: Maverick, when we see him working in an aircraft testing facility, it is evident that this older and supposedly mature Tom Cruise retains his excessive and unscrupulous love for speed, as well as his attitude of contempt for institutional rules and boundaries. When he breaks a speed record ignoring the protocols, for example, the achievement is celebrated by an official cursing NASA. The sequel reaffirms, right from the title, that the narrative will focus on the dramatic ex- position of the protagonist, but at the same time, there is a small paradox here: he is placed in the position of a military aviation instructor (which is again a metaphor for cinema), someone who is there to transmit his knowledge and multiply it. It is a film about how the 'maverick' can and should (since he is summoned by the government to do so) become 'mavericks' in the plural, going from being an enfant terrible to an authority figure in the institution, reviving his attitude that was previously denied to a youth that, in theory, would need it. On the other hand, the fact that the hero from before has something to contribute to the new generation - and the whole issue revolves around this and what the old 'maverick' can show to the younger ones - does not mean that this will be a two-way street; instead, that, at least, he will find in the younger ones, especially in Rooster (Miles Teller), son of the ex-partner Goose, a mirror that opens the possibility of revisiting his own ghosts.

       Given the undertaking, one might even have expected, to some extent, a kind of celebratory and uncritical re-birth of Reaganism and its prototype American hero - a reactionary and nostalgic eulogy of the era, or even a mere cult of eighties action movie nostalgia. But Joseph Kosinski's feature film escapes well from repeating Tony Scott's fault. I am not saying that the film puts North American war action in check; on the contrary, when a character trivially asks what mission would require all the country's aces, he receives the lucid and direct answer from Lieutenant Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), "we shouldn't ask that question". The justification that the mission's raison d'etre is to stop a construction that violates NATO rules is pretty shallow and never becomes an object of scrutiny. And if the adversaries wear closed helmets and their aircraft are not as identifiable as the Soviet MIGs were, it is enough to say that the enemy now has technologies as advanced or more advanced than the U.S. to make clear the geopolitical issues at stake, and how the film - whose script possibly needed to be approved by the U.S. Navy, which rented its jets for the production - mirrors the fear of a country that risks losing its economic and war hegemony to others like China. Frontally speaking, on an ideological reading, Top Gun: Maverick does not oppose the North American conduct of thinking itself as the master of the world and coaxes the effort to maintain the status quo. But when it brings the figure of the maverick to the forefront, this position is tensed, for he is not yet the same cautiousless, self-centered boy Tom Cruise once played. The actor's persona has changed, and with it, so has the character.

      Since at least the fourth feature film in the Mission Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise has been abandoning stuntmen or gimmicks and, in a nod to the tradition of Keaton, Chan, or Belmondo, being the performer of his action scenes himself. From an erotic icon, Cruise became an acrobatic hero. The bet is more on the dedicated physical feats than on the visual effects, and not infrequently, the attitude has become discourse in the feature films he has participated in. The conflict situation that arises is quite different from that of the first feature film. The team that Maverick is to train needs to fly fast, over low terrain and full of obstacles, but unobtrusively, so as not to be noticed by the opponents. Furthermore, the mission can only be accomplished thanks to collective and articulate work. Finally, since the adversaries' weapons are as powerful or more powerful than theirs, one must avoid 'dogfight' (which is a metaphor for competitiveness itself) - not fighting, and working as a team is what is most important to achieve success. What Maverick has to teach them is, first of all, how to help each other - in correlation to the volleyball scene, the teacher pulls the class together to play American soccer, and instead of emanating competition, the scene is about group-building and partnership. When Maverick sacrifices himself to save Rooster, Rooster sacrifices himself for the chance to rescue him, and in the end, both are saved by a Hangman (Glen Powell) disobeying orders. Incidentally, this is the second learning, that the rules will not help them accomplish a goal that exists out of sync with official protocol; not to show irreverence (as in the first), but for a logical reason, because the institutional rule immobilizes the action. Following the manual is useless (in the first class, the teacher throws it in the trash) because it is the instinctive hunch that mobilizes the right choices, the need to make quick decisions because there is never enough time to think - it is the reason why Goose's son's quarrel with his mentor, as he attributes his father's death to his recklessness, and the feature film es- forces itself to justify such stoic pragmatism characteristic of the North American Protestant ethos. 'Not thinking', which in the Reagan era meant a voluntary repression of loss, here has become almost the opposite: learning to act emotionally, to let oneself be carried away by the mood of the moment, to be 'human', and not a mechanical repeater of laws.

          More important than all this, the great and main lesson of Maverick is that the human element is what makes the difference in the use of machines, the quality of the aviator against the hegemony of technology, and the place where the improbable can be accomplished, in a significant speech similar to what we see Ethan from Mission Impossible increasingly embody. The turning point of the narrative in Top Gun: Maverick is the sequence in which the master will show them the viability of what seems impossible to be done. In times when Hollywood, which has always flaunted its technical inventions, recreates dead actors in CGI and replaces entire sets with chroma keys, the film's discourse takes on humanistic airs. But not only this. For thirty or forty years, the US could parade its technological supremacy, performing aerial pirouettes in coastal cities and showing what the effect of breaking the sound barrier was like for a population proud of the size of its genital organ. The war culture was coupled with the erotic spectacle of machines, in a symbiotic way to which the monstrous cranes, the titanic decors, and now, aerial drones or the whole Hollywood digital phantasmagoria culture have always contributed. Once economic conditions are equalized with other countries in the world, the sense of superiority needs to be earned on a do-it-yourself basis. The multiplication of the mavericks is precisely the elixir against this technological equivalence, the human spark behind the machines. It is part of this kind of moral of the anti-fake image that the actor/producer learned from his icons of the past.

        This attitude does not even border a recondite nostalgia for the old, as it might sound. When not appealing to pyrotechnics, the other risk that Hollywood currently imposes on its directors is to do so to nostalgia and idolatry of the successes of yesterday. More and more with its endless spin offs, sequels, prequels and other quiprocos; remakes and more remakes of what attracted audiences in the past, in an effort to make new hyperdigital versions of the old myths, as Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers jokes through a character who underwent 'digital surgery': alienation is now nostalgic. Such a thing would only reveal, in fact, that the industry has no other possible myth to invent for itself. The paroxysm of this kind of lecture seems to have been written for the scene in which, in order to return home safe and sound, Maverick and Goose need to fly and engage in 'dogfights' in a museum aircraft, which, for ex-machina reasons, is parked there at the opponent's airbase. Seeing the indomitable pilot resurface in his old machine is the kind of image that now, with some recurrence, the North American film industry has been banking on. But there is no exploitation or investment in mythic updating here. No 'old pot makes good food'. The scene is as sober as everything else.

        The real quality of Top Gun: Maverick lies in the fact that Kosinski's direction relies neither on the technophilic drive, nor on this sort of nostalgic surplus value, two temptations that are always at the forefront of Hollywood’s blockbusters these days. If it does not get to explore the human exploits in a physical spectacle, like Cruise's other films, it is really organized in the effort of dramaturgic development of the characters - in extracting feelings from the situations, producing tensions and relaxations in the dramatic oscillations that not even the original cared so much to do -, in the sober decoupage and in the modulation of rhythms during the action scenes, and in resolving qualitatively the neuroses of its characters. Things that are sometimes very, very simple, but that classical cinema repeatedly, and increasingly, puts aside with the greatest of ease (and, it must be said, greed). The apparently anachronistic vocation of the film lies in the basic fact that it explores the best that classical cinema has always known how to explore - the great human drama painted on the huge screens of the world, and its chimerical belief in the universalism of these dramas -, without letting itself be carried away by the vehemence of that which it has also always commercially explored, and which has also always only placed itself as a rock in its own path. The eroticism of the aircraft is replaced by the outdated close-ups that reveal the actor's inner light, suffocating because he needs to breathe in a sudden lift to get over a mountain on time. Tom Cruise sees the younger guys singing in a bar, as he and his friends used to do, and his face lights up with melancholy. If the old Maverick was the indomitable young impulse for machinic innovation, the new old Maverick is its counterpoint: the yearning for the kind of art that the American film industry increasingly despises.



October, 2022

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