Movies

What Unnamed “Rogue State” Is the Enemy of Top Gun: Maverick?

A Slate investigation.

Cruise sits in a cockpit, in his classic "Maverick" helmet, straining against the Gs, possibly inverted
Tom Cruise’s Maverick flies over a snowcapped mountain range that is supposedly not the Cascades. Paramount Pictures

Top Gun: Maverick is not a movie that means to make you think too hard. Nonetheless, I spent its running time trying to puzzle out a central mystery. Not Will Maverick reconcile with Rooster? Or Will their mission succeed? Or Is there any sight more majestic on an IMAX screen than Jennifer Connelly piloting a sailboat? (Yes, yes, and no, I knew instantly.) But despite the film’s many clues, I simply couldn’t figure out the answer to a simple question: Who are the bad guys in Top Gun: Maverick?

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Making the enemy nation purposefully vague is not new in the world of military thrillers. The original Top Gun, for example, expertly fudged what country it was flying those MiGs around the Indian Ocean. (Task and Purpose basically figured out it’s North Korea.) More recently, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground seemed meant to be about overthrowing the dictator of Turkmenistan, but they called it Turgistan. Battleship invented aliens from “Planet G” who nonetheless sent ships to earth that could float on water.

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Some thrillers just go for it. The recent Tom Clancy adaptation Without Remorse is definitely about Michael B. Jordan killing Russians (although the real bad guy is a power-mad U.S. Secretary of Defense). The Red Dawn remake came up with a whole plotline about China invading the U.S. to reclaim a defaulted debt, before the studio panicked about losing billions of dollars in Chinese box office and changed the bad guys, in post-production, to North Koreans. (It didn’t work. China didn’t show the movie anyway.)

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In Maverick, the recruits for the Navy’s secret mission are told that a “rogue nation” is this close to opening up a new uranium refinery, which will give them nuclear capability. But the rogue nation is never named. So who is the rogue nation?

It can be tricky figuring out what countries the U.S. military considers “rogue nations,” because in 2000, the state department officially stopped using the term, with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declaring the countries would heretofore be called “states of concern.” However, as recently as 2017, Donald Trump referred to “rogue regimes” like North Korea. So let’s devote the exact amount of research to this movie’s geopolitics that Maverick screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie did: Let’s look at the Wikipedia page for “rogue state.” That page claims that only nine nations are currently considered rogue states by the U.S.: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.

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Here’s what we know about Maverick’s rogue nation:

• It does not yet have nuclear capability but would like to have it.
• It possesses a few mothballed F-14s, plus three “fifth-generation” fighter jets, which the military experts at Sandboxx (among many others) has identified as the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-57.
• It borders the ocean, because Maverick’s aircraft carrier has to park somewhere.
• It contains valleys and mountains covered in evergreens that look suspiciously like the Cascades.
• It snows there.
• They are smart enough to build a uranium refinery but dumb enough to place it in the middle of a clearing, as circular as a bullseye, with a little metal box on top marking the exact perfect spot to blow it up.

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Let’s run through our suspects in alphabetical order.

Afghanistan

At first this seems pretty promising! Afghanistan doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, but you can sort of imagine the Taliban thinking that would be a cool thing to do, what with so many of their neighbors having them. And it has similar, often-snowy, mountainous terrain. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is also landlocked, 280 miles away from the Arabian Sea. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Belarus

Maybe you could imagine Belarus convincing Russia to sell them three of their [checks notes] 14 currently operational Su-57s. And maybe you could imagine Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko trying to go nuclear. But Belarus is landlocked and mostly flat. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Cuba

Why would Cuba need nukes when they’ve got Havana Syndrome?! Also, Cuban snow is not a thing. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Iran

Iran is mountainous, frequently snowy, and deliciously close to the Gulf of Oman. The Iranian government famously loves the idea of developing nuclear weapons. However, the entire southern part of the country—the part easily accessible from the Gulf of Oman—is dry and mostly unforested, and certainly does not look like the Cascades. Plus, Iran does not hide its F-14s under a bushel: The plane makes up about a quarter of the Iranian Air Force’s combat aircraft. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Nicaragua

It does not snow in Nicaragua. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

North Korea

America would not send a bunch of fighter jets led by a guy named “Maverick” into North Korea to blow up a new refinery. That’s because North Korea already has lots of places to refine uranium, 40 to 50 nukes, and an itchy trigger finger. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Russia

This is the only country that has ready access to Su-57s, even though the first production model crashed before it could even be delivered to the military. However, as with North Korea, at this point the horse is out of the barn, nuclear-weapons-wise. Russia already possesses 6,257 nuclear warheads. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Syria

The mountainous Syrian coast is, in fact, part of the Eastern Mediterranean conifer-broadleaf forest, which contains evergreens like the Turkish pine—a little scrubbier than the trees in the Cascades, but we could maybe let it slide. Snowfall is not uncommon in Syria, despite the warm climate. The Syrian air force has other Sukhoi jets and Bashar al-Assad has welcomed the Russian military into the country to intervene. And Syria has, in the past, attempted to gain nuclear weapons. However, what happened the last time they tried that was that Israel bombed the hell out of the reactor, which is what would also happen if they actually somehow built a refinery right by the Mediterranean Sea. It seems unlikely the U.S. military would need to get involved. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

Venezuela

Does it snow in Venezuela? Yes, a little, in the Andes mountains. Does that part of Venezuela look like the Cascades? No. Verdict: not the rogue nation.

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Boy, I was completely stumped. Until, that is, I remembered: Didn’t Tom Cruise already fight a rogue nation? Yes! He did! In Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (2015)! In that film, the rogue nation was “the Syndicate,” made up of former intelligence officers from a bunch of countries. Later, in a different movie, they started calling themselves “the Apostles.” Not only are the Apostles eager to acquire nuclear weapons, they’ve already done so once, but were foiled by Ethan Hunt. They’ve had no trouble stealing military hardware before for their nefarious schemes, so snagging a couple of Su-57s from under the Russian military’s noses should be a piece of cake. They’ve got access to billions of dollars in stolen funds, plenty of cash to buy up a beautiful valley in Washington state’s Cascade Range and install a bunch of surface-to-air missiles. Most importantly, they’re movie supervillains! The exact kinds of people most likely to build a secret uranium refinery directly underneath an extremely bombable metal hatch. Verdict: The rogue nation of Top Gun: Maverick is the rogue nation of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation.

For reviews and perspective on Top Gun: Maverick, listen to this episode of Spoiler Specials.

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