Movies

Top Gun: Maverick Is Cinema

The Movie Club, Entry 2.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paramount Pictures.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—for 2022, Bilge Ebiri, Beatrice Loayza, and David Sims—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Why hello there Dana, Beatrice, and David,

Dana’s peppered me with a number of questions about the titles on my Top 10 list, but before I proceed further, I should note here—as has become traditional for me, at this point—that I generally prefer to do a longer year-end list. So, here is what I consider to be my real list, my top 25 films of the year.

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1. Athena (Romain Gavras)

2. Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)

3. Both Sides of the Blade (Claire Denis)

4. Cyrano (Joe Wright)

5. Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)

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6. No Bears (Jafar Panahi)

7. Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kuosmanen)

8. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

9. Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović)

10. Descendant (Margaret Brown)

11. Vortex (Gaspar Noe)

12. Blonde (Andrew Dominik)

13. Fire of Love (Sara Dosa)

14. Babylon (Damien Chazelle)

15. The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)

16. Avatar: The Way of Water (James Cameron)

17. Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniels)

18. Huda’s Salon (Hany Abu-Assad)

19. The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood)

20. Benediction (Terence Davies)

21. Babi Yar. Context. (Sergei Loznitsa)

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22. Playground (Laura Wandel)

23. The Batman (Matt Reeves)

24. Armageddon Time (James Gray)

25. All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen)

The longer list makes much more sense to me, because any of the titles placed 11 to 25 could easily wind up on my Top 10. (Yes, even Blonde, a film I thoroughly adore.) In fact, one of them did migrate over the course of the past 12 months: Last year, Joe Wright’s Cyrano was Number 16. It was slotted to be released right at the end of 2021 (a big year for musicals, by the way), but it wound up getting pushed back several months into 2022. It did have a cursory one-week Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles, but not in New York, thus technically making it a 2022 release for my purposes. This time last year, I’d already seen Cyrano several times. I think I even talked about it a bit last year on this here Movie Club. I have since seen it several more times, and it gets even better with each viewing. Currently, it’s ranked Number 4. At the rate it’s going, it might make my 2032 Sight & Sound ballot. I am, after all, a Joe Wright dead-ender.

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Speaking of repeat viewings, I’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick seven times at this point. So Dana, I had absolutely zero hesitation about putting it so high on this list. In fact, until my first viewing of Athena pretty much melted my brain, I was assuming Maverick would be at the very top. (More on Athena in a bit.)

My love for Maverick was somewhat unexpected, because I was never a fan of the first Top Gun. In fact, I used to hate it. (I’ve since made my peace with Tony Scott’s 1986 blockbuster, but I don’t even think it’s one of Scott’s ten best films.) I recall the success of the original Top Gun as a pivotal moment for my generation. The first half of the 1980s saw a lot of slick aerial combat flicks, like Firefox and Blue Thunder and Iron Eagle (a movie that feels like a cynical Top Gun rip-off but somehow came out months before Top Gun). This was also the era of the stone-faced, musclebound action hero, there to avenge the many perceived humiliations of the 1960s and ‘70s. But Top Gun was different. Even though we understood that the “enemy” was the Soviet Union, they were never named. And honestly, they weren’t even much of an enemy, because it wasn’t much of a war movie; the first Top Gun was more a sports movie, a college bonding movie, a hot-for-teacher movie. And at the center of it all, Tom Cruise was the farthest thing from a mulleted, glowering, ‘roided-up Cold Warrior like Stallone. Tom Cruise smiled! Tom Cruise sang! He buzzed the tower! He was having fun! Girls liked him! That’s why Top Gun was a more perniciously effective recruitment movie than Rambo or Missing in Action or Invasion USA or Commando or any of that other uber-macho ‘80s garbage.

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But there are no happy warriors in Top Gun: Maverick (save for maybe Glen Powell’s Hangman, which perhaps explains why he almost stole so many scenes). It’s actually a very sad movie, and not just because Val Kilmer’s Iceman has cancer. As I wrote at the time, it recognizes all that’s changed so dramatically since 1986. The country has changed. Tom Cruise has changed. Cinema has changed. Maverick, the film as well as the man, bears the weight of the years. And there is something about director Joseph Kosinski’s mournful style that speaks to this. It’s his ability to present a world that is maybe just one mutation away from rendering us completely irrelevant, which feels chillingly relatable.

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I’ve been a Kosinski fan ever since I first saw Tron: Legacy, and I was really struck by how much Maverick was his movie as much as it was Cruise’s. What makes this director’s work so powerful to me is the sinister poetry of his post-human spaces. Think of Tron: Legacy’s all-digital, nocturnal dystopia, which presents a dark, orderly universe where people (or “users”) have been mostly vanquished. Or the huge, almost surreal, flaming forests and mountains of his underseen firefighter drama Only the Brave, in which the characters are constantly dwarfed and consumed by (and in awe of) the runaway forces of nature. Or the ravaged, lifeless Earth of Oblivion, from which we’re told humanity fled long ago. Kosinski was the perfect director for a movie in which Tom Cruise, and Maverick, battle to stay relevant in a world that believes itself to have less and less of a need for human pilots, a world where machines are seen as more important than people.

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So, on the one hand, we have the incredible aerial sequences, which present these jets slicing through vast, barren, otherworldly landscapes—melancholy Kosinskian spaces that feel thoroughly inhospitable to humans. On the other hand, we have a film primarily of faces: There might be more close-ups in Maverick than a Carl Theodor Dreyer picture. Kosinski cuts from Cruise to the faces of the young men and women under his command, constantly reminding us of the anxiety Maverick feels over their survival. The whole thing is nerve-racking, which is also why the final act, with the aerial dogfights and the rescue and that wonderful scuffle in the snow between Cruise and Miles Teller, is so damned cathartic.

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People have ascribed the enormous box office success of Maverick to a lot of things: to Tom Cruise’s return to a beloved character; to a hunger in the marketplace for an old-fashioned action movie; to the impressive aerial stunts; etc. All of these make sense. But the reason it’s on my list —and the reason why, I suspect, it resonated for so many people, even if on a subconscious level—is because it’s an exquisitely made, sincere drama whose narrative conflicts are reflected in the movie’s aesthetics. If that’s not cinema, I don’t know what is.

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As noted, however, Top Gun: Maverick was not my no. 1 movie of the year. That honor went to Athena, Romain Gavras’ riveting, enthralling tale of a French banlieue uprising. But Gavras does something similar to Kosinski. His epic treatment of the event—complete with slow-motion invading armies, cascades of fire, gonzo stunts, and battles against medieval parapets, often shot in bravura long takes that careen through the devastated corridors and courtyards of this huge housing complex—lends the proceedings a mythic grandeur that makes it about more than just this one incident, suggesting an entire civilization on the brink of collapse. I know from conversations with French friends that Athena is a controversial movie there, for a variety of reasons, but it didn’t even get to be controversial here in the U.S., because it’s a Netflix release and as such it’s basically buried deep within the algorithm. To their credit, the actual carbon-based lifeforms at Netflix did a heroic job of trying to get critics to see it (I was so happy that I got to watch Athena in a theater, especially once I learned that it was shot with IMAX cameras), but once something like this actually hits the streamer, the machine pretty much disappears it.

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Anyway, I’ve shouted about Athena as much as I can—and the more I shout, the fewer of my critic friends seem to see it, as mathematically impossible as that might seem. And now I feel guilty that I spent the bulk of this post talking about the biggest popcorn movie of the summer, which surely doesn’t need any more promotion. So maybe, as we proceed, you folks can tell me about the smallest, least-seen titles on your lists (or hovering just outside your lists), and make a case for why they deserve to be seen by more of us.

Sincerely,

[98% match * Ominous * Psychological * Mystery]

Read the next Movie Club entry: There Was One Great Artsy, Trashy Ana de Armas Movie This Year. It Wasn’t Blonde.

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