You know that feeling you get when you return home from what seemed like an impossible mission, and everyone runs out to greet you, screaming and cheering and exchanging high-fives? And you embrace your best friend, and you grin with joyful exhaustion, because truly no one thought you could succeed, but you did, and we’re all the better for it? And then later you see your hot girlfriend waiting for you in front of a Porsche 911?
That’s how the producers of Top Gun: Maverick must feel this morning, riding high on the adrenaline of their incredible feat. They may not have destroyed a rogue state’s uranium-enrichment plant, but they did land six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture—for the sequel to a 1980s action flick once best remembered for its homoerotic volleyball scene.
And who is it that’s cheering for them? Taking the place of the pilots and flight crew surrounding Tom Cruise on the deck of his aircraft carrier is Hollywood, broadly, an industry eager to celebrate a hit in this era of plummeting box-office receipts. But I’m out there, too, shouting and woo-ing at Top Gun’s accomplishment. Because while I applaud the Academy as their awards increasingly recognize adventurous filmmaking, the storytelling of diverse communities, and the best of world cinema, I also want the Oscars, every once in a while, to celebrate a film that is, simply, a total blast.
Because that’s what Maverick is! You may not agree with certain critics that Joseph Kosinski’s movie is cinema. You may wince at the rah-rah jingoism, eye-roll at the movie’s half-assed attempts at feminism, and correctly note that Maverick, like its predecessor, is a multimillion-dollar advertisement for the all-consuming American war machine. But I challenge you to disagree that Maverick is a freaking joyride from start to finish. I have yet to discover the human being who, confronted with Maverick’s overwrought drama, cast full of beautiful people, and exhilarating dogfights, does not find their pulse racing and their jaw dropping. To reward it with a Best Picture nomination is merely to recognize that this kind of movie is one of the things that movies, at their best, do like no other art form.
Ever since the Dark Knight fiasco of 2009 led the Academy to open its Best Picture roster to twice as many films as before, the Oscars have had some success nominating lots of different kinds of movies for its showcase award. Each slate of nominees usually contains a mix of blockbuster, biopic, quiet indie, upmarket comedy, and melodrama. For a while, they even nominated animated movies; nowadays, they usually squeeze in one foreign-language film. But it’s still pretty rare for the Oscars to recognize pure pulse-pounding adventure, movies that are enormous, action-packed, and purely enjoyable. From Hacksaw Ridge to 1917 to Dunkirk, the expanded Best Picture field still seems to prefer its action to be shot through with melancholy at the horror of war. Since the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, movie fans have been begging the Oscars to nominate another movie simply because it owns bones. That’s why I’m delighted that among the better, more intelligent, more artful movies nominated for Best Picture this year (and also Elvis), the Academy found room for Maverick, the movie I had more fun at than any other in 2022.
Come on! It’s got everything. Leather jackets. That shot where Tom Cruise rides a motorcycle in one direction while we fly over him going the other direction so it looks like he’s going twice as fast. Admirals getting schooled in front of the rank and file. Synthesizers. Tom Cruise calling airplanes “sweetheart.” The budget to score a four-minute training sequence to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” without batting an eye. Tom Cruise being lightly teased by Jennifer Connelly. Tender goodbyes between men of honor. Shirtless Adonises playing football in the magic hour.
And the jokes—the jokes are pretty good. Purists may scoff at the film’s nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but as a blockbuster blueprint, it’s peerless—building its heroes’ motivations while taking us through the mission over and over so that we, too, understand everything that could possibly go wrong during the movie’s climax. The dialogue cannily mixes amiable macho banter with musings on the implacability of time: “Your kind is headed for extinction,” “Time is your greatest adversary,” “There’s still time.” Maverick is obsessed with the advance of time, the passing of the torch—an obsession shared, as it happens, by the upper echelons of Hollywood, as the industry searches for an answer to its great existential question: Can we get people to go to movies anymore?
After Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller) get shot down behind enemy lines, after their cathartic reunion in the snow, Maverick hatches a plan to steal an F-14 from the one hangar that somehow didn’t get blown up by U.S. missiles. Rooster is scornful of the ancient aircraft’s capabilities, referring to it as “a museum piece.” Nonetheless, the pair get the plane off the ground, and faced with two of the enemy’s fifth-generation fighters, Maverick and Rooster triumph. Top Gun, too, is a museum piece, a two-hour-long ode to the way movies once were made, and the communal power they once had. Perhaps it’s “one last ride,” like Maverick’s final Mach 10 flight in the Dark Star, but it’s nonetheless a potent reminder that if you surround a movie star with a hundred million dollars’ worth of action sequences, shot by someone with real visual flair, you can get all of America to come to the movies—indeed, you can get them to stand up and cheer.
Can Maverick actually win? You’d have to go back to 1977, when Rocky outdueled Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men, to find the last time a feel-good popcorn movie, a movie that sends you out of the theater on an emotional and an adrenaline high, won Best Picture. And as Academy membership moves further and further from its old-Hollywood roots—becoming younger, more diverse, and more international—it seems more and more likely that Best Picture winners will continue to reflect that evolution in membership, rewarding smaller, more serious movies, films in the arthouse spirit of prizing ambivalence over cheerleading, the small-scale over the spectacular, the forward-looking over the nostalgic. From this perspective, Maverick—the last stand of the previous generation’s biggest star, a movie so steeped in Hollywood’s past that it opens with the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer logo—feels a little retrograde.
But I wouldn’t count Maverick out. In 1929, another Paramount action spectacular rode its groundbreaking aerial combat scenes to the first-ever Best Picture Oscar. To watch Wings now is to marvel at how certain cinematic presentations of flying invented more than 90 years ago have never been improved upon. (A pilot’s-eye view of tracers streaming into an enemy aircraft? Yes, please!) But it’s also to recall that while movies have always excelled in making us weep, making us think, making us reconsider our beliefs, they’ve also always excelled in thrilling us. Do not underestimate the power of spectacle, or the will of the industry to valorize—in this year, particularly, as the future of Hollywood seems to hang in the balance—the absolute glory of sitting in the dark and spilling your popcorn all over yourself. Top Gun is the year’s greatest crowd-pleaser, and whether or not it deserves to win, its nomination has me waiting on the flight deck, my aviators gleaming in the fading light, my hand raised to give everyone a high five.