The engine is the heart of an airplane, but the pilot is its soul.
Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh

Sitting in your seat, in a darkened theater watching Top Gun: Maverick (2022) will feel as fine as flying in a P-51 Mustang, into a clear sky. Naturally, few of us have ever flown in a P-51, but TGM will make you feel like you’re doing just that. Your cockpit might be yanked open now and then, your engine might choke a bit, but most of the time you’ll soar and dip joyfully, over drowsy waves. And it’ll feel like forever.

TGM isn’t your bacon-and-eggs blockbuster. 

Director Joseph Kosinski has filmed in optimism, hoping that those who grew up watching Tony Scott’s seductive Top Gun (1986) have also “grown up” as its protagonist fighter pilot Maverick has, instead of staying adolescent; craving fan-service and cameos every 7.56 minutes of run time. Producers Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer respect their source material and -therefore – refuse to fall back on it, at every turn. 

Asked about the temptation to lazily OD on callbacks, as many 21st century sequels do, Kosinski disclosed in a May 2022 interview to CNET, “There were moments we felt obligated to at least try, but if it didn’t feel right, we just cut it out…You have to do what’s right for this story, and it was balancing how much to look backward and how much to look forward to tell a new story with new characters.” 

That’s Kosinski doing the decent thing, exercising restraint.

A different, wiser Maverick

TGM unveils a different, wiser Maverick: incredibly, as skilled, (almost) as risk-driven as his younger self, but less narcissistic, more empathetic, more of a team player and leader than he ever was.

This ode to naval skies is so much more than dogfight drama that it will be a contender for Oscar nominations (cinematography, sound, editing, visual effects). Yet, it is its screenplay and direction that merit highest tribute.

Sure, as a breathtaking audio-visual spectacle amidst a sea of pretenders, it appeals to the senses. Yet its sights are set, firmly, on heart and soul. And it breathes a distinct humanism. 

Kosinski, who studied to be an aerospace engineer, humbly salutes the human person and human dignity above technology. For it is the human who creates tech, understands it, masters it. It is the human who wields it, purposefully, occasionally, playfully. And knows the difference. 

Kosinski’s humanistic lens

Far from piling on tech, TGM places it in perspective. Maverick repeatedly shows his superiors, his peers, his wards, us (and himself) that men, unlike machines, excel not merely by reshaping their limits, but by infusing them with meaning, emotion, sensitivity. Men excel by drawing on regret – and regret is so much more than machine memory. Men excel by drawing on imagination – and imagination is so much more than an algorithmic projection or forecast. Men excel by drawing on hope, even despair. Often defying diktat. Sometimes falling, failing, but rarely giving up. And typically, collaborating, even when going “solo”.

Kosinski deploys several cameras in each cockpit. He also applies an unmistakably humanistic lens right through.

When Admiral Cain berates Maverick over a misfired mid-air stunt in a new generation aircraft, Cain is precise. Technology is the new pilot, team leader, trainer all rolled into one. Once-revered humans like Maverick are destined to become relics at the altar of fifth-generation machines. AI, robotics, genomics and the like will soon leave little room for human agency. 

The pilot as soul

But that’s just Kosinski’s provocative opening; the rest of his movie reverentially recalls the immortal line of Scottish essayist Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh: The engine is the heart of an airplane, but the pilot is its soul. 

Cain perverts that line with all the swagger of the savants of Silicon Valley. Maverick perfects it and seems to say: People matter more than products. Unlike machines, men can be rational, respectful, reasoned enough to change their minds about something or someone, even themselves. 

TG tells us that Maverick’s flying buddy Goose dies in training, in a mid-air accident. Maverick escapes, but blames himself and his recklessness for that death. So, Rooster’s appearance in TGM opens old wounds – he’s Goose’s son. He resents Maverick for pulling his papers from the Naval academy, scuppering his chance to honor his father’s legacy.

TGM tells us something else. When Maverick’s girlfriend Penny probes, it turns out that it was Goose’s widow who’d asked Maverick to keep her son out; she didn’t want him suffering his father’s fate.

Incredulous, Penny wonders why Maverick doesn’t simply explain that to Rooster to, at least, win closure. Maverick’s reply shocks, but doubles her respect for him: Rooster already resents me enough, why should he resent his mother as well.

Growing up

TG’s pilots were technically men, but their smirking and strutting suggested that they were boys, hiding behind testosterone-pumped torsos and turbo-rides. Scott showed us, wonderfully, how narcissism struggles to cope with failure, rejection, loss – or the fear of facing all three.

TGM dwells on those themes, then goes wider. For instance, it is less an attack on the newer theme of ageism; more an appreciation of adulting. 

A “retired” F-14 Tomcat, may fly you out of one corner, but some young gun (Hangman, as Maverick discovers here) may yet rescue you from another. 

Only the mature and humble, embrace saving and being saved. 

TG’s Maverick and his buddies acted entitled. In a bar, they were usually hunting for trophies, not girls – anything to brag about in the locker room. 

TGM’s Maverick redefines masculinity to be much more than Adamite aerodynamics. He still feels entitled with gunships, less so with girls. Watch how he holds out his hand to Penny so she can get safely off his Kawasaki. In bed, he’s making the first move, but she’s the one who’s left her door open in the first place. 

No harm in men oozing charm or sex appeal, even better if they bear it with grace.

Maverick is “older”, but that’s the least of it. He’s learnt to care and – refreshingly – show that he cares. He treats Penny with dignity, not just to daredevilry, even following her lead. When her sailing hand guides his, he’s not smarting, he’s smiling. He’s thoughtful, not just stunned, when her daughter warns that this time, for her mother’s sake, his reaching out to her had better be fidelity, not fling. 

Going faster by slowing down

Maverick is no slouch, in the classroom or in the air. He insists that his class fly as low as they need to, soar as speedily as they must, lock on and fire at targets as they should. But he’s the one demanding, first, that they treat themselves – and therefore others – with respect.

Even when Maverick himself falls short, on account of what seems a congenital insubordination reflex, he’s trying hard not to. He patiently builds a team. He reminds Commander Cyclone that his mission isn’t merely to get trainees to strike targets, but to also get them home.  He’s the one breaking up their squabbles, urging restraint. He’s the one implying that risks are ok, as long as they’re calculated and caring. He leads by example, even sacrificing himself for his ward. 

When Maverick rebukes Rooster (“What were you thinking!?”) for flying behind enemy lines to rescue him, Rooster reminds him of his own rebuke to paranoid pilots (“Don’t think, just do!”). Young Rooster reveals that Maverick’s mantra, far from being a call to mindless action, seems to be code for “Think all right, but act on your values, what and who you care for”. Like Maverick, he’s learnt to go faster, by slowing down, by seeing people for who they really are, caring for them, especially in a crisis.

Everyone counts

In TG, Slider taunts Maverick before a test flight: “Remember boys, no points for second place”. Maverick later learns that first place wouldn’t reach home, were it not for second placeTGM overwrites that, adding: even third and fourth and fifth place matter. Everyone counts.

TG’s Maverick exuded knowledge and skill; his commanding officer Viper merely hinted then that even combined, they wouldn’t suffice. TGM’s Maverick exudes power (over his trainees) and experience too. Now he teaches that unless all four “stripes” are guided by noble values and traits (selflessness, respect, restraint, empathy), whatever you’re fighting for (reward, honor, admiration) isn’t worth it.

Hype aside, at least a few young men and women probably turned fighter pilots in response to TG’s endearing 20th century call to heroism in the sky. TGM repeats that call to become the best pilots, but with a new 21st century call – to be better people. 

Good, old-fashioned escapism – with a lesson

TGM isn’t preoccupied with realism. At no point does it pretend to be anything but good old-fashioned escapism. No real-life fighter pilot would be as feted by top brass as Maverick is. No pilot is treated “rogue” for trashing a high-end aircraft then sent marching, to train rookies. Rarely do blockbusters get away with a faceless, nameless enemy. No pilot simply drops into enemy territory and makes off with an F-14, without so much as a stubbed toe. And stories of even the most tightly-knit corps don’t end with “happily ever after”, no matter how their “once upon a time” begins. 

TGM isn’t so much about fighter pilots. It’s even less about Maverick than what he stands for.

At one point TGM trainee Natasha muses with her mates: “Everyone here is the best there is. Who the hell are they going to get to teach us?”

It isn’t a question. 

Still, metaphorically, Maverick appears to answer: if you beat your ego as much as you beat the drag on your plane, you’re more than a boy (or girl), you’re a man (or woman) who just happens to also beat g-forces and Mach 1 several times over.

TGM’s abiding, albeit supersonic, lesson? The enemy isn’t so much in the other plane, as in yours, the demons aren’t so much out there as in here – your fear disguised as arrogance, selfishness; beat that and even the sky is no limit.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer, writing on pop culture. Some of his writing on Hollywood movies, movie icons, women in film, feminism in film, women directors, Hollywood's #MeToo has...