The maverick delta variant has put paid to Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun, at least for a few more months. And, well, phew. Top Gun 2, the sequel to the best recruitment video the US air force and navy never made, would have looked a tad tasteless screened against the harsh spotlight Afghanistan has cast on the limits of America’s military might.
When the first film was released in 1986, it did its level best to make duking it out with MiG-flying commies look cool, even though the Cold War was on its way out and America was preparing to assume the role as the world’s sole superpower.
The film’s supporters would tell you the technically dazzling dog fights with ill-defined opponents indulged in by Maverick and his pals was just window dressing. The film was actually a study of one man’s obsession, his tragic hubris, and his ultimate redemption. But while there’s something to that, there’s also a good reason that Time Magazine described “the Reagan era jingoism” as one of the (presumably tongue in cheek) reasons for why “Top Gun is still awesome”.
Time correctly noted that the film stands as an “incredible” historical artefact. And a cultural one. It was a defining movie of the 1980s, one that every teenage boy wanted to see – and a few of the British ones even had to sneak into cinemas underage on account of the 15 certificate (which is what my brother did). If the classification looks harsh, it’s worth noting the release came before the British Board of Film Classification’s introduction of the 12.
Since Top Gun’s release, the world has, if possible, turned into an even messier place than it was then. And it uses vastly different equipment to fight hot wars. Fighter pilots can, and still do, push themselves “to the extreme” in dizzyingly expensive machines with a view to controlling the air. But they aren’t a lot of good against a fanatic willing to detonate a suicide bomb in the middle of a crowd. Superfit, handsome as hell flyboys – and, these days, girls who were belatedly invited to join the party – aren’t much good against them either.
Joystick jockeys in pokey rooms are more the thing, and with no need to squeeze into a tight flight suit, they can afford to chow down on as many hamburgers as they want. Unlike in Top Gun, these kinds of unglamorous characters are featured in films and on TV today because they represent the dirty business that befits the messy and ill-organised withdrawal they’ve helped to police. A withdrawal that has left too many of the west’s friends and allies to fend for themselves under the beady eyes of a murderous regime.
I’m not sure whether the sequel, even if it matches the admittedly impressive technical achievements of the first film, will have anything like the same impact when it’s released, partly for those reasons. Also, ask yourself this: what is it Maverick is supposed to be fighting for anyway?
The actions of the Americans, often (but not always) with the ever-loyal Brits tagging along, were sometimes questionable during the Cold War era when the first film was released. Some of the things they did were morally indefensible, especially in their own backyard.
Think Chile, and Nicaragua and Grenada; think the general support for fascistic regimes that weren’t any more palatable than the communists they opposed.
Most of us living in democratic societies still knew which side of the Cold War fence we wanted to be on. However flawed, our systems were infinitely preferable to the totalitarianism that existed behind the Iron Curtain, even if it meant putting up with the missteps of the “leaders of the free world” to preserve it.
But today it’s by no means clear that America can claim to be that. It doesn’t seem certain to me that it will exist as a democracy for much longer given the way the Republican Party has turned away from that in favour of a demagogue named Donald Trump, a man who would serve as the perfect villain for any aspiring film producer.