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Top Gun: Maverick in the Age of Gun Violence 12 min read

Top Gun: Maverick in the Age of Gun Violence

Remembering the lives taken in Uvalde, the case against death, life without work, crypto skeptics, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Top Gun: Maverick in the Age of Gun Violence Post image

Top Gun: Maverick is a wonderful time at the movies. Sincerely, I have not had that much fun in the theater in so long. But I want to address a counterintuitive question: Is that a good thing?

It seems nonsensical. “What’s the issue here? “I can hear you saying already. “You just said it was wonderful.” Yes. I did. And I stand by it. But the question comes from a review that I saw before I’d even watched the movie, and it got me to thinking.

Ty Burr, longtime film critic at The Boston Globe who now writes a Substack newsletter called “Ty Burr’s Watchlist,” wrote a post entitled, “Tom Cruise and 19 Dead Children.”

It was, of course, in reference to yet another mass shooting, this one at Rob Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman opened fire on a classroom of young children and two teachers. This happened just a week after the shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket that killed 11 people.

Burr penned the post the day after the shooting, a time in which many of us were both somehow shocked that this could happen yet again and thoroughly not shocked because of course this happened again. We were angry. We were in the midst of mealy mouthed response from the elected officials in Texas that we know on a national stage.

With that necessary background in place, Burr took aim at the film and those who would enjoy it. Not for the aesthetics or the blockbuster cheesiness that’s built into such things; his critique wasn’t so much of the art as it was of the culture into which the art was produced. In fact, when it came to the film itself, Burr gave more than a little praise for the film’s accomplishments:

Coming 36 years after the first “Top Gun,” “Top Gun: Maverick” is not a sequel anyone asked for, but here it is, and it is an exceedingly professional piece of Hollywood product, a machine-tooled blockbuster that pushes every Pavlovian flyboy-fantasy button with adrenaline and skill. It makes the first movie look like the crayon drawing it was, and it is going to make an obscene amount of money selling American audiences the image of themselves they wish they could see when they look in the mirror. Assured, expert, morally upright, and sexy. Heroes.

But the culture is different story. Burr didn’t want to praise the film because, for him, these types of movies have never been his thing:

I watched the movie at a screening a few weeks ago, feeling both viscerally entertained and vaguely nauseated. This kind of jingoistic boo-yah jive has never been my thing, and it depresses me that for millions of moviegoers it is their thing.

The shooting that happened just the day before he wrote his post solidified feelings in him that were, by his own definition, vague at the time of the screening:

Thinking about it now, in the wake of yesterday’s massacre, only removes the vagueness and sharpens the disgust.

He makes a compelling argument: It bothers him that films like Top Gun: Maverick highlight the heroic in a sterilized manner, avoiding the effects of warfare, the bloodshed, the violence, the wrecked lives, the PTSD:

What will some of those Mavericks do – even just one – when the real world doesn’t conform to the script in their heads, to the pieties of manliness and conflict resolution they’ve been fed? Who will be the enemy at which they point their guns, imagined or real? Because I guarantee you that the 18-year-old boys who massacred Black people in Buffalo and schoolchildren in Texas believed that they were shooting at Them. When in reality they only murdered us.

I like Burr, and I often find myself agreeing with his reviews. When I read his fiery condemnation of the film, I was disappointed. Because what if he was right? I too think that the world would be a better place if movies didn’t appeal to people (namely men) just because things are blowing things up or shooting things up; it feels reductive and like it misses the point of what cinema, as an art form, can do.

I too was sickened and disgusted by what I saw on the news from Texas. I too was angry that literally nothing will be done about this. Was it my responsibility then, as someone who agreed with him on so many points, to find the film as a disappointment, not artistically but culturally?

As I said earlier, I read this before I watched the film. I was excited about the film, which had been delayed for years due to COVID-19 and Tom Cruise’s refusal to allow the film to move to a streaming platform. I was also a huge fan of the film’s predecessor, having grown up watching the VHS over and over again, quoting the lines with friends and family, realizing only as I got older and became more critical of films that it made almost zero sense in so many ways but none of that mattered. It was in my bloodstream already.

That being said, I had modest hopes for the sequel. I’m generally annoyed with the vast swaths of unoriginality coming from Hollywood that lead to countless sequels, turning standalone movies into would-be IP. I’m curmudgeonly about it because I’m precisely the age group it’s targeting; I feel the crass, cynical ideas as they must be pitched in Hollywood offices: “Hey, this was a thing 25-30 years ago, and people that are now aged 30-40 will pay good money to see it resurrected because they remember the originals.”

But then I saw the film. The earliest possible showing at my theater here in Gillette, Wyoming: 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. And I was mesmerized. I was captivated. I laughed. I cried. Most of all, I was in awe of what I saw on screen. It was so real, so visceral, that I couldn’t help but be amazed. I could feel the muscles in my neck tense and tighten as I watched the fighter pilots enter a steep climb, under the force of so many G-forces; I felt pressed back into my seat with them, as if in a show of solidarity.

So then what of these reservations I had going in? What of the part of me that agreed with Burr’s assessment? Did I find Top Gun: Maverick to be part of the problem?

Far from it. I know what Burr is saying rings true in many ways; I know the world would be a better place if it didn’t take mass-scale violence on screen to bring people to the theater.

But I was numb to the news. There was no goodness to be found in it. It was (and is) thoroughly depressing: the lives lost, the friends and families shattered, the inept response, the glib and ineffectual official responses from those in power. All of it sucks.

Top Gun: Maverick let me cease to be earthbound for 131 minutes. It was so engrossing, so all-consuming, that I actually forgot, if just for the runtime, that the country had reminded me over and over again in the past two weeks that it can be an ugly and unrelenting place.

I often seek that kind of escapism from cinema, and I often find it. I watch everything, and I love to get lost in the storytelling. I love to think about the deeper themes, the writers’, directors’, and actors’ choices, the placement of the camera.

Top Gun: Maverick didn’t require me to think. It’s plot points were predictable, grafted loosely onto a skeleton that was first erected in the original Top Gun, and the lines were easily completed by me, a first-time viewer before the character said them. I did not have to think; I got lost in not thinking. I was carried along by sheer propulsive force: of the filmmaking, of the mega-watt movie-star that is Tom Cruise, in all of it.

I needed that, perhaps the day after a mass shooting more than ever. Burr was absolutely right in the sense that creators of films deserve better from American audiences; there is more to be filmed than simply stuff blowing up, guns going off, heroes winning the day.

But those have always been winning ingredients in Hollywood films, and for the longest, it was OK because we all knew it was make-believe. It remains make-believe, and this film in particular is make-believe at its highest levels. It should be a celebration that a movie is this accomplished at making us forget the outside world, even if the fictional world’s logic doesn’t always survive a modicum of scrutiny.

The film was imagined to save traditional theatrical releases from the throes of COVID-19; it was supposed to be the reason to go back. An unforgiving world gave us a more immediate reason to seek an escape, and Tom Cruise and company provided the best kind of distraction.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. Nineteen children and two teachers were gunned down this week. No trite saying like “They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time” makes any sense; they were exactly where they all were supposed to be. A school’s classroom. A place that should be exempt from worries such as these, but as this nation has proven over and over again, that simply isn’t the case. The local newspaper, the Uvalde Leader-News remembered those taken from their families and friends.

  2. Newspaper reporters speak to people in terrible circumstances all the time; it’s an unpleasant but necessary part of the job. Local news is full of tragic and untimely deaths, and reporters are often called upon to write about the events, to talk to those involved. But sometimes local news is so terrible as to become national news. The stories demand to be told, in those cases more than ever. From the local journalist’s perspective, it’s unthinkable that national outlets should parachute into your town, a place they’ve likely never heard of before this tragedy, and presume to do the job better. The New Yorker gracefully took an approach that focused on one aspect the local paper never would: the paper itself and its journalists as they did the work.

  3. When I was in college and living in Washington, D.C. for an internship, I would always stop in front of the Starbucks a few doors down from my office; there were a few newspaper boxes on that corner, and one of them was a green box that held the print edition of The Onion. Years later, the print edition would no longer exist. And about a year after that, The Onion would print its most powerful story ever, one that gets recycled and updated every time there’s a mass shooting in the U.S.: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Read the backstory to that biting piece of social commentary in this story from WIRED.

  4. The undeniable tragedy of the deaths in Uvalde is magnified exponentially by one key factor: the youth of the victims. To be shot to death is gruesome, but to be so young, to have yet lived anything resembling a full (or even half-lived) life, makes the shooting deaths of these students all the more incomprehensible. There is an unspoken counterpoint that’s assumed in such as assessment: that death is somehow better or more acceptable when it’s at its appointed time, namely after a long and prosperous life. The philosopher Ingemar Patrick Linden would disagree. In an adapted excerpt published in the MIT Press Reader, from his book, The Case Against Death, Linden recounts the widely accepted view of the world: Death is not to be feared but rather welcomed under the right circumstances. To which Linden responds: “If death is the end then it is simply awful, and it is time we admit it.”

  5. The other side of Death’s coin is Life; we all know this. But what do we think of when we think of Life? It’s surely different for different people, but most of us, without the benefit of such generational wealth that precludes the need to work, center our conception of Life in relationship to how we make the money necessary to exist in the world. Maybe the healthiest among us don’t think of their jobs or careers at first, and we should all be so lucky. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker considers the question: What is Life Like When We Subtract Work From It? The key to finding the answer: the sabbatical.

  6. If work, or the constant chasing of the almighty dollar, are seen as antithetical to a full life (living to work as opposed working to live), financial freedom might be seen as the goal. And the current trend in the chase for financial freedom is cryptocurrency. While there is no shortage of people singing the praises of crypto, there is also a band of doubters who are devoted to documenting for people just how much of a scam crypto might be. Molly White, profiled here in The Washington Post (this article is a free gift for readers of Critical Linking), is one of those critical voices, and when she’s not busy being a prolific editor of Wikipedia articles, she runs a blog dedicated to informing the public.

  7. Speaking of scams, I cannot stop thinking about the latest from Christie Smythe. Name sound vaguely familiar but you’re not sure why? I get that. Here’s a refresher: Back in 2020, ELLE published a story called “The Journalist and the Pharma Bro,” which detailed the fall from grace as Smythe, formerly a reporter for Bloomberg, fell for Martin Shkreli, whose claim to infamy was raising the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent. She was covering Shkreli during his fraud trial, fell in love, left her home and her husband, all for this man. This created a lot of online discourse, especially in my little corner of the internet (filled with both journalists and people who attended the University of Missouri, same as Smythe), around the ethics of affair and her motivation for sharing the story for a national publication. None of this is the scam; the scam is called “Smirk,” which is (what else?) Smythe’s very own Substack newsletter. It’s a cash-grab capitalizing on her notoriety and 15 seconds of fame (which, honestly, until the publication of this newsletter I thought had run its course over a year ago). In and of itself, capitalizing on notoriety is not a scam; it’s been done forever. The normal thing would be to us it to secure a book deal, write the book, and charge us all $30 to buy the hardcover. But this is the age of the newsletter, so here are your subscription options: $50/year; $5.99/month; $250/year (as a “patron”). She calls it a “serialized memoir,” which, honestly, if the market’s responding to such branding, it’s hard to hate on her too much.

  8. Here’s some writing about a love interest that seems to me to be the epitome of charming: Riley Roberts, the low-key fiancé of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Written by funnyman Josh Gondelman, it’s a funny and thoughtful piece about the weirdness of dating a public figure, the expectations that go along with it, and a refreshing version of masculinity.

  9. I just finished Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends. An adaption of the book is airing on Hulu, though it’s said to be less the hit than Rooney’s second book (but first adaptation) Normal People. GQ recently interviewed one of the stars of the show, Joe Alwyn. You might recognize him as Mr. Taylor Swift, but I remember him from 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (about which I just listened to a very interesting episode of the Blank Check podcast which dove deep on the technical achievement of an otherwise mostly forgotten film). I’m not sure that I’m going to check out the adaptation, but I like Alwyn and look forward to some of his upcoming projects, one of which just won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

  10. Earlier this month, I wrote about Star Wars nostalgia. The occasion was May the Fourth and the release of the Obi-Wan Kenobi trailer for Disney+. The show premiered this week, and it was fine. The overwhelming fineness of it all brought to mind the current strategy of Star Wars through TV rather than movies, and I began to wonder whether that could ever live up to the feeling of the movies. I don’t know the answer, other than to say that the TV approach will require even more effort from even the most casual of fans in order to keep up. A recent piece in Vanity Fair by Anthony Breznican took a deep dive into the world of Star Wars and laid out much of what we can expect going forward.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been watching in the past week.

Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

5/23: Barry, S3 (HBO Max); Star Wars: The Clone Wars (4) (Disney+); Better Call Saul, S6 (AMC/AMC+); We Own This City (HBO Max)
5/26: TOP GUN: MAVERICK (theater); Under the Banner of Heaven (Hulu); The Offer (Paramount+); Obi-Wan Kenobi (2) (Disney+)
5/27: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2) (Disney+)
5/28: EDGE OF TOMORROW (Amazon Prime/VOD); GET SHORTY (Showtime); SHITHOUSE (Showtime)
5/29: THE SQUARE (Mubi); Barry, S3 (HBO Max)
5/30: Conversations with Friends; FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE (HBO Max)

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