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Christopher ParkerFebruary 03, 2023

Growing up, when my family would make the five-hour drive down from the suburbs of New York to Washington, D.C. to visit family, it was a foregone conclusion that we would spend an afternoon at the International Spy Museum.

I was obsessed with the place. Each room held stories of intrigue and danger; around every corner were codebreaking challenges and vents to crawl through. Clips of Peter Graves in original “Mission: Impossible” episodes played alongside testimonials from former C.I.A. operatives. There were even recreations of my favorite James Bond gadgets (we owned almost every Bond movie with Sean Connery on VHS, with a few Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan titles mixed in).

The childlike wonder of the first “Top Gun” is harder to replicate today.

I wasn’t old enough yet to distinguish between fact and fiction. I certainly wasn’t old enough to know about the covert crimes committed in this shadow warfare, the C.I.A. manipulation in Latin American and Middle Eastern countries. It’s been many years since my last visit to the museum, and I wonder how the adult me might look at all those exhibits that had entranced the boy. Could I shelve my cynicism and just enjoy myself?

To me, this same question looms over “Top Gun: Maverick.” The nominee for Best Picture didn’t rake in $1.4 billion because of smart dialogue or depth of character; like its predecessor, it focused on spectacle, wowing audiences with practical effects and tense action. The aerial stunts are edge-of-your-seat riveting. Still, today, it’s hard to just sit back and enjoy.

“Maverick” takes place over 30 years after the events of the original, following Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) back to TOPGUN school. Now an instructor rather than a student, Maverick trains a crew of young fighter pilots for a mission to destroy a nuclear weapons plant in an unnamed “rogue nation.” The group includes Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former flying partner, Goose. And much of the film centers on the differences in their approaches, Rooster’s caution crashing up against Maverick’s bravado.

“Maverick” recreates many iconic scenes from the original, with mixed success. Yes, cast members sing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” again. Yes, Tom Cruise looks great on a motorcycle. But what the film cannot recreate is cultural context. As the Cambridge historian Theo Zenou wrote ahead of the sequel’s release last spring, “‘Top Gun’ came out in May 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term. The specter of Vietnam no longer haunted the nation. Patriotism was hip and ‘Top Gun’ served it in spades.”

“Top Gun” was cheesy. It was shallow. But it told a story that was in touch with its time.

There were still critics of the film’s clear propagandizing; Time Magazine ran a story at the time calling it a “110-minute commercial for the Navy.” But this was the era of “War Games” and the Miracle on Ice. The Cold War’s us-versus-them nationalist sentiment was right at home in the mainstream of pop culture.

“Maverick” debuted in a very different world, and the easy charm of the first movie has not been passed down to its long-awaited sequel. Instead of dogfighting with Soviet planes in a rescue mission for an American ship, we watch a bombing of a “rogue nation” that geographically resembles the snowy regions of Afghanistan or Iran. Rather than calling to mind two superpowers wrestling for control of the skies, the film reminds us of the United States’ controversial and politically divisive post-9/11 presence in the Middle East.

Our perception of the military industrial complex has also changed since the end of the Cold War. In a time when government spending is fueling a massive, looming political battle, I struggled to laugh when Maverick destroyed a $34 million plane early on.

Am I taking a blockbuster action movie too seriously? Perhaps. But just like the mystery of the Spy Museum, that childlike wonder of the first “Top Gun” is harder to replicate today, especially knowing that the important roles the military is allowed in making these films.

“Maverick” debuted in a very different world, and the easy charm of the first movie has not been passed down to its long-awaited sequel.

The Department of Defense’s Entertainment Media Office has a nearly century-long history of assisting the creation of military stories (beginning with the Academy’s first Best Picture winner, the 1927 drama “Wings”).

Zenou reported that in exchange for the use of planes and pilots in the original film, the Pentagon was able to demand that Goose not die in a plane collision—maybe the film’s biggest plot point—lest “Top Gun” seem to suggest that flying planes at Mach 2.0 in combat for the Navy seem unsafe.

Without contributions from the military, these movies wouldn’t even exist: One F-14 from the original “Top Gun” cost almost triple the film’s entire budget. For its part, the military has obvious incentives for assisting epic, exciting movies like “Maverick.” The Navy set up recruitment offices outside original “Top Gun” screenings and saw a 500 percent application bump, according to Zenou.

Most criticisms about “Maverick” in outlets like the The New York Times lament the surface-level characters and plot points while praising the effects and cinematography. Roger Ebert said much the same of the first film, writing that “the [‘Top Gun’] dogfights are absolutely the best… but look out for the scenes where the people talk to one another.”

I think Richard Brody of the New Yorker gets to the heart of what’s troubling about “Maverick”: “It is a work that achieves a certain sort of perfection, a perfect substancelessness—which is a deft way of making its forceful, and wildly political, implicit subject matter pass unnoticed.”

“Top Gun” was cheesy. It was shallow. It was romanticized patriotic propaganda. But it told a story that was in touch with its time. “Maverick” is an action movie built on nostalgia, yet even as it shows us again so much of what we loved about the original, it’s hard to shake that feeling that things have changed too much. In 2022, it was hard for me to just enjoy “Maverick” for what it is.

And if that grim analysis makes you think, “Wow, you’re probably a lot of fun at parties,” I promise I can be. Just wait until you hear my karaoke rendition of “Danger Zone.”

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