The Evolution of Popcorn Jingoism

From the dick swinging of 'Top Gun' to the sentimentalism of 'Top Gun: Maverick'

Nicholas Russell
U.S.A! U.S.A!

At my screening of Top Gun: Maverick on Thursday night, I was surrounded by military types. Retired government contractors, former pilots, extended family of veterans, some of them wearing promo t-shirts reading “It’s because I was inverted” and “Maverick” that looked too worn and faded not to be original to 1986. Before the ads started, these people were trading stories, listing aircraft they’d flown or seen at air show over at the Nellis Air Force base nearby, the amiability akin to parents milling about before their kids’ soccer game. By the time the movie finally started, the entire theater was full. It’s the most packed I’ve seen a theater since the last Harry Potter movie came out.

If they came looking for something specific, they probably found it. Both films have nearly identical openings, with wordless, evocative, sun-drenched images of jets taking off from an aircraft carrier, personnel running around the deck, hand signals, high fives, gear, smoke, wind, a ballet of machinery and the people needed to make it function set to wailing guitars. But the sweaty, throbbing masculinity, horniness, and arrogance of the first film is gone, replaced by bigger cameras, snappier dialogue, diversity, even more visceral, immersive photography, genuine pathos, and an overall sheen that the original, with all its latent silliness and unabashed jingoism, didn’t have. If 1986’s Top Gun was a glorified advertisement for the armed forces — brash, both hot-blooded and cool — Top Gun: Maverick is the glossy prestige adaptation of the recruitment poster. Never has a movie, and every single thing in it, looked so clean.

I didn’t grow up loving Top Gun, my childhood Cruise vehicle of choice was Legend, but I do remember its atmosphere and the sense, even as a kid, that I was being sold something. The plot, even now, is nonsensical. Something about honor, something about talent you can’t teach, something about learning to be less of an asshole, none of it sticking much because Maverick never actually gets punished, his innate genius too awe-inspiring to shut down. Every pilot in the Top Gun academy chomps at the bit to fight or fuck each other (often difficult to tell which) while proving they’re the best to ever do it. The fact that Goose’s death and the tragedy it’s supposed to signal has become a cultural shorthand is a little baffling given how obnoxious Anthony Edwards and Tom Cruise are throughout the movie, how thinly their friendship is sketched, how suddenly and violently Goose is taken out of the story.

But for all of that, the enduring sentiment by the time the credits roll is a satisfied exhalation, a feeling that you still saw something exhilarating and absorbing, even if most of it didn’t cohere, even the characters in it don’t act like real people, and the setting they exist in seems like a bizarro version of America. Top Gun presented the most potent of vibes. As stupid and glib as it is, it made flying a fighter jet seem majestic, freeing, made the camaraderie and competition of the squadron look empowering and fortifying, especially when all of it was undergirded by the knowledge that the might of the world’s most brazen, destructive military force made it all possible. As the locker room poster Maverick sits next to says, “The Navy. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” The sequel swaps out the dick swinging for the kind of wide-eyed sentimentality normally dolloped on by Steven Spielberg.

The sweaty masculinity, horniness, and arrogance of the first film is gone.

In the first film, on the first day at Top Gun academy, Commander Viper briefs the pilots on the dangers of their post, to which one pilot says “This is giving me a hard-on” and another says “Don’t tease me.” Top Gun: Maverick makes even the idea of such a scene unthinkable. Even from the perspective of a child and now, with the distance of years, there is something unnerving to me about the first film and the way it situates cockiness with agency. It’s more than jingoism that thrums beneath the ever-perspiring surface of Tony Scott’s film, it’s a feeling of imperviousness, smugness, a vanity synonymous with might. America, the film seems to say, has never been a loser and makes no space for them.

The military of Top Gun: Maverick is more gently paternal: stern but fair, compassionate but stiff, a font of unending support and wisdom that has your best interests at heart, a place for winners, yes, but also safety. A place that prepares you for the wider world. In 1986, we hardly ever left the base and beachy environs of Fightertown, U.S.A. In 2022, we take a tour not just through more varied landscapes, but more people. Humble, hard-working, good-natured people, like the civilians on the subway who hide Peter Parker’s identity in Spider-Man 2. It has been years since I’ve experienced an idealized America so wholesome, noble, and essentially good.

Between Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick you could plot most contemporary entries in the genre of popcorn jingoism, from Captain America to Saving Private Ryan. The propaganda of the first film was shaped like a blunt instrument. The new one takes the form of more recent jingoistic media, engineered to elicit horror, sympathy, and heart-swelling pride, each of these sensations enhanced by the surgically precise manipulation of emotion.

And it worked. The only thought on my mind when I left the theater on Thursday was “That was awesome.” Instruments of war had been transformed into miracles of engineering, graceful machinery handled by people possessing otherworldly skill and bravery. The film takes place in a version of the world whose faceless adversaries are practically aliens, technologically-advanced NPCs that could very well be Russian or Chinese, according to some of the audience members I overheard at my screening, but really stand in for an evil only America can defeat. The landmark achievement of Maverick lies not in its innovative cinematography or retooled narrative, where misogyny is extinct, representation is obvious, and the nerds get to join in on the fun. No, it’s how forcefully it uses all of these things to convince even skeptical audiences to turn off their brains and cheer.

In his essay, “Saving Private Ryan and the Politics of Deception”, Jim Shepard writes:

“It’s not news that we’re trained by our popular culture to accept pleasant fictions. It is discomfiting to have to acknowledge every so often, though, just how happily complicitous we are in our own hoodwinking. We’re like the audiences filing out of Saving Private Ryan, congratulating ourselves on having been brave and unflinching for having watched a movie that delivered nearly everything we desired. We’ve been made to feel virtuous for being indulged. What could be better than that? Whether you’re selling a movie or selling a war, that’s probably the best mousetrap of all.”

This applies to the gravest retellings of American historical events and the dumbest entertainments that even obliquely feature a soldier or spy. Fun jingoism is the desperate phone call made at the last second, the reliability of power wielded righteously (in both the virtuous and fucking cool sense), carried out in the face of tragedy and humiliation. Sometimes, it’s merely the insistence that America looks after its own, from the individual, seemingly insignificant stranger in Saving Private Ryan to the puny humans saved by a gigantic naval gun in Transformers to, say, I don’t know, the annoying family and Sam Neill at the end of Jurassic Park III.

These days, the proverbial torch of American exaltation has been passed on to the comic book film, for better or worse. But here, briefly, Tom Cruise makes a case for the past by way of full-throated sincerity. In Top Gun: Maverick, a jet is a jet and a gun is a gun. You might be born with talent, but not powers. Heroes have to be made, crafted before our eyes, with work that we can see even if we choose to ignore it.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.