The surprise hit of 2022 was Top Gun: Maverick, a man and machine heroic picture, sentimental and nostalgic, the sort of thing Hollywood just doesn’t do anymore. At first glance it seemed way too old-fashioned, yet it made more than $700 million in America and just a bit more than that in the rest of the world, without even opening in China. A billion and a half is an impressive business success, even in today’s Hollywood, and unimaginable for a movie that’s not an animated or superhero fantasy.
In 2023 the surprises keep coming—the movie was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as well as for Best Screenplay and another four awards, including one for Lady Gaga for Best Song. The song, “Hold My Hand,” has proved to be fairly popular itself, but I’m not sure anyone is still listening to it nowadays. Perhaps an Oscar win would remind audiences. What surprises me instead is that Tom Cruise wasn’t nominated for Best Actor. Apparently, the Academy doesn’t want to reward him for playing the same role for decades, which is a big mistake. This was the perfect moment to reward an unusually successful career. Still, Cruise could finally win an award, if as producer.
Another surprise—nobody expected Tom Cruise, a star for almost 40 years, to suddenly become a symbol of American patriotism. His celebrity has always depended on looking more American than most Americans, more confident, prettier, more successful, and nicer, too; moral without being religious; you could see the guy in church or who knows where, and he probably likes Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon just like the rest of us. But celebrity isn’t patriotism. Nor is it real—Hollywood sells images, not virtues, and Cruise is a Scientologist, not a Christian. Nevertheless, America loves him. It’s just that his movies are not nearly as successful as the blockbusters of the era of fantasizing that opened with Star Wars.
Except Top Gun: Maverick is a movie all about America’s NATO might and morality: Top Gun pilots fly an impossible mission against an enemy (presumably Iran, though it is never named) to prevent nuclear proliferation and, possibly, Armageddon. It’s the Cold War all over again, and the movie’s success is itself all about NATO. The movie made more than $100 million in the U.K., which, adjusted for population, makes it as popular in England as in America! It was also popular in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. It made another $100 million in Japan, and almost as much again in South Korea and Taiwan. The alliance is strong on screen, whether as a reflection of real strength or as a replacement for it.
Maverick is not just Cold War nostalgia but nostalgia for the situation American audiences love best—the underdog winning, democracy triumphant, the everyman becoming a hero. It’s impossible to think of Iran (or an Iran substitute) as a world-threatening power and the U.S. as the imperiled, scrappy newcomer saving civilization, but Maverick makes the attempt anyway. It has a certain plausibility with audiences because, although America has a military far more powerful than all others, it seems unable to win its wars, or at least its attempts to make the world safe for democracy (Afghanistan). Moreover, American might across the world doesn’t seem to make for happy or even reasonably content Americans, but instead feeds a worrisome partisanship.
This inner divide and its source, self-doubt about the reality of American power and perhaps even its goodness, are the real themes of the story, the core of its success with audiences: nostalgia for rugged American individualism. Maverick is about man vs. corporations, bureaucracies, the government. The military is trying to destroy our old-time favorite, Maverick (Cruise), who’s still a cocky daredevil. Apparently, he’s as yet safe from the woke revolution but about to be replaced by drones as he flies experimental planes destined to make “mavericks” obsolete. Drones are the technological breakthrough in warfare in our times, but they don’t seem heroic. What’s manly about a computer game simulator bombing people from behind a screen, from safety, thousands of miles away? So the movie instead hearkens back to the Chuck Yeager years of breaking the sound barrier, of The Right Stuff, of building amazing new technology. The problem for the movie is that nowadays Elon Musk is getting us back to spacefaring adventures and designing cool new cars, not men of action. Worse, the newest planes, like the F-35, leave Americans cold while becoming the very things Maverickcomplains about—bureaucratic projects characterized by cost overruns and failures, with no military achievements and little concern for manliness. Who was our last nonfictional Air Force hero?
Maverick’s success depends on our awareness that we are at a crossroads and that we’re no longer confident that a man, however daring, could overcome the machines or the bureaucracies. Maybe the future is AI and drone swarms, not fighter pilots or any other men of action. Our faith in freedom is much harder to sustain without heroes leading the way and inspiring future generations. (A moving subplot includes Maverick’s ambivalence about mentoring the bitter son, played by Miles Teller, of Mav’s late Top Gun colleague and good friend, Goose.)
One reason for Maverick’s popularity is that it appeals to older people: Cruise himself, despite the magical effects of our technology, is 60, older than most Americans. The American moral consensus he stands for is fracturing, yet it was the only thing that connected the bureaucracies in D.C., making decisions about America and the world in secrecy, to the patriotic men who were willing to die for a just cause and the families and society that educated and honored them. Maverick is the only thing in theaters reminding Americans that freedom can and should be noble, doing more than can be demanded of anyone, more than can be expected of most of us.
Rarely does any movie reflect very well our political situation and civilizational worries, the public mood and the taste in entertainment. It’s hard to think that Maverick will have imitators. It’s the only all-American movie nominated for Best Picture, but I have little confidence that it will win. In this sense, although the plot is unserious, Maverick really is an underdog story. Our problems—the self-doubt to which the movie speaks and the confidence it wants to bolster—are cultural and therefore human, not merely technological or scientific. Therefore, we can do something about them.
The gratitude and relief the movie has elicited from Americans makes a lot of sense. The emotions are honest and they remind us that the old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment, prepackaged and overproduced, is a reliable way to bring out American earnestness, rather than the sarcasm and cynicism of so much of our public discourse. The movie is nostalgic for the America that had coherence, purpose, and competence. Maybe the audience also wants that kind of America.