Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Dir. Joseph Kosinski. Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly

Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise are a director-actor match made in Hell, and not in the fun Herzog-Kinski way. I imagine that the two of them plus Christopher McQuarrie and whichever other Tom Cruise pets helped make this film are probably even copacetic with each other. Yet if we look at their tendencies, the two of them do not belong together. Kosinski, a little hamstrung by the fuzziness of big budget digital photography (in the most charitable interpretation!), does not appear to have any of the talents that even just-good directors have. And Cruise, who has turned sixty and whose Risky Business turns forty next year, is just not up for a movie that requires him to well, act. In any scene in Maverick which does not put him in a plane or on a motorcycle, Cruise is as used up as a cigarette butt on the sidewalk.

Kosinski has two modes. The first is close-up/reaction shot, which for all its basic qualities is not exactly the easiest way to live. If it were easy to make The Passion of Joan of Arc, then there’d be a bunch of those running around instead of a singular text of suffering which has stood the test of a century. Ditto My Dinner with Andre. Heck, even The Blair Witch Project makes more from its use of close-ups, extreme or otherwise, than Top Gun: Maverick. Kosinski’s close-ups on Cruise, Teller, Connelly, Glen Powell, Jon Hamm, Val Kilmer are not revelatory close-ups meant to give us something new about the characters. They are like flashcards, popping up so we can recognize people we used to know like they’re figures at our high school reunion. Kilmer, who still retains his star presence, does more with a couple knowing smiles than Cruise does with a whole movie. All the same it’s not as if the film has anything to do besides give Maverick his benediction like some dying parish priest. Connelly, go figure, is still a great beauty, though if the camera tells us anything more about her than her makeup look I am insensible to it. Miles Teller definitely looks like Anthony Edwards did in Top Gun as long as all men with little mustaches look the same.

Alternately, the close-ups allow us to recognize types we know already from the Top Gun and other military movies. Monica Barbaro’s tight little bun is all the character work Phoenix gets; ditto Lewis Pullman’s glasses for Bob. It’s not the end of the world that Ed Harris’s wrinkles are the source of his displeasure, or even that his character disappears after giving Cruise one of those scoldings we know will roll off Maverick’s back like water off a duck. It’s merely disappointing that Kosinski can’t find anything in Ed Harris besides how craggy he is these days. If a close-up is to have actual power, then the character must be at the center of the shot, not the actor or the type. There is no inquisitiveness in those close-up shots. There is only “Here is the skeptical admiral, see his baldness,” “Here is the other cocky guy in the Navy besides Maverick, look at his teeth.” What they are beyond utility is not something Kosinski is curious about, and so there is a sluggish inevitability in his reaction shots. We are not really waiting for the rejoinder that the person makes so much as we are waiting for the final reaction shot of the scene which means we can get that aircraft stuff going again. After all, you can actually see something behind the person’s head in the aircraft sequences as opposed to the blurry mud that tends to fill the space behind people in this flick.

Kosinski’s second mode is with the second unit, getting those high-speed shots of F/A-18 Hornets zipping around. Jacob Brades did a nice job there, good on him and his team. (In all seriousness, the shape of the mission that Maverick and his team fly is clear from the get-go and becomes incredibly familiar to us as we go along. It’s sort of like watching someone’s figure skating routine enough times that you know where the tough jumps are and you get invested in those dramatic moments before the dramatic moments. It’s the best piece of the film.) What’s missing in those second unit scenes, and especially in those person-to-person scenes, is any kind of visual style. Say what you will about Top Gun, a movie I have never pretended to think was particularly good, but it undoubtedly has a style. Tony Scott is doing something that has an honest to goodness signature to it, something which has color and smoke and motion to it. It looks different from An Officer and a Gentlemen, even though both have scenes with fighter maneuvers. Top Gun: Maverick looks different from Top Gun, but it’s not because it’s sitting around trying to make some intentional stylistic statement. It’s because it’s made in the simplest, dullest way possible, working towards the simplest, dullest emotional result. Top Gun: Maverick is a phenomenon unlike any the American movie theater industry has known since Avengers: Endgame. For all its success as a moneymaking instrument, the film is no more than that. Nostalgia, the most pathetic and useless of human emotion, is the only one called upon during the film, and all that’s required for nostalgia are faces and names and a neatly-placed F-14. There’s an emptiness in nostalgia, a choice to inculcate the insipid rather than a choice to challenge or create. That emptiness is at the heart of Top Gun: Maverick, and it seeps into every equally empty choice that Kosinski makes. The guy can’t even find the fun in his obligatory shirtless sportsball match. It’s just dehydrated muscles which meant more for marketing the film than they ever do in the movie itself.

The thing about Tom Cruise is that he is a remarkably gifted physical actor. A little taller than Buster Keaton but with a not dissimilar zest for doing the stuntwork himself, Cruise is fortunate to have come of age when he did. There’s not that much of a gift for comedy in Cruise, at least not intentionally, and the hallmark in his stunts is in their breathtaking ignorance of acrophobia rather than wit or creativity. But that physical gift is abundantly spoken for in his action franchises even when the rest of his performance is lackluster. Tom Cruise isn’t “good,” necessarily, in War of the Worlds or Collateral. He wears a baseball cap in a relatable way and has his hair dyed, respectively. But he moves well. That scene where people around Ray and Cruise is stumble-running from the aliens is a great one as much because of him as anything else. Watching him hunt Jamie Foxx in Collateral is effective because Mann makes him unexpected even when he combines Vincent with the coiled body we’re so used to. The spread-eagled slow fall of the first Mission: Impossible is really fun in large part because of Cruise’s body; can you imagine watching that with someone even a couple inches taller with longer, more spidery limbs? Then again, the other thing about Tom Cruise is that the guy is not really much for emoting. In Eyes Wide Shut, everyone else around Cruise is giving a great performance while Cruise is a functionary, something less than an audience surrogate and something more like an avatar. In his more critically acclaimed work, like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July and Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia—not for nothing, roles where he’s doing weird stuff with his hair again like that’s all acting is—there’s a lot of yelling and bellowing and intense whispering. But emotional connection, that thing we expect from his co-stars like Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jason Robards? The thing that they actually provide in their scenes which makes Cruise look like he’s doing more than he is?

Cruise is lost in close-ups. He, and Kosinski, and everyone else on set, understand what he’s supposed to be doing in these scenes. He’s supposed to be regretting the loss of his friend Goose all those years ago. He’s supposed to be looking for some mixture of pseudo-parenthood with Rooster and pseudo-marriage with Penny. He’s supposed to be wondering about what his purpose is if he’s not flying combat missions. He’s supposed to be wondering about how his aviators return home from their suicide mission. I know all this because the dialogue makes this just incredibly clear. And I also know that Maverick is supposed to be doing all this because I’ve seen other movies where old guys prove that they’ve still got it and show a new level of maturity to boot. (Heaven defend me, the last movie I saw which put this much emphasis on how there’s no school like the old school was Cars 3.) Just like there’s a difference between a topic sentence that is supported and one that does not receive evidential support, there’s a difference between “Maverick is genuinely gutted by his experience with Goose and is now living out an estrangement with his best friend’s grown son” and “We needed a tie-in to the original movie that would seem like it had some kind of heft to it.” If Cruise has to do much more than smile at it or wear a helmet at it, then he’s practically amateurish in bringing out the feeling. In his defense, this screenplay sucks, but in mine, Cruise isn’t exactly making chicken salad here. In multiple sequences, especially the ones that require him to get a little teary, you can see the concentration on his face that, in the real world, I’d assume meant he was holding in a fart.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s