I just watched Top Gun: Maverick. It was great. It’s the most popular movie in America and it’s Tom Cruise’s biggest hit yet. It’s doing so well because it has some great qualities missing from a lot of today’s movies, even the blockbusters. Plus, it’s what America needs right now. Badly needs.
First, it has a great script. Sure, it has plenty of action, but unlike most of today’s superhero movies and other action movies, it’s first about characters and their relationships. It’s about Maverick and his ex-girlfriend Penny. It’s about Maverick and Rooster, son of his deceased co-pilot Goose. It’s about Maverick and his old rival Iceman. It’s about Maverick and the U.S. Navy. And it’s about Maverick and Maverick, dealing with his own personal demons.
There’s also an actual plot with a scenario that’s introduced at the beginning that sets up the suspense and keeps you interested throughout the film in wanting these skilled but arrogant pilots to succeed. Alfred Hitchcock famously said, in a scene where a time bomb suddenly explodes, it surprises the audience, but if the audience sees the ticking time bomb before it explodes, that’s suspense. The original movie missed this. The original was simply about cool, handsome dudes and one beautiful, accomplished lady until the end when a vague but critical mission comes up that the pilots must accomplish. There’s also little suspense in today’s superhero movies, where villains are increasingly more powerful—able to destroy cities, worlds, or universes with a single thought—but the heroes are also almighty, so that there’s little question they’ll win in the end. In Top Gun: Maverick, we’re really not completely sure if the heroes will accomplish their mission, much less survive, especially given that one of the main characters died in the original.
Hollywood tends to forget that almost every great movie starts with a great script. Hollywood directors and producers always make that claim but rarely actually believe it. I know because I’ve read many popular scripts doing the rounds in Hollywood, and they’re mostly simple copies of the most popular films at the time. There are certainly lots of military pilot films making the rounds now. When I won an award from the Hollywood Film Festival for my novel Horror Flick, producers at the award ceremony were complaining publicly about the lack of good scripts. But when I tried to contact them afterwards, no one would take my calls. They prefer to pay minimum scale for screenplays—you pay for what you value, and they don’t value writing. What they really want are big name actors and special effects plus a good share of sex and violence.
Which points out an irony about Top Gun: Maverick. One of the screenwriters was Chris McQuarry, who won an Oscar for writing one of my favorite films, The Usual Suspects. When I met him, he said he had shopped the screenplay around to studios and movie stars who all turned him down, so he hired some unknowns (who have gone on to become recognized actors and bona fide movie stars) and produced the film himself. After winning the Oscar, actors and producers congratulated him, but as an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, they wouldn’t hire him because he was now too expensive. Tom Cruise actually came to him and asked, “Why didn’t you ask me to be in this? I would have done it for a ham sandwich!” McQuarry replied that he had sent it to Cruise’s agent who promptly turned down any low budget movie. It’s nice to see things turned around for McQuarry.
Top Gun: Maverick is family friendly, something also missing and desperately needed. If you look at the top grossing films of all time, almost all of them are family friendly. Yet Hollywood keeps producing raunch and violence, and insists on “pushing the envelope” of acceptable production, even against their own profit motives. People want escapism. For some that’s sex and violence, but for most, that’s good values and something they’d be proud to see with their kids, spouses, and parents.
Top Gun: Maverick is nostalgic. There are a lot of “old-timers” in America, like me, who don’t want slasher films or teen sex romps or uber-realistic blown-up bodies or endless car chases but who want something of quality that also reminds us of our youth and the good-old-days. As America becomes a politically and socially divided country, we want to be reminded of growing up under leaders like Ronald Reagan, when things weren’t perfect, but people got along much better than they do today, we lived in a “shining city on a hill,” the future looked bright, and America was unafraid to defeat its enemies while representing goodness throughout the world.
Top Gun: Maverick is a film that Americans desperately need right now. Everywhere we turn, we’re told that America is not exceptional, America is built on evil, Americans are selfish and wasteful and oppressive and racist. Americans are reminded daily by many politicians and the media that we are simply bad people promoting evil values. Americans don’t want to feel that way. Who would? Americans want to feel that their efforts to create a better place for their families, communities, and the world are good values. They want to feel that they are respected by their allies and feared by their enemies. And the people of the world also want to believe in America, which has been the dream for many, the example for others, and the protector of many small countries and societies for over two centuries.
You can argue all you want about those statements, but people spend money on the things they want to believe in. Top Gun: Maverick is already one of the top grossing films of all time including impressive worldwide numbers, even though it’s not being shown in Russia and more importantly, banned in China, the world’s largest market for movies. Unlike other recent movies, the producers and stars refused to compromise its values and kowtow to China to gain access to its massive audience and accompanying revenue. This just reinforces how much America and the free world (emphasis on “free”) really want to believe in a revived America. Top Gun: Maverick is the treatment for a depressed America and disenchanted world that needs to feel better about itself and needs to revive those “old-fashioned” American values.
About the author
Bob Zeidman is the creator of the field of software forensics and the founder of several successful high-tech Silicon Valley firms including Zeidman Consulting and Software Analysis and Forensic Engineering. His latest venture is Good Beat Poker, a new way to play and watch poker online. He is the author of textbooks on engineering and intellectual property as well as screenplays and novels. His latest novel is the political satire Animal Lab, a modern sequel to George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm.