Warning: includes some spoilers
I saw the original Top Gun in New York on a sweltering summer evening in 1986. How very different those times were: Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office, the Berlin Wall stood intact, Nelson Mandela had yet to be freed, and the World Wide Web was still three years away.
As for the movie? The audience (including me) loved every minute of it: a maximalist, adrenaline-soaked celebration of American air power, the brilliance of the US fighter pilot – sorry, “naval aviator” – and the core role in contemporary culture of Rayban sunglasses. On the way out of the cineplex, I noticed in the foyer a US Navy booth at which a queue had already formed of young men, eager to enlist: reportedly, recruitment spiked by 500 per cent in the months after the film’s release.
Tony Scott’s Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie of the year, and went on to take $357 million at the box office. It catapulted Tom Cruise – who played Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell – from the teen icon of Risky Business (1983) to global superstardom.
Thanks to the rise of VHS and then DVD, the film also quickly became that strangest of hybrids: a blockbuster that enjoys the status of a cult classic, watched repeatedly and analysed within an inch of its life. It helped that the screenplay featured so many quotable lines: “I feel the need – the need for speed!”; “No points for second place”; “Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash”; “I am dangerous” – you get the picture.
But some went much further in parsing the true meaning of Top Gun. Most memorably, Quentin Tarantino, in the cameo role of Sid in Sleep with Me (1994), offers a demented account of the movie as a thinly-veiled LGBTQ+ polemic in which ace pilot Iceman (Val Kilmer) competes with instructor, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), to drag Cruise’s character away from heterosexuality to “the gay way”. An extreme example, maybe, but typical of the extent to which Top Gun obsessives are, and have always been, invested in the movie.
In fact, the movie’s producers never saw their film in terms of coded messages or deeper significance. Quite the opposite: Jerry Bruckheimer spotted a 1983 article in California magazine about the real-life Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego (where the top one percent of pilots were subjected to rigorous, competitive training to make them even better) and said: “It looks like Star Wars on earth.” His collaborator, Don Simpson – about whose extraordinary life, see Charles Fleming’s High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess (1998) – was persuaded, and the duo set about wooing Cruise to play the lead.
Now, 36 years later, there is finally a sequel, Top Gun: Maverick (general release, 25 May), directed by Joseph Kosinski. Such a long gap between a successful movie and its follow-up is rarely a good sign – think of the 39 years that separate The Shining (1980) and the woeful Doctor Sleep (2019), or the 33 between Coming to America (1988) and Coming 2 America (2021).
Yet – against the odds and in the face of much scepticism – the new movie is an absolute triumph: an all-action popcorn crowd-pleaser of the very highest calibre that will keep you riveted for two hours and 17 minutes. So good, in fact, that it may enter that very select list of sequels that are arguably better than their forerunners; notably The Godfather: Part II (1974) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
As the movie opens, Maverick is a test pilot based in the Mojave desert, tasked with pushing the experimental hypersonic “Darkstar” aircraft up to Mach 10. Rear Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris) arrives to tell the team that he is shutting the project down – and shutting Maverick down, too.
“Thirty-plus years of service,” he tells him like a disappointed headmaster. “Combat medals, citations, the only man to shoot down three enemy planes in the last 40 years. Yet you can’t get a promotion, you won’t retire, and despite your best efforts you refuse to die. You should be at least a two-star admiral by now. Yet here you are. Captain.”
Cain personifies the belief that manned fighter aircraft, and pilots like Maverick, are a thing of the past, that drones are infinitely more reliable and that technology has made redundant the lethal artistry of the dogfight. “The future’s coming and you’re not in it,” he says. “The end is inevitable. Your kind is headed for extinction.” Cruise turns to deliver the movie’s first real burn: “Maybe so, sir. But not today”.
And not for a while, as it turns out. Maverick, we learn, has been protected for many years by his former rival turned blood brother, Iceman – now Admiral Tom Kazansky, commander of the US Pacific fleet – and is sent back to Top Gun (relocated since the first movie to western Nevada). This time, however, he will not be instructing pilots but preparing a crack team of the school’s graduates for an apparently impossible mission: to take out a secret uranium depot that is heavily defended by an unnamed enemy power.
How can these aces, for all their world-class skills, compete in their F/A-18 Hornets against superior “fifth-generation” aircraft? By accomplishing two piloting “miracles”, Maverick explains to the disapproving Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm, channelling Don Draper at his most unimpressed).
I won’t spoil the details of the task or how Cruise goes about honing the already impressive talents of his new crew. Suffice to say that there are plenty of pleasing callbacks to the first movie: from the music of Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins and bar-room sing-alongs, via the shirtless football game on the beach (echoing the shirtless volleyball match in Top Gun) and Maverick buzzing the control tower, to the still-ubiquitous Rayban Aviators and T-shirt-ready one-liners (“Turn and burn, baby”; “Move it or lose it”; “It’s the pilot, not the plane”; “Don’t think, just do!”).
Above all, there is the excellent Miles Teller as “Rooster” – son of “Goose”, Maverick’s radar intercept officer and best friend, whose death in the original movie still haunts him. The tension between Teller and Cruise is essential to the plot and expertly explored. Needless to say, its resolution – one way or another – plays an all-important part in the third act.
But Top Gun: Maverick is much more than a nostalgic tribute to its predecessor. Indeed, it is by no means necessary to have seen Top Gun to enjoy it. As Cruise himself spotted, the original was almost a sports movie, a deep dive into the internal competitiveness and ultimate camaraderie of an elite-level team – the locker room stand-offs being just as important as the combat with enemy MiGs.
In contrast, the sequel is essentially an old-fashioned war mission movie that owes as much to The Dam Busters (1955) and The Guns of Navarone (1961) as it does to the first movie. The gathering of Top Gun graduates at the Fighter Weapons School is little more than a plot device to ignite the action.
And what action. By installing Imax cameras in the cockpits of the F/A-18 aircraft and dispensing entirely with green screen technology, Kosinski – urged on by Cruise – has been able to capture an unprecedented level of authenticity. You can see the real-life struggle of “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), “Hangman” (Glen Powell) and “Coyote” (Greg Tarzan Davis) as they “pull” 7G (seven times normal gravity), the equivalent of more than 700kg of pressure on the body. The combination of state-of-the-art cinematography and top-notch performances makes for compelling viewing.
At the heart of the Top Gun myth nestles a mystery: what makes a certain kind of person crave such danger and a constant dance with death in the clouds? It was this mystery that Tom Wolfe explored in The Right Stuff (1979), his account of postwar US test pilots and the early Project Mercury astronauts. Why was it that, in the twentieth century, those who sought glory in battle “[regarded] the military pilot as the quintessence of manly daring that the cavalryman had been in the nineteenth”?
In a sense, Top Gun: Maverick was originally intended to be a cinematic punctuation mark in the unfolding of that mystery, a homage to an era that was drawing to a close as 21st-century geostrategists shifted their attention to cyberwarfare, special ops and drone technology.
And yet – in a sobering fashion that reminds us how capricious history truly is – the movie is finally being released in quite unforeseen circumstances, as the skies of Ukraine are scarred by ferocious dogfights: as Russian Su-34s do battle daily with the invaded country’s MiG-29s.
Last month, the world’s media featured interviews with a Ukrainian pilot whose call-sign is “Juice”. Right now, the world of Top Gun seems all too real. All the more reason to see this remarkable movie as soon as you possibly can.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
World War III – Katt Williams (Netflix)
Even in this golden age of stand-up comedy, Katt Williams is one of the few bona fide geniuses of the genre – though not nearly as well known on this side of the Atlantic as he should be. In this, his eleventh special, recorded in January in Las Vegas, the Cincinnati-born comic delivers one of his best performances to date, riffing on the war between lies and truth. No need for conspiracy theories in a world of falsehood: “The truth is fucked up enough – for everybody.” But part of the Williams magic is to make serious points in the most absurd way imaginable: he frames the sudden arrival of chicken wings at Taco Bell as evidence of a general detachment from reality, before explaining that chicken itself is important evidence of God’s existence. As for politics: he concludes that, these days, “both sides is the dumb side”; but asks that his audience shows a measure of understanding to President Biden: “You gave great-granddad the job! That man is 97 years old!” As with all the best stand-up, the brilliance is to be found in the delivery: Williams’s almost balletic movements, his use of props, the twinkle in his eye. Only Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock can hold a candle to him: truly, a master at work.
Night Sky (Amazon Prime, 20 May)
Cast your mind back to Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and the young Sissy Spacek in her break-out performance opposite Martin Sheen – and all that she has achieved as an Oscar-winning actress (nominated six times) in the past half century. Remarkable, then, that she has never before been tempted by a role in a science fiction movie or series: but it has been worth the wait. In Holden Miller’s eight-part saga, Spacek excels as Irene York, long-married to Franklin (the magnificent J.K. Simmons), and now in declining health after a fall. The couple apparently lead a quiet life in small-town Illinois, but have shared a cosmic secret for years: namely, that, under their tool shed, there is a portal to what appears to be another planet.
Enter a young man, Jude (Chai Hansen), who throws their double life into turmoil. We also discover that there is another such portal in an Argentinian church. If all this sounds bonkers, it is. But – like The Leftovers and Station Eleven (see Creative Sensemaker, 12 May) – Night Sky makes intelligent use of its extraordinary premise to explore the interior of human relationships, the shocks to which love, however enduring, is always subjected, and the approach of mortality. For Spacek and Simmons alone, this is a must-watch.
Tokyo Vice (StarzPlay)
“We know what you’re investigating,” says a chillingly calm yakuza to Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort). “We want you to stop… Publish it? There’s nowhere you can hide.” Thus begins Tokyo Vice, the first episode of which is directed by Michael Mann, plunging the viewer immediately into the danger to which the young gaijin reporter has subjected himself with his journalistic inquiries. Scroll back two years to 1999 and we follow Missouri-born Jake as he becomes the first foreigner to pass the fiendishly tough entrance exam set by Meicho Shimbu – a fictional newspaper based on Yomiuri Shimbun, the title which was at one time the biggest-selling in the world, and for which the real-life Adelstein worked until 2006 (the series is based on his 2009 memoir). Nicknamed “Mossad” by his co-workers, who speculate that he is a Jewish-American spy, he finds the corporate rigidity and strict etiquette of the paper hard to bear, desperate as he is to be out on the streets talking to cops and uncovering villainy.
The legendary Ken Watanabe is outstanding as detective Hiroto Katagiri, but the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent – notably Rachel Keller as Samantha Porter, an American hostess working in the Kabukicho district, and Hideaki Ito as Jin Miyamoto, a vice squad detective with his eye on the main chance. Most of all, the aesthetic and mood of the show are pitch perfect, drawing to tremendous effect upon the twin sources of yakuza movies – check out, for example, Drunken Angel (1948), Brother (2000) and Ichi the Killer (2001) – and (with some overlap) Japanese noir – for a taste of which, try Stray Dog (1949) The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and A Fugitive from the Past (1965). As well as first-rate prestige television, this series is a love letter to the cinematic glories of the past.
Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles – Mark Rozzo (Ecco Press)
Dennis Hopper is now principally remembered for three stunning performances: as Billy in Easy Rider (1969; he was also director); as the unnamed, drug-addled photojournalist roaming Colonel Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now (1979); and as the psychotic Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986, the year he got sober). But there was so much before, and much of it is chronicled in this wonderful new book by Vanity Fair contributing editor, Mark Rozzo. In their eight-year marriage, Hopper, the wild enfant terrible of the new American cinema, and Brooke Hayward, the daughter of director Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, incarnated a period of transition in Hollywood (seated next to George Cukor, revered director of The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight and A Star is Born, Hopper screamed: “We will bury you!”).
Rozzo is especially good on the role of place in cultural change: in this case, 1712 North Crescent Heights in Hollywood Hills, the couple’s home – adorned with Warhol paintings, memorabilia and bric-a-brac – that became the setting for a never-ending bohemian bacchanal, at which Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers and the Monkees mingled with Brian Wilson, Fondas of two generations, Brian Wilson, Jasper Johns, Ike and Tina Turner, Joan Didion, and many others. Hayward grew tired of her husband’s philandering and drew the line at Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim turning up and demanding a foursome. By the end of the decade, the marriage was at an end and Easy Rider took Cannes by storm. A tremendous addition to our knowledge of the era, to be read alongside Didion’s The White Album and Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Private Notebooks 1914-1916 – Ludwig Wittgenstein (W.W. Norton, 20 May)
In May 1916, the 27-year-old Ludwig Wittgenstein, in what is now modern Ukraine, volunteered to serve on an observation post on the Easter Front that was seriously vulnerable to enemy fire. Though eligible for a medical exemption and from an aristocratic background that would have easily secured him an officer’s commission, he chose the life of an ordinary soldier, and recorded his ideas and experiences in a series of notebooks. The pages on the right were filled with complex philosophical deliberations and musings that were to form the basis of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921-22). On the left, he wrote journal entries in a simple code (z is a, y is b, and so on) – personal recollections that have finally been deciphered and translated into English by Marjorie Perloff. So on the right: “A question: can we manage without simple objects in logic?” And on the left: “Much anxiety! I was close to tears!!!!”
For all the icy loftiness of Wittgenstein as a cultural figure in collective memory – and the sheer difficulty of his ideas – there is much here that humanises the young Austrian. Much on his mind is the love of his life: David Pinsent, whom he met as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1912. “Wrote to David. Already longing for a letter from him so as not to lose the feeling of contact with my previous life”; and “A letter from David!! I kissed it.” And he does nothing to conceal his grouchiness: “The situation here is a test of fire of one’s character, precisely because it takes so much strength not to lose one’s temper & one’s energy.”
Wittgenstein would, of course, have sneered at the idea that we can ever know the mind of another, least of all through something as slippery as language. But this is the most tantalising of glimpses.
The Betrayal: The True Story of My Brush with Death in the World of Narcos and Launderers – Robert Mazur (Icon Books)
In this follow-up to The Infiltrator: Undercover in the World of Drug Barons and Dirty Banks (2009) – the story of his infiltration of the Escobar cartel as an undercover customs agent – Robert Mazur recounts a separate operation in which, posing as an Italian-American businessman, Robert Baldasare, he seeks to sabotage the finances of the Cali drug empire. It is a cliché to say that such books have the pace and tension of a thriller – but in this case the cliché has force. In constant danger of detection (especially when the cartel offers a $300,000 bounty “to anyone who killed a DEA agent”), Mazur shows extraordinary courage, and, along the way, reveals much about the labyrinthine world of high-stakes money-laundering. Like all such moles, he builds a plausible “legend” – an imagined past that will convince his targets to trust him – conscious that the slightest flaw in the story will be a certain death sentence. There are plenty of lessons, too, for policymakers looking to crack down more effectively on the narco-traffickers; and, after the 2016 film version of his first book starring Bryan Cranston, plenty of scope for a cinematic sequel.
At the End of the Night – Gabzy
Continuing his collaboration with New York producer, Melvitto, Peckham’s finest returns with a beautiful five-track EP that strengthens his claim to be the most important exponent of the British-Nigerian Alté scene. Along with Odeal, Boj, Marzi and a handful of others, Gabzy – AKA Gabriel Akinyemi – has pioneered the UK version of this beguiling and welcoming style, which draws on Afrobeats, R&B, and an eclectic tradition of singer-songwriting. Since his breakout single ‘4 Nothin’’ in 2019, he has been an unmissable source of lyrical gentleness and often spiritual reflection (check out, especially, ‘Malone’). From its opening track, ‘Way Too Much’ (featuring Dayor), At the End of the Night draws you into its sonic space with almost hypnotic ease. “I feel like you can hear the African elements in my music” Gabzy has said. “I feel like Peckham is just, you know, so multicultural and you can hear that in my sound.” Don’t miss him on the main stage at YAM Carnival (Clapham Common, 27 August).
Lupo: Fantasia – Fretwork
Since their formation in Barcelona in 1985, the viol consort Fretwork have set a standard that few such ensemble groups have been able to match. They have also done much to reignite interest in neglected or under-performed compositions. Of Jewish-Italian descent, Thomas Lupo (1571–1627) was one of the most significant musicians at Elizabeth I’s court, and his fantasias for three, five and six viols are an extraordinary legacy of the Tudor creative era at its peak (Lupo, though wealthy, lived far beyond his means and died in debt; he tried to sign away some of his future income to a creditor but, according to the sources, “his wife by violence kept him off and would not permits him”). Indebted to the madrigals of Marenzio and Vecchi, these pieces – captured in 20 tracks – have a solemnity, depth and majesty to which Fretwork are more than equal. Catch them at Wigmore Hall on 12 June.
And thanks to Sebastian Hervas-Jones, Tortoise researcher and ThinkIn executive, for his recommendation of Kurt Vile’s (watch my moves)
“The latest from Kurt Vile sits within a rare category of albums that – to seemingly no end – get better and better the more you listen. The first listen-through of (watch my moves) is enjoyable; great songs full of smooth melodies, funny lines and cool riffs. But, around the tenth listen, things really start to get good; you begin to understand his subtle, but brilliant, storytelling and the distinct plotline of each song. It truly clicked for me as I sat beside the Thames on Saturday afternoon – alone, on a bench, with headphones on and volume high; I dropped into a deeply relaxed and kind of meditative mood, hanging on to each of Kurt’s words.
I realised: his is the best kind of storytelling; really overcomplicated descriptions of nearly nothing. Listening to Vile’s story-like songs ease you into a state of ease and contentment. You become privy to the kind of magnificently mundane, yet utterly profound narrative that only a completely self-aware genius could compose. Listening to this album is like hanging out with close friends on warm summer afternoon, your feet up on an old red couch, in a cluttered living room chock full of houseplants – with the sunlight streaming in through a tall window, catching floating dust before resting softly on a slow rotating vinyl. In short: it’s sublime.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Skydance Media, Warner Bros, Getty Images, Alamy, Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO