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Good war films put the objective in front of the audience and show repeatedly what must go heroically right to achieve it. And it is the depiction of real heroism in “Top Gun: Maverick” that makes the film so exhilarating.
The weekend after the graduation of the Class of 2022, my wife, my daughter, and I went to Lander’s Grand Theater half a block down Main Street from the offices of Wyoming Catholic College. Lander’s movie offerings remind me of growing up in a small town in middle Georgia—one movie at a time, not seven or eight offerings at a multiplex. I was particularly interested in seeing Top Gun: Maverick, because it did not feature the Spider-Man-of-the-Month, overweight Norse gods, or plot lines involving world destruction across any number of multiverses.
Top Gun: Maverick has been reviewed glowingly in such places as the National Catholic Register, but my favorite response, I have to say, is from a retired Air Force major who wrote to theWall Street Journal to complain about a tepid review: “Please tell John Anderson that we all realize movie critics have to be, well, critical. But as a lifelong military, airline, and general aviation pilot, I need you to tell him it’s the best d*** flying movie ever made.”
Major Gilbert must have come out of the movie theater as exhilarated as we were. I ran into an alumnus who said it was almost enough to make you forgive Tom Cruise for his Scientology. What stirred us so much, I think, was the depiction of real heroism. This summer of skyrocketing inflation and senseless shootings, malaise and cowardice and moral sludge, could use some heroic clarity, as Peggy Noonan wrote recently in a dispirited piece about Uvalde.
Top Gun situates Tom Cruise’s character, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, in the shrinking time we inhabit, just before the nations of the world delegate warfare (except for the dying) to various machines. Capt. Mitchell is called upon to train pilots for an attack that none of them are expected to survive. Maverick sees what is being asked of them at the same time he realizes that the commanders consider human beings themselves expendable in the new warfare. The mission will in fact be suicidal unless he pushes them far beyond what they can currently accomplish.
The task is to take out an underground nuclear facility that poses an extreme threat to the United States (though from whom is never clear—perhaps China or Russia or North Korea). Hidden in a valley surrounded by steep mountains, protected on every approach by automated surface-to-air missiles and “fifth generation” fighters at a nearby airfield, the facility can be destroyed only by a combination of “miraculous” strikes. The first bomb needs to blow open the air vent; the second one, delivered immediately afterward by a different plane, has go through the opening into the underground facility itself. Getting in and out of the valley requires maneuvers at the very limits of human capacity.
Anyone who has seen the movie can explain afterward what the nature of the attack must be and why. As complicated as the mission is, the challenge is altogether clear. The movie returns to it repeatedly, stressing the various difficulties of accomplishing this particular task and showing in scene after scene the ways that the pilots involved, all of them at the very top of their impossibly demanding profession, are nowhere close to being good enough to pull it off. Capt. Mitchell’s aim in training these men (and one woman) is to expose their inadequacies relentlessly, which means that he has to violate—no, obliterate—the usual boundaries of safety in training them. When his commanding officer fires him for ignoring the protocols, he steps outside the bounds even more egregiously to make clear to his commander—and especially to the pilots themselves—that the mission is both achievable and survivable.
I am leaving out all the subplots, of course, to concentrate on one thing: good war films put the objective in front of the audience and show repeatedly what must go heroically right to achieve it. This clarity made the first Star Wars movie groundbreaking and memorable, because the audience understood exactly what had to happen in Luke Skywalker’s attack on the Death Star. But the true gold standard (and the great example for later filmmakers, certainly including George Lucas) remains Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Brigands periodically attack a small Japanese village to steal their crops and their women and threaten destruction if the villagers do not cooperate. Fed up, the villagers seek out highly skilled but unemployed samurai warriors (a cultural shift is devaluing them, like the pilots) to protect the village from the next attack. As the defensive plans develop, amply employing maps and practice sessions, it becomes increasingly clear exactly what the warriors and the villagers must do to defeat the brigands. The climax of the movie, long in coming, has a lucidity that is deeply moving because of the careful preparation.
My son and I used to make a ritual of watching Seven Samurai every year. It’s a compliment to Top Gun: Maverick, which is not a great movie (but a d*** good one), that the comparison even occurs to me. By contrast, most contemporary action and superhero films with their thin plots, massive explosions, and special effects repeatedly illustrate what Aristotle meant when he wrote that “spectacle” was the least important aspect of drama.
Tom Cruise and his director, Joseph Kosinski, learned from Kurosawa, and Kurosawa surely learned something, in his own right, from the same classics that we teach at Wyoming Catholic College. Heroes redefine expectations—for example, Achilleus returning to battle in the Iliad or Odysseus clearing his home of suitors in his long-delayed homecoming. Or look at the long and painstaking exposition of whales and commercial whaling in Moby Dick—all of it to prepare the reader for the grandeur of the White Whale. These are strong reminders that, as often as possible, we need to reveal the reality of our tradition at Wyoming Catholic College—and then to exceed it. We need to break open expectations of what can be achieved in a culture that cannot remember what heroes are.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is courtesy of IMDb.