The timelessness of Tom Cruise, the last movie star

Top Gun: Maverick is the most successful film in a storied career and perhaps the best case study of movie stardom over time of all time.  Cruise portrays the same character 36 years apart, and makes it clear that nothing has really changed for either him or Maverick, onscreen or off.

Tom Cruise is the last movie star.  Admittedly, it is a term that is difficult to define.  We clearly have no shortage of celebrities and some of them are excellent actors, but a true movie star is a much rarer occurrence, combining elements of both into a more unique form along with something extra.  This something extra is equally difficult to define, but we can think of it as a signature character type that captures the public imagination.  The movie star doesn’t play the same role over and over again, and yet there is a type of role that serves as the perfect vehicle for their talents.  Clint Eastwood, for example, will forever be The Man With No Name even if he might happen to be playing Dirty Harry or William Munny in any given film.  His persona is short on dialogue, long on action, and extremely limited in patience.  Jimmy Stewart, in contrast, was an every man’s every man, interesting enough to be captivating on screen, but believable enough to be the man living next door almost anywhere in the country, from a big city to a small town.  It goes without saying that, whatever the particular persona, audiences must find it compelling enough to watch over and over again.  In different times and places.  In different stories.  Even in different genres.  The true movie star is the combination of this persona with the onscreen charisma and acting skills to remain captivating over time.

Top Gun: Maverick might well be the best test of this principle ever conducted.  Rarely, if ever, has an actor had the chance to reprise the role that made them a star in the first place 36 years later, much less realizing their biggest opening and highest grossing film of all time in the process.  The only thing close that comes to mind is Paul Newman, who played the pool shark Fast Eddie Felson in 1961’s The Hustler and once again in 1986’s The Color of Money, ironically opposite none other than Tom Cruise, but classics as they surely are, neither were on the scale or timeless cultural appeal of Captain Pete Mitchell, callsign Maverick in Top Gun.  The original film captured the imagination of America by showcasing the incredible feats of Naval Aviators as they pilot state-of-the-art fighter jets in detail never before seen on the screen.  Filmed in collaboration with the Navy itself and unabashedly patriotic without being political, the producers were granted unprecedented access to aircraft carriers and the incredible men and women who operated them, bringing viewers as close to behind the controls of an F14 fighter jet as you could get at the time.  We were in the cockpit, our entire bodies rumbling from the roar of the engines, taking off and landing on a runway a mere 300 feet long, and dogfighting in the skies above, for practice and then for real.  The immersion was so complete and the outcome so exciting that a year after the movie’s release, the recruitment rate for the Navy increased some 500%.

Top Gun was, of course, anchored by Tom Cruise, whose Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was the cocky but charming, daring but incredibly talented, rebellious but fiercely loyal pilot at the heart of the film.  We know all this from opening sequence alone, when in a feat of daring, he inverts a plane to taunt a presumably Russian pilot flying below, gives his adversary the middle finger, and even takes the time to snap a polaroid.  Maverick then proceeds to request a “flyby” of the tower, is denied, but does it anyway, spilling his superior’s hot coffee.  Of course, any pilot attempting any of this in real life would be promptly grounded, if not court martialed and dishonorably discharged, but Maverick is special, the best-of-the best, and instead of suffering for his actions, he’s sent to an elite school in southern California to further hone his talents because there’s nothing the Navy needs more than pilots they can’t control, apparently.  From this sequence alone, barely 10 minutes of screen time, a star was born and the Tom Cruise persona was cemented in the minds of the public.  All of the hallmarks he would showcase over the following decades are on full display:  He’s gifted, among the best, if not the best, at what he does.  He’s cocky, borderline arrogant, and more than willing to flaunt his skills.  He has a healthy skepticism if not outright defiance of authority, but gets away with breaking rules because he is simply so good.  This is the role he would play again and again over the next four decades.  In some sense, the majority of Tom Cruise movies since can be described as “Top Gun at a _________.”  Think Cocktail (bar), Rain Main (casino), Days of Thunder (race track), A Few Good Men (courtroom), The Firm (law firm), Jerry McGuire (agent) and Mission: Impossible (international spy).

In critic’s circles, it is common to believe this character has no depth and never shows any growth, but that is only a cursory reading of Top Gun and other variations in the filmography, one which misses the point almost entirely.  Much like Clint Eastwood before him, the Tom Cruise character is generally the same person at the end of any given film.  In this sense, he doesn’t change or grow.  The key traits – arrogant, headstrong, and excellent – remain in place, but the journey between is not without some valuable lesson, one that must be learned to truly be the very best.  You might say he is tempered, but not changed.  In Top Gun itself, Maverick is devastated by the accidental death of his copilot, Goose, who breaks his neck while ejecting from a plane in a flat spin. This is especially potent after Val Kilmer’s Ice Man branded him “dangerous” to himself and others, as though he were prescient in what might unfold.  Maverick feels Goose’s death is his responsibility whether or not the Navy has officially cleared him, and he comes close to washing out, right up until his skills are needed for a real combat mission.  The mission, however, is different from the start from Maverick’s point of view.  He takes off from the aircraft carrier without any of his usual cockiness, unsure of himself for the first time in the entire film.  Gone is the reckless daredevil, replaced for a few minutes by a borderline panic attack.  The audience, of course, knows this cannot continue for long and Maverick will ultimately save the day, but he achieves victory only by correcting a mistake he made earlier in the film.  Rather than leaving his wingman to fend for themselves, he remains locked on despite the danger to himself.  The change in behavior, coupled with the technical skill required to take out three enemy aircraft, is enough to prompt Ice Man to re-evaluate his former nemesis.  Back on the deck of the aircraft carrier, they shake hands, and he says “You can be my wingman anytime.”

Maverick’s response neatly encapsulates the entire persona in a single line.  “Bullshit, you can be mine.”  The next time we see him, 36 years have passed, but the essentials of the character remain the same.  This time around, he’s ordered to cease testing an experimental plane capable of breaking the sound barrier 10 times over.  The powers that be, represented by a brief, but compelling appearance by Ed Harris, want to strip funding from the program to pursue more investment in unmanned aircraft.  Perhaps needless to say, Maverick promptly defies his orders and pushes past Mach 10 in any event, partly motivated by an innate “need for speed” and also a desire to protect the team working on the project and ensure continued funding.  Interestingly, he defies the instructions of his own team in the process by pushing past Mach 10, meaning he manages the unique feat of defying explicit orders to save this team and then refusing to follow the advice of that same team at the same time.  This sequence serves to let the viewer know that Maverick has not changed since the last time we saw him in 1986.  He might be older.  He might have more baggage in his past reflected in the wrinkles under his eyes, but that same unparalleled excellence and refusal to follow the rules remains.  Therefore, it is no surprise that when we learn his superiors would like nothing more than to ground him permanently in a reprise of the opening of the first film.  Especially when Maverick has been in this same position many times over in the intervening decades, but they need him back at the Top Gun school to train today’s most talented teams for a new mission anyway. 

Immediately after returning to California, Maverick comes face to face with the guilt he felt in the first film, literally and figuratively completing the circle.  Goose’s son, callsign Rooster, is one of the pilots he must ready for the mission, and we learn that there’s something more between them than simply the death of his father.  He also reconnects with a lost love, one he obviously still has feelings for, making it seems like the regrets might start piling up.  This is Maverick, however, and rather than veering into anything resembling melancholy, he throws himself into instructing the class and immediately proceeds to violate more orders in the process.  The result is an audience confronted with something of a conundrum:  You can see that Maverick wishes things were different somehow.  He certainly would prefer that Goose was still by his side and he desperately wants to connect with his son, played uncannily by Miles Teller complete with the same mustache.  He might have even wanted a different career path, one where he was less maligned by his superiors, or one where he had a real, meaningful relationship.  The film could easily use these elements as an opportunity to veer into sentimentality or choose to depict the hero as haunted by both the events we know of and those we don’t.  This, after all, is the common approach for sequels and reboots in the age of emotion.  For example, Daniel Craig’s James Bond spends half of No Time to Die bemoaning his lot in life, mourning his deceased love, and carrying on like a jilted teenager with the living one.  For obvious reasons, the film has been described as the “anti-Bond.”  Even the horror genre is not immune, when various reboots of Halloween showcase the trauma of Michael Myers’ youth and how it turned him into a deranged killer.  There is a sense pervading popular culture that we’re all victims of our past to some degree.  Trapped forever in some cycle because of what might have happened to us, or even to our parents.

The Tom Cruise persona will not allow anything like that.  Instead, the first thing he does on the very first day of class is to defeat all the hot shot pilots in a simulated dogfight, beating them handily because this is Maverick and that’s what he does.  Actually, even that puts it too mildly.  He meets with an ailing Ice Man a little later in the film, now an Admiral and the only person in the Navy he might call a friend, and explains to him why he’s having so much trouble as an instructor.  As he puts it, this isn’t what I do.  It’s who I am.  I can’t teach that.  Thus, Maverick’s primary struggle is not against his past.  It happened, and there’s nothing he can do about it now.  It’s not his troubled relationship with Rooster, though we do learn the incident between them isn’t his fault and was Maverick acting on behalf of his mother, putting him in the hero role personally as well as professionally.  He can easily live with all that, but he can’t stomach failure, especially when it will lead to the potential death of a pilot on a mission he would prefer to fly himself.  Of course, to achieve success, he must break even more rules and risk yet another court martial after his superiors ground him permanently and change the mission parameters to ones that will likely result in the teams’ death at the hand of enemy missiles.  The top brass has decided the mission as proposed by Maverick is impossible.  It can’t be flown, so what does he do?  Steals a jet and flies it himself 15 seconds faster then he needs to, proving yet again that there is no substitute for his unique skills and talent.

You might say this the Tom Cruise persona on steroids:  The only way to prove you are the best is to defy the authorities and risk it all for what you believe, but as the world’s last movie star Tom Cruise still manages to take it to another level.  Top Gun: Maverick is a film that no one else alive, or even in the history of cinema itself, could’ve made.  It is a representation of the curious blending of his offscreen and onscreen personas that has occurred since Mission: Impossible, one which has taken his status as movie star to another level entirely.  Like the persona he portrays in his films, Cruise isn’t content to simply act.  He must prove he’s something more, something different, something unique, that no one else has, and over the past 25 years he’s done that by performing his own stunts, literally risking his life to achieve his vision.  This time around the actors are really in the planes, and you can hear them huffing and puffing, struggling to speak under the tremendous forces.  The skin pushes back from their faces, warping their features, as they defy gravity for our enjoyment.  The visuals simply couldn’t have been achieved with special effects alone.  No one else makes movies like this.  He’s leaped across buildings, hung from the sides of massive cliffs, swung from the tallest towers in the world, strapped himself to the door of an airplane taking off, and more.  He does his own stunt driving, drives his own motorcycles even in chase scenes.  The daredevil nature combined with the incredible physical ability required to perform these feats makes it impossible to determine where Tom Cruise the actor ends and where his character in any given film begins.  Of course, something of this dichotomy has always been a part of the movie star allure.  Everyone imagines Errol Flynn as a real life swashbuckler, or John Wayne as a true cowboy.  For most, however, this is pure imagination on the part of the audience.  For Tom Cruise, it is real to at least some degree, or close enough for our postmodern world, and certainly enough to mark him as the last true movie star.

Slight correction: I incorrectly stated that the first flyby in the original Top Gun occurred after the opening sequence, but the scene with the spilled coffee is later in the film, at the flight school. Instead, the opening sequence ends with Maverick refusing orders to land on the aircraft carrier, actually touching down for a second before taking back off to help a teammate. The point largely remains the same.

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