Having paid my $8.50 to see Top Gun: Maverick last weekend my local cineplex inadvertently boosted my appreciation of the film. For three minutes the sound died down and, minus the dialogue, I was instantly taken in by the soaring jets, hyper-caffeinated cast and enduring charisma of its star. Then the sound came back, the story unfolded and reality set in: it’s not really a plot but a superbly crafted business plan, half video game and half military recruitment film. It’s the perfect structure for a genre-bashing Tom Cruise blockbuster.
Historians can ultimately cite the film as a turning point – the film that revived audiences young and old to pay homage to their movie palaces. FiIm critics can also point to the Superior gun sequel as a defiant reimagining of the classic warfare genre.
Does it live up to the classics? Sure, but only Cruise would set out to craft a battle epic devoid of a specific enemy and therefore focused rooting interest. Or that marginalized danger, sex and even gore – everything that has characterized war films since paths of glory.
War movies are built around a mission, and Cruise’s is to train two teams of F-18 pilots to fly through mountainous terrain and destroy a uranium enrichment facility (we don’t know not which one). Will Cruise survive the attacks from those anonymous jet pilots heading his way? Will he and his students face challenges beyond intense shirtless football matches played on a serene beach?
Of course they will. But the release date of Top Gun: Maverick also coincided with the publication of a new book that once again recalls the “classic” approach to war films – in this case, a film called The best years of our lives. The driving force behind this was Samuel Goldwyn, a legendary independent producer who personally and professionally represented Cruise’s polar opposite.
In 1944, Goldwyn was weary of both war and war movies, but fascinated by the trauma suffered by returning veterans trying to re-assimilate in small American towns. The war had essentially destroyed them. In nurturing his project, Goldwyn followed the steps imposed on filmmakers of that time: he bought the film rights to a best-selling novel called glory for me by MacKinley Kantor. He then paid Kantor to write a screenplay, despite the fact that his novel was written in blank verse.
Disappointed with the result, Goldwyn then approached an accomplished playwright, Robert E. Sherwood, to do a rewrite under the supervision of distinguished filmmaker William Wyler (roman holidays). The new script was exemplary, if somewhat literary. But even as best years was in pre-production, Goldwyn was in talks with stars like Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy, warning them that they would be playing characters hopelessly damaged, even suicidal. A rookie was Harold Russell, whose actual war wound left him wearing hooks in the film where his hands had been.
Stubborn and iconoclastic, Goldwyn shrugged off rumors that his film was too dark for moviegoers. Joseph Breen, the prudish head of the Production Code, ruled that the film’s first cut was also too sexy; he even timed the kissing scenes with a stopwatch.
Their apprehensions proved wrong: the film became a critical and box office success, winning seven Oscars including Best Picture (its impact is detailed in Alison Macor’s new book, Have the best years of our lives).
Almost a century later, of course, Tom Cruise would follow a very different path in developing his film. There would be no bestselling novel; no distinguished playwright. Several layers of writers have been called upon to contribute to maverick: Include five authors who based their work on characters created by two other writers who in turn were “inspired” by real-life individuals featured in a 1982 magazine article.
The final product had to pass not only with the code (or its contemporary equivalent) but also with the tough Media Office of the Department of Defense.
The resolution of geopolitical problems remains more ambiguous. Chinese censors, always picky about war movies, have yet to approve or reject Cruise’s blockbuster, while Tencent, a major Chinese financier, quietly waived its large financial commitment as production began.
So, did the film work? It achieved strong scores on charts reflecting viewership and critical acceptance. Overall, critics pay tribute to Cruise’s formidable skills as a filmmaker. But as John Anderson wrote in the the wall street journalthe film compounds his concerns “about where the films go and the lack of creativity making its way onto the screen”.
In a Cruise movie, war is an exercise in detached exaltation. It is not a disturbing prelude to best years. At some point in Top Gun: Maverick, a senior officer studies Cruise’s confident smile and says, “I don’t like that look.” To which Cruise replies, “It’s the only one I have.”
“The look” will be good enough to satisfy millions of ticket buyers.