Tom Cruise in 2019. Photo: Wikipedia / Gage Skidmore

The most famous line from Top Gun, the 1986 fighter-jet movie that made Tom Cruise internationally renowned, was “I feel the need, the need for speed.” And now, 36 years after the world was introduced to Maverick, Iceman and Goose, a nostalgia-fueled sequel jets into the Cannes Film Festival and then on to our cinema screens.

Some are ecstatic that they can take a nostalgic trip to yesteryear, with excitement running as high as it was for the return of Han Solo to the Star Wars universe. For others, it’s another example of a Hollywood bereft of new story ideas and resorting to the tried and tested to make a quick buck.

The return of Top Gun may jar with some because the original was the quintessential movie of the Reagan years, filled with jingoistic masculine bravado for the Cold War era. The whole point of the film was that the American military was not only fun but a great lifestyle choice, and the days of Vietnam were well and truly over.

In the original, Tom Cruise was a young, handsome buck who went to an elite school for fighter-jet pilots and bedded his teacher while having a macho competition with his contemporaries over who was the fastest and most daring. They were elite pilots, the best of the best, and part of an American military machine far superior to anything else the world, especially the Soviets, had to offer.

The film didn’t even need to name the Soviet Union as the enemy. It was clear that underpinning the story was that this was American technology overcoming Russian know-how. It was Rocky IV in planes.

The film was so good at imparting American jingoism that the US Navy set up booths in movie theaters aiming to recruit cinema-goers as they exited the movie. And it worked. Recruitment skyrocketed. Soon after Top Gun’s release, everyone was happy. The tills at the box office rang like crazy, and then the Cold War ended.

It was America triumphant when Hollywood was having a boom period. It was so exhilarating that my teenage self went out to buy a pair of aviators.

The sequel’s arrival also tells us a lot about current world politics and the state of Hollywood. The film’s unnamed enemy this time is clearly Iran, something a little concerning, especially for audiences in the Middle East who have watched in horror at how Hollywood has treated characters from the region and the Muslim world as a whole over the decades.

Top Gun: Maverick sees a seemingly never-aging Tom Cruise returning to the flight academy to teach graduates how to fly jets to attack the site of a uranium-enrichment plant. And you don’t need the twang of some of the American accents in the film that make “uranium” sound like “Iranian” to know that this is a plot inspired by America’s fractured relationship with Tehran.

The Top Gun: Maverick pilots are up against an enemy about whom not much is known. And while the details suggest it is Iran, the fact that we never see the color of the enemy’s face and that the valley they have to attack could be countryside anywhere suggests that it could be anywhere or nowhere.

And what a fine decision that is from the filmmakers. They could not have foreseen the pandemic that forced the delay in the release of Top Gun: Maverick by almost two years, but the film now comes at a time when all the focus in the US is back on the Russian enemy.

But the decision not to clumsily stereotype a Middle Eastern enemy in yet another movie has less to do with changing geopolitics than it is about the changing nature of the business of Hollywood.

When Top Gun came out, the North American box office was the largest in the world. Films would regularly make more money in US cinemas than they would in the rest of the world. That has changed in the past decade. Suddenly, the box office is in the Middle East, and Asia matters in ways it did not in the 1980s.

Now film studios have to be conscious of the box office in countries around the world, just as new streaming platforms are savvy about not offending the sensibilities of potential subscribers. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have also, at the same time, highlighted the poor treatment of minorities and women onscreen.

In addition to the refusal to denigrate peoples, a big difference between the two Top Gun movies is how the relationship dynamic between Cruise and his love interest has changed.

Tom Cruise has taken advantage of the globalization of the movie business more than any other star. His Mission Impossible movies have been particularly adept at using locations such as the Burj Khalifa in ways old Hollywood would use the Empire State Building.

Fortunately, blockbusters have to be less racist, less misogynistic and less smothered in American jingoism to succeed globally. 

What’s remarkable about the new Top Gun is how it balances all these political facets while staying true to the spirit of the original but still creating fantastic flight scenes. While the idea may not be new or the film particularly great, this Top Gun movie is the first modern-day blockbuster in the age of Me Too and Black Lives Matter.

And for that, a lot of people will be thankful.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Kaleem Aftab

Kaleem Aftab is a film critic, author of the biography Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It, and director of international programming for the Red Sea International Film Festival.