Editor’s Note: This review of Top Gun: Maverick does include spoilers. Pete Mitchell is back, and once again he’s fighting against a nameless enemy who possesses the world’s most advanced technology. Yes, that means we are talking about Top Gun: Maverick. And boy is there a lot to say about this movie.
The original Top Gun was curiously apolitical for a film about the American military. The enemy was faceless and the geopolitical stakes were largely invisible. The battle described in the first Top Gun most closely resembled the Gulf of Sidra incident, where Libyan Su-22 fighters engaged US F-14 Tomcats launched from the USS Nimitz. As was the case in the film the Libyans began the engagement by firing an air-to-air missile, which missed the American aircraft. The Americans returned fire with AIM-9L “Sidewinder” missiles, destroying both Libyan fighters.
The F-14 Tomcat was the star of the show but was not, of course, designed to dogfight against smaller, more agile MiGs; it was intended to conduct fleet air defense using long-range air-to-air missiles against formations of Soviet bombers equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles. The Soviets and the Americans anticipated a game of cat and mouse, with the potential for significant losses in ships and aircraft on either side. Tomcats gave carrier battle groups the ability to intercept Soviet formations at a considerably greater distance than the F-4, both because of the long-range of the fighter and because its large radar and beyond visual range (BVR) missiles enabled it to hit at standoff distances.
Top Gun Evolves
In Top Gun: Maverick, Pete Mitchell and his students have graduated to single and twin-seat F/A-18 Hornets. The mission this time has clear geopolitical stakes; the F/A-18s must strike a nuclear production facility before it becomes operational. The shift to a ground attack mission certainly reflects an understanding of how air combat has changed since the 1980s.
Indeed, the course of instruction at the Fighter Weapons School has come to include much more content on air-to-ground and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) missions, as befits an era in which air-to-air combat has become exceedingly rare. The true skill of the modern fighter pilot isn’t dogfighting, but rather putting ordnance on a target through the teeth of lethal anti-air defenses.
Top Gun Meets Star Wars
The strike described in Top Gun: Maverick most closely resembles the Israeli attack against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, combined with Luke Skywalker’s trench run to destroy the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope. The surface-to-air missile systems are satisfyingly terrifying, making it necessary to fly low through a river valley. The enemy is unnamed but is obviously Iran, not least because the opponent has access to aging F-14 Tomcats, and Iran is the only country in the world to still fly such aircraft. The echoes of Star Wars are so clear that we half expect Darth Vader to be flying the aircraft that intercept Maverick and his team after the strike.
Here Comes Russia’s Su-57
But there are no TIE fighters here. In Maverick the Iranians have access to a “fifth-generation fighter” which is not specifically named but is clearly intended to be the Russian Su-57 “Felon.” The enemy fighters are regarded as so lethal that engaging them with F/A-18s is akin to suicide, although late in the film Maverick and one of his comrades manage to shoot down three Felons while flying a Tomcat and a Hornet. It would of course be far less dramatic to display the Felon as it actually is, a fighter that can rarely get off the ground and that has never flown a serious combat mission. There is little strong evidence that the Su-57 has appeared in Ukraine, even as the Russian air forces have struggled to establish air superiority over the country. Still, the idea of the Su-57 as a stealth fighter of choice for “rogue nations” is not at all unreasonable.
Where Was the F-35C?
Why no F-35C? One simple and straightforward reason may be that the F-35C is simply not yet available in sufficient numbers to risk doing the kinds of stunts that this film demanded. However, he Panther is show in several shots during the film, operating off the unnamed aircraft carrier. The reason given for not using the Panther in the strike is the presence of “GPS jammers,” which presumably have some undescribed effect on the ability of the F-35 to perform its mission. If jammers are always so effective against the F-35 we should surely expect rogue nations around the world to begin investing in them. Another consideration was the availability of a second seat in the F/A-18. Although the actors received some training and many of the aerial shots were filmed from within the cockpit, they were not permitted to actually fly the Hornets. Putting Tom Cruise and his students into F-35C was thus not an option.
There’s not much point in critiquing the realism of the mission in conception or in execution. The technology exists in order to look cool and to provide a rhythm section for the story. And there can be no doubt that the story is well-told; the strained affection that the characters who orbit Pete Mitchell’s life show for him are real enough, and his redemption as both fighter pilot and human being is well-earned. The visual effects are stunning and the film moves at a rapid enough pace that the viewer can excuse the lack of plot complications. The core relationships- between Mitchell and an old girlfriend, Mitchell and Rooster (son of his old backseater Goose), and Mitchell and “Iceman”- each showcase genuine pain and joy.
In an instance of life imitating art, a retired 63-year-old Russian general flying as a mercenary died earlier this week when his Su-25 “Frogfoot” was shot down over Ukraine. By the end of Top Gun: Maverick it is clear that Pete Mitchell no longer has a role as an aviator in the US Navy. If Cruise wanted to make another sequel, he could surely do worse than putting himself in the cockpit of a MiG-29 and flying against the Russians in the skies over Ukraine.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).