The smiling cinema custodian asked me if I liked the film as I headed for the exit. I responsively gushed: “It was magnificent!” The film was Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel to Top Gun of 1986, whose soaring portrayal of brash navy flyers made it a premier naval recruiting tool in the 1980s.
This sequel was perfectly timed for Memorial Day as homage to American military prowess but more broadly to American confidence and audacity. Such a boost is much needed after post Afghanistan gloom and as American determination is more needed than ever to counter Russia, China and other ambitious tyrannies.
Neither Top Gun film names specific enemies. But the adversaries in both are flying Russian jets. Top Gun I is presumed to involve action over the Mediterranean against Libya, then under Muammar Gaddafi. Top Gun II is presumed to entail a U.S. strike against an Iranian nuclear enrichment plant.
Few anymore discuss Gaddafi’s depredations across 40 years, perhaps because that complicates the narrative that his 2011 overthrow exemplified disastrous U.S. intervention. But Ronald Reagan rightly called Gaddafi a “mad dog” for his domestic and foreign criminality, piracy and terrorism, choreographed with Gaddafi’s flamboyant costumes, presumption and stagecraft. In what was likely the model for Top Gun I, Reagan in 1981 deployed two U.S. aircraft carriers to international waters Libya claimed, prompting two Libyan jets to fire upon U.S. jets, who shot down the Libyans.
The U.S. had already broken relations with Libya that year, amid reports that Libya was targeting overseas U.S. diplomats and had even organized a team to kill Reagan. Gaddafi’s 1986 terror strike on a Berlin discotheque that killed and wounded U.S. military personnel among many others, prompting Reagan to order a bombing of key military targets in Libya. This strike occurred one month before the release of Top Gun I and almost certainly enhanced its appeal. Gaddafi and Libya, perfect villains, were unnamed in the film but everybody understood.
In 1988 Libyan agents blew up a U.S. passenger jet over Scotland, killing 277 people. Yet Gaddafi survived in power until 2011, when overthrown in a revolution, ultimately assisted by Western air power. Video of Gaddafi’s gruesome execution was maybe solace to thousands of his victims who had survived his mass murder, prisons, tortures, rape rooms and terrorism. Reportedly Vladimir Putin was greatly affected by it and is resolved to avoid such a fate.
Neither U.S. Top Gun films delves deeply if at all into geopolitics of course, focused instead on the gumption and ambition of young U.S. naval flyers. In Top Gun II, they must train to fly below enemy radar through a narrow river valley and into a deep crevice harboring a nuclear enrichment plant, surrounded by antiaircraft rockets and protective enemy aircraft. Success requires a miraculous double strike and escape back to the U.S. aircraft carrier.
This concluding sequence in Top Gun II offers some of the most thrilling action in any film ever. The attack is led by an aging, but ageless, Tom Cruise, who retains all his panache from Top Gun II. With near cosmic perfection, he’s rescued by the son of his fallen fellow airman from Top Gun I. Together they evade a panoply of Russian made rockets and destroy pursuing Russian made jets. As in Top Gun I, the ultimate adversary behind Libyan or Iranian proxies is Russia.
But these adversaries are faceless and undescribed. The stories of both Top Gun I and II are about the self-possessed U.S. airmen, and, in Top Gun II, an airwoman, assigned nearly impossible missions and yet undeterred. They only need training, practice, and endless audacity.
Such audacity is required for all grand projects by individuals or by collectives, including nations. Only audacious countries can be great powers for good or evil or in between. Audacity requires tremendous ambition and sustained confidence. This combination of course easily can become hubristic and arrogant, leading to failure, catastrophe and even destruction. Putin’s Ukraine invasion exemplifies depraved and distorted audacity to which dictators, unconstrained by opposition, often succumb.
America from the start, even when small and weak, has always been audacious, proposing a narrative about self-government that always challenged the whole world. Waging world wars, building the world’s largest economy, winning the Cold War, and sustaining a global network of trade and alliances, while promoting endless causes for social and political redemption, entails endless audacity. Sometimes America is arrogant and overconfident. But typically self-critique offers correction.
Christian Realism warns against presumption and national ego. But it does not argue against audacity, which grand responsibilities require, if audacity is governed by wisdom and circumspection. Reinhold Niebuhr summoned America to global audacity with such qualifications. To whom much is given, much is required. The world needs an audacious democracy to counter other audacious and malevolent powers that are arrogant and often dangerously foolish.
The world, whether admitting to it or not, needs an audacious America that will safeguard that part of civilization cherishing law, liberty, equality, decency and ordered prosperity. Such an audacious America needs audacious young pilots who train for remarkable missions and assume success. Top Gun in both its parts, but especially the second, incarnates individual, corporate and national audacity, which confidently responds to the summons: Go forth!