The recording-breaking run of Top Gun: Maverick has been nothing short of remarkable. It is the highest-grossing film of Tom Cruise’s high-grossing career and the runaway most profitable film of 2022. It also debuted as the number one digital download of all time. Indeed, it presently sits at the 5th highest grossing domestic film of all time. Providence readers (and listeners) already know we think it deserves all the accolades it receives.
Providence readers, therefore, also already know that we believe, amidst all the film’s fun—the blockbuster storytelling, the desperate mission against incredible odds, the stunning cinematography, the nostalgia, and the high-octane, head-spinning acrobatics of the aerial bouts—that Top Gun: Maverick also takes a number of important themes seriously. I want to reflect on one more of them here.
Maverick has been on my mind this week. First, because I’m eager to stream it during pizza and movie night with my family. But, aside from being eager for a fourth viewing, it’s been on my mind as I’ve thought about critiques of my piece—Does Can Imply Ought?—posted in Providence last week. In that essay, I suggested that American national interest is more capacious than sometimes framed, so that it includes the pursuit of virtue—encompassed in my piece by deploying force—when both duty and prudence align in doing so—even if not strictly in support of our strategic interests. Putting the critique more sharply, I’m chastised for suggesting that American lives ought sometimes to be spent—or hazarded—even when our own security is not directly threatened. I’ll pushback more directly against this and other criticisms next week, but, here, I want to take up an initial response more indirectly. I want to think about Maverick’s portrayal of what sometimes seems an inherent tension in war between duty and love. Reconciling this tension in the specific context of sacrifice as portrayed in the film, and in the limited case it presents, will help us think through a more capacious discussion of sacrifice next week.
Unless you’ve been under a rock the last long while, the film’s storyline is likely already familiar, but I want to be sure to set the stage. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, despite a storied career spanning three decades, has stalled at the rank of captain—the naval equivalent of colonel. In what is probably his final assignment, he is to prepare a cadre of fighter pilots for a critical mission: destroy an enemy nation’s uranium-enrichment facility that, if brought online, will pose existential threat to US regional allies. The catch is that competing problems of time-to-target and the technical challenges of an extremely dangerous but necessary flight path—low to the ground through a twisting canyon to avoid radar detection—conspire against the twin goals of completing the mission and living through it. If Maverick’s pilots fly slow enough to ensure they successfully navigate the approach and strike the target, the enemy—with both superior numbers and aircraft—will have time to intercept and likely kill them. If they risk flying fast enough to avoid detection and make a successful egress possible, they hazard not making it to the target at all.
This tension between the conflicting goods of mission effectiveness and force protection forms the film’s moral drama. Maverick’s seemingly devil-may-care attitude occludes the grief and misplaced guilt he still carries over the loss of his friend and backseater, Goose, killed in the crash of a plane Maverick piloted in the original Top Gun. Back then, after Goose’s death, a more-senior officer commiserates with Maverick over losing those for whom they’re responsible. “[When the] the first one dies, you die too. But there will be others.” He counsels Maverick, “You gotta let him go.”
As the sequel progresses, however, it’s clear that Maverick cannot let go. This helps set up a conflict with his immediate superior, Admiral Simpson. Simpson wants Maverick’s team to fly at a reduced speed which will help ensure they can strike the target. But this also all but guarantees the strike team will be intercepted by enemy fighters. The admiral’s emphasis on mission effectiveness over the safety of the team contrasts with Maverick’s insistence on bringing everybody home.
At play here, perhaps, is a subtle difference between strategic and tactical responsibilities. It is nothing new. In the middle of the Second World War’s Battle of El Alamein—where the Commonwealth scored a critical victory over the Germans—British Major General Freyberg communicated General Montgomery’s orders to Brigadier General Currie, commander of the 9th Armored Brigade. The mission task Freyberg outlined was so harrowing that after considering it Currie suggested—with his mind on the welfare of his troops—that by the end of the day his brigade might well have suffered 50 percent casualties. To this, Freyberg—with the criticality of the mission in view—replied “Perhaps more than that. [Montgomery] says he is prepared to accept 100 percent.”
This callousness is grim, perhaps even ghastly. But it mustn’t be misunderstood—neither regarding the North African campaign nor Maverick. It’s not that Montgomery had no concern for those under his command, nor that Currie devalued the mission. Nor does this represent, despite possible appearances to the contrary, a genuine conflict between duty and love. The Christian tradition of just war moral reasoning understands that risking life and limb for the sake of certain causes, such as protecting the innocent from sufficiently grave harm, meets the demands of both duty and love. Because of this, a successful commander—and a moral one—has to be willing to order his subordinates, who may be close personal friends, to fight to the death. When the mission is critical enough, he must insist upon it.
Happily, in Maverick, the dilemma is largely resolved when Pete Mitchell successfully completes a training run that balances mission effectiveness and force protection. Simpson concedes, “You have demonstrated that this mission can be flown, [and] perhaps the only way it can be survived.” It’s a satisfying and sufficient setup for the culminating act of a blockbuster. But I do wish for the insertion of one additional scene.
Maverick is already a fine celebration of the tremendous physical courage of our nation’s warriors. But it could also have gently testified to their moral courage if Maverick made clear that if, in the end, he could find no way to balance mission effectiveness and force protection that he would willingly send his pilots on a suicide mission. The film implies this willingness, but more clearly articulating it would have provided an appropriately gripping coda. In a remarkably self-centered age, it would remind us that there are times when the mission is worth more than the man.
I believe a part of Maverick’s staggering box office success is that American—and international—audiences are still hungry for cinematic portrayals of the old platitudes: patriotism, heroism, courage, and self-sacrifice. We still admire those who stand on freedom’s wall and fight for causes that they know are more valuable than their own lives. These platitudes help guide us when we desire conflicting goods and must make difficult choices between them. I believe it is true not only of those military missions that directly secure a traditional understanding of our national interests, but the national moral interests I gestured toward last week.
Maverick reminds us that, if the cause is just, being willing to spend your life for your neighbors’ welfare—or ordering those in your command to spend theirs—is never the same thing as wasting it.