Capstones: Maverick's Message
Note: This article contains a handful of “spoilers” related to Top Gun: Maverick.
The summer blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick is not just fun and thrilling and moving; it’s not just breathtaking cinematography; it’s not just a great story; it’s not just great story-telling. For those with ears to hear, Maverick offers a powerful and needed message—and hence, much more than the original.
Many will write essays, blogs, and reviews about the film’s fantastic aerial action sequences; its poignant handling of life and death, forgiveness and friendship, growing up and growing old; its sage commentary on the importance of balancing instinct, emotion, and intellect. But I was especially struck by three other elements in the film.
The first is how Tom Cruise used Maverick to offer a beautiful homage to Chuck Yeager and the fearless breed of test pilots Yeager represents—and more specifically, to the film that celebrated them: The Right Stuff.
Even the trailers show Cruise’s Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell piloting an other-worldly plane—and feature Right Stuff star Ed Harris. So I feel safe writing a bit about this part of the film without giving away too many spoilers.
Yeager piloted his bright-orange X-1 beyond the sound barrier. He hit Mach 1.06 and reached 43,000 feet (more than eight miles high), making Yeager the first person to break the sound barrier in level flight. Yeager later eclipsed Mach 2 in an X-1A. Yeager and his supersonic flights are a thread that runs through The Right Stuff.
Even today, in the age of the B-2 and F-22 and F-35, the X-1 looks futuristic. The imagery of it breaking loose from the bomb bay of a B-29 and then screaming away makes the X-1 seem more like a missile—or better said, a bullet—than a plane. Whatever you call it—jet plane, rocket, missile, bullet, or all of the above—we can trace a line from that moment almost 75 years ago, when the X-1 streaked across the Mojave Desert sky, to the X-15 rocket-plane, to Mercury and Gemini, to Apollo and the moon, to the SR-71 and the hypersonic scramjets that will shape tomorrow.
That brings us back to the super-fast, super-sleek, super-powered jet Cruise’s Maverick flies. Like Yeager, Maverick pushes his hypersonic spaceplane to and indeed beyond the limits—reaching the mind-boggling speed of Mach 10. And like Yeager and the X-1, Maverick and his plane pay a price for trying to break free of the surly bonds of earth.
The movie plane’s real-world analog—some have labeled it the SR-72, others Darkstar, still others Aurora—has never been confirmed to exist. But it likely does. It pays to recall that Yeager’s history-making flights were kept secret for a time. Doubtless, an Air Force or Space Force briefer will one day tell us about one of Yeager’s heirs flying some unbelievable plane at unbelievable speeds—or perhaps we’ll learn about it only after it returns from defending us from our enemies.
Like Maverick, Yeager could fly anything. Like Maverick, he was fearless and ageless. Like Maverick, he defended and served his country across multiple decades. But unlike Maverick, Yeager was not an invention of Hollywood. None other than Jimmy Doolittle promoted Yeager to second lieutenant, and then to captain during World War II. Yeager shot down 13 Nazi warplanes, including two ME-262 jet-powered fighters—no small feat given that he was flying a propeller-driven plane. Here, too, there’s a striking parallel drawn between Maverick’s combat exploits and Yeager’s, but I’ll let the film tell that part of the story.
In addition to World War II, Yeager flew combat missions in Korea and Vietnam; deployed to the Philippines, Pakistan, and West Germany; trained Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo astronauts; served as the first commandant of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School; and rose to the rank of brigadier general.
Similarly, we learn that Maverick, in the years since he was a young Top Gun pilot, flew combat missions in the 1990s and 2000s in Europe and the Middle East; tutored Naval aviators at Top Gun; and, of course, served as a test pilot for high-tech aircraft. The one major difference in Cruise’s homage to Yeager is that Maverick never made it very far up the ranks. Even so, like Yeager, Maverick never stopped serving.
Yeager, The Right Stuff and Maverick remind us that as a nation we cannot rest on our laurels or be content with the status quo, that as individuals we must lift our gaze from our handheld devices, and that great achievements—reaching new frontiers, deterring tyrant regimes, defending civilization—require great effort, great collaboration, great risk, and often great sacrifice.
Those words, sacrifice and serving, bring us to the second element of the film that struck me. If the original Top Gun celebrated swaggering individualism, the sequel celebrates serving others and dying to self.
The first instance in the film comes when Maverick pushes the limits of his orders and the laws of physics to prove the capabilities of the hypersonic spaceplane he’s testing—and to save the program “and everyone else” from the budget axe.
Next, there’s a moving sequence when an aging Maverick, burdened by the sense that he’s sending pilots on a mission from which some of them will not return, tearfully pleads with his commander, “Send me.”
Later, Maverick rockets his F-18 to the aid of a fellow pilot caught in a cauldron of enemy surface-to-air missiles. That selfless act is followed by another act of aerial altruism and another, as each pilot willingly puts himself in harm’s way so that their fellow aviators—and indeed, their fellow man—might live.
“Send me.” This is the heart of the ethos that motivates all of those who defend and protect us. Whether or not they—or Cruise—know it, this comes straight from scripture. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
In the original Top Gun, Maverick wanted to be sent on the mission because he wanted to be the first and the best. In the sequel, Maverick wants to be sent on the mission—and embraces and lives out those words “send me”—because he wants to protect others from the fire.
The made-in-Hollywood hero Maverick is a bigger-than-life reflection of real-life heroes like Yeager, my grandfathers, my dad, and my friends Brian, Scott, Katie, Matt, and Joe, and every American who has said, “Send me.” There are 102,000 of them on the NATO line defending us from Vladimir Putin; some 88,000 of them deterring Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un; thousands more trying to keep jihadists at bay in the Middle East and Africa. In all, just 2.1 million (total force) shield this nation of 330 million—and serve as civilization’s first-responder and last line of defense. What Winston Churchill said in 1940 remains true today: so much owed by so many to so few.
That brings us to the third and final element from Maverick that hit me—and stayed with me.
In Maverick, those who survive the aerial battle return to their shipmates with an overflowing spirit of gratitude. It’s expressed in words and tears, salutes and bearhugs. The look is similar to the carrier-deck celebration in the original, but the feel is much different. Emotional expressions of thankfulness replace the cocky exchange of “You can be my wingman… No, you can be mine.”
In this, Maverick nudges us to do the same—for our defenders and for each other.
To be sure, the “Thank you for your service” response many of us muster when we encounter one of our defenders is better than how an earlier generation of Americans greeted those returning from Vietnam. But it seems empty—even if we intend it to express what’s on our hearts. In fact, among some veterans of the war on terror, the phrase is shrugged off as an afterthought or mockingly quoted as an inside joke. In defense of those who say it and mean it, we don’t know what more to say. Maybe that’s the point. Since we can never really thank or repay those who literally form a shield between us and tyranny, between us and chaos, between us and Xi and Putin and Kim and Khamenei, between us and mass-murderers masquerading as holy men, anything we say will sound and seem empty.
So maybe our thank-you should be seen and heard in how we live. Maybe we should live more gratefully, more thankfully, more respectfully, more humbly, more selflessly, more like the Maverick of 2022 than his younger self, more in awe of the American Experiment, more like our defenders. The most grateful people I know are veterans and active-duty military. Perhaps it’s because of what they have seen downrange—far away from civilization, far away from home, far away from the freedoms and blessings the rest of us take for granted. Perhaps it’s because they know what a miracle and place and idea America is. Or perhaps it’s because they were born that way—and that led them to say, “Send me.”
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.