The producers of ‘Top Gun’ could not have timed the release of the movie ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ better. It was launched in a week in which Joe Biden was visiting Japan and talking about protecting Taiwan from China. The Chinese in turn were mouthing off at the ‘bloody & barbaric’ Americans. For those of who grew up watching the original ‘Top Gun’ – which made Tom Cruise a superstar – in the late 1980s, it felt like we were teenagers once again. In this delightful piece for the FT, James Crabtree (bestselling author of ‘The Billionaire Raj’) uses the movie as analogy to capture the changing nature of American power:
He begins by taking us back to the era in which the original Top Gun was launched: “Top Gun also arrived at a moment of rising American global supremacy, giving it particular geopolitical poignancy. The film topped movie charts the year after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, and as the balance between the two superpowers shifted decisively in America’s favour. With the bruises of defeat in Vietnam all but healed, the mid-1980s marked the start of a long period of US dominance, all held together by the kind of enduring military might that Cruise’s cinematic alter ego confidently represented.”
36 years later ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, says James Crabtree, is a very different kind of movie relative to the original: “Now, 36 years later, as the US readies itself for a new era of military competition with China, it would be reasonable to expect Cruise’s sequel to brim with comparable, jingoistic self-confidence. Curiously, then, it turns out that Top Gun: Maverick is actually a rather anxious kind of blockbuster, filled with doubts about the durability of US power, and functioning in many ways as an elegy for relative American decline.”
Crabtree says that movie uses the ageing of the superstar that is Tom Cruise as a metaphor for the ageing of America: “…the reality you see in Top Gun: Maverick is notable less for its fantasy of US strength and more for its themes of anxiety. Part of this involves Cruise himself. In the original he was 24. Now he is 59, albeit remarkably well preserved for a man near pensionable age….
Cruise is an icon of American masculinity and his declining prowess unavoidably recalls a time when both he and his country were younger and more vital. It is clear that something has been lost.”
The film also has a role for the changing role of technology in our lives: “The film’s opening sequence features Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain, played with gravelly élan by Harris. Dubbed “the drone Ranger”, Cain wants to replace ace pilots with autonomous air-strike capabilities powered by artificial intelligence. “The future is coming,” he tartly puts it to Maverick. “And you’re not in it.”…
But the vision of a drone-powered future is hardly science fiction either, as the successes of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones above Ukraine can attest. Indeed, Harris’s character reflects the ambitions of many in the US defence establishment, who view rapid investment in military technologies as the US’s best route to maintaining its current military dominance….
Where the original Top Gun featured Cruise flying a now-aged F-14 Tomcat, its sequel mostly involves F/A-18 Super Hornets, a more recent model of jet introduced in the late 1990s. Yet from the start Cruise and his students are warned that their unnamed enemy is likely to have “fifth-generation” aircraft, meaning advanced planes developed in the past decade or so. While the film does not feature Chinese aircraft, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is one of few global militaries to build such planes — beyond, of course, the US itself. China’s most advanced such plane, the J-20 stealth fighter, known as the “‘Mighty Dragon”, often patrols skies over the South China Sea, including the Taiwan Strait, an important potential flashpoint for a future conflict between the superpowers.”

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