...I have placed thee, so thou couldst look around so much easier, and see all that’s in it. I created thee as a being neither celestial nor earthly…so that thou should be thy own free moulder and overcomer.
—Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man
The aesthete Walter Pater once wrote, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” in which subject and form are interwoven: “Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of its responsibilities to its subject or material.”
Maybe you’ve felt it, too—the musicality of Top Gun: Maverick. Despite frequent claims that the film is “military propaganda,” the film's ostensible subject—exceptional fighter pilots—is secondary to Maverick as melody, a joyful song sung to the daemon of thrill, to the great passions and splendors of empirical experience. The film’s dexterity and corporeal vulnerability recalls the term coined to describe Michelangelo: Terribilità, meaning the impression of immense will and a sensation of awe over mastery. Pater wrote of Michelangelo’s terribilità:
...sweetness and strength, pleasure with surprise, an energy of occupation which seems at every moment about to break through all the conditions of comely form, recovering, touch by touch, a loveliness found usually only in the simplest things—ex fort dulcedo.
In Maverick, directed by Joseph Kosinski, we feel strength but also sweetness. Beauty, form, and the thrill of combat is equipoised with tenderness between old comrades, new loves, and adopted sons. Burnished with regret and sun-soaked reflection, the film’s sensuous melancholy evokes musical tragedy, and simultaneously offers Tom Cruise’s own oration on the dignity of man. Times are changing, and it’s proper to mourn that which is disappearing; Cruise’s profilmic, humanist philosophy is dying and stands in contrast to today’s Hollywood in the same way that his on-screen avatar, Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, contrasts to the military higher-ups, chiefly the desk-bound Admiral Beau Simpson (Jon Hamm), who represents Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum that a cynic knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
The “TOPGUN” school acts as an extended metaphor for the Hollywood industry and its new white collar-ism based on uncritical faith in technology, careerism (“You should be at least a two-star admiral by now, if not a senator,” Maverick is told), and profiteering at the expense of what Heidegger called “being-in-the-world,” which is to say existing in the corporeal world with a sense of meaning, value, and self-actualization. Change, in the world or in cinema, is often arbitrary, shaped by unseemly financial or political interests, and things of value are lost all the time. But, as Maverick tells “The Drone Ranger” (Ed Harris): they’re not lost yet.
What’s not yet lost is Tom Cruise. His Atlas-like personality and ego-propulsed humanism has brought joy to so many. What type of joy? Nostalgia? Certainly. But also technical prowess, and the joy of irrational, expensive devotion to pleasure-seeking. The F-18 fighter jets cost $11,000 per hour to rent, readily spent for the sake of posterity and awesome verisimilitude, and Cruise is well known for his fanatical dedication to performing swashbuckling stunts. He is the inheritor of an eccentric, profilmic tradition, when money was spent to derail a train, build a mini-city, or resurrect a ship of the line. Now, in an industry subsumed by the Disney-Marvel imaginarium, that’s his unique selling proposition (he's a businessman, too).
And thank God for Maverick’s business. Though it's yet another sequel and as much the product of corporate America as the latest Marvel fantasy, Maverick is a philosophical treatise against what we have come to expect from Hollywood. Too long have the CGI lobby promoted the spurious virtue of boundless virtualization. Cruise understands that creativity, achievement, and wonder can only exist in a world of felt boundaries, what Wittgenstein called “the Case,” the facts of the world. Yes, it’s a world of limitation, but F-18s exist in that world—and look at what they can do. We filmed it for you.
In perfect union with his character, Cruise is chiefly interested in pushing boundaries, going to and beyond Mach 10. Not just for his own personal sense of glory, but for the advancement of his medium. For Cruise, it’s blockbuster cinema; for Maverick, elite aviation. Struggling against the g-force, Cruise wills his art into existence as a fight against constraints. Whether cinema technology or aviation technology, the intention is the same: transcendence through exhilaration, elevation of the spirit, and communion through shared experience. “Talk to me, Goose,” Maverick whispers as he enters celestial realms, calling out to the dead, forging a seance between finite and infinite, limit and limitlessness. Maverick contains a Bazinian conviction uncommon in the blockbuster, that the earthly real and the spiritually transcendent can not only be integrated but are also essential to each other. Things, when understood this way, do last beyond our lifetime—Maverick sees ghosts and believes that ghosts are worth knowing.
Cruise is no intellectual. In fact, he talks like a politician, which isn’t surprising considering his various PR disasters. But, unlike a politician, he’ll always talk of love—of movies, of the people he works with, and for. We feel that love in his art, that sweetness from strength, wreaking havoc on our default cultural nihilism. We know Cruise loves planes, cars, boats, and buildings, but only as far as he loves people. To him, these are brilliant manifestations of human ingenuity—the spirit made tangible. A Renaissance artist, Cruise wants to build upwards based on past achievement, glorify seeing as feeling, and celebrate the conditions that make soaring possible.
This pleasure is apparent in all of the Cruise-starring Mission: Impossible features. Taken together, they coalesce into a bricolage celebration of spectacular human engineering and the spirits of the age that spawned them. Running across St Paul's Cathedral, speeding around the Arc de Triomphe, or abseiling a modern feat like the Burj Khalifa, Cruise wants you to look and to feel the vestiges and continuations of Geist. But also look at him, a seeker looking to conjoin with that trans-historic spirit through trial and turmoil, a vision of modern-day transcendence achieved through alignment with the past.
Cruise is teaching us to see differently, making us care about his idiosyncratic subjectivity, which is the prerogative of any great artist. What are we to see? Maverick tells us multiple times: “It’s not the plane. It’s the pilot.” The message is clear, to some jejune. But in our culture, at this time, this way of seeing has never been more necessary, and amounts to Cruise’s latter-day artistic statement: that the human in the machine matters. Machines are, after all, built by people, and the wonder of human life must be reasserted against the technological-bureaucratic apparatus. As Tim Kasser has written, “We live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is most important in life.” A taxpayer-funded machine, while impressive, is nothing against the sanctity of life, and, paradoxically, everyone must come home from a suicide mission. Revealingly, Maverick’s love interest Penny (Jennifer Connelly) must sail a boat to get the engine repaired, imparting to him—as he seeks to do for his students—new knowledge of old methods. In the act of commanding the ocean through will and competence, he rediscovers classical feeling, with the music swelling in romantic effusiveness. The message is clear: you can (re)discover yourself when applying yourself to, and existing in, the world. “Now, you’re in the Navy,” Penny says in congratulations. Cruise is showing us why a Renaissance is required, why we must return to the past to rejuvenate the future, and with the knowledge gained from that process, how an antiquated F-14 can take down an advanced Su-57.
Which is why Cruise has made the anti-Marvel blockbuster that credits you with wonder, worth, and soulfulness, that says you deserve better than a soft bigotry of low expectations, manifested in market-driven strategy, committee-devised storytelling, and what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.” Art, like piloting, is achieved by instinct—choices within circumstances dictated by nature (“Don't think. Just do,” as Maverick says). You deserve the sky and the ocean, so gone is narrative filmmaking as algorithmic "content" delivery and the flat landscapes of the overworked digital FX artist, and back is archetypal potency, organic depth, movement, color, sensuousness, and belief.
Cruise has faith in cinema. But, as it stands, the industry is busy eating itself alive, standards associated with dirty elitism or suspect conservatism. The criminalization of aesthetic competence, and the attacks on the judgments that constitute it, has proven a clever way to roll in cost-saving degradation and consolidate corporate control. The Russo Brothers continue to fashion their own protection of material interests as populist insurgency, passing themselves off as underdogs in cultural fisticuffs with respected auteurs, dismantling the idea of community viewing at the cinema when it's convenient to their promotional campaign and new employers—Netflix.
Just as Cruise did when asked if he was ever tempted to buckle and send Maverick straight to streaming, one can only laugh at these performative statements. There is nothing empowering in thinking that meeting points should be broken up, or that people deserve less than the best. Cruise is not “agnostic about delivery” as Joe Russo is, for delivery is essential to receiving. To quote the radical architect Berthold Lubetkin, “Nothing is too good for ordinary people.” Cruise will maintain the legitimacy of art against cost-saving mediocrity, as epitomized by the digital wave that seeks to render cinema a bland medium of interchangeable, untethered, dispensable homologues. Cinema will not die in the same hail of bullets as its antiheroes; instead it is evaporating before our eyes into medium convalescence. Its quiet disappearance might summon the specter of that other Modernist invention, spurned by its creator: Frankenstein’s creature, who, at the end of Shelley’s novel, is “borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”
As cinema entertainment goes, Top Gun: Maverick is a sonic boom of a wake-up call, showing what the kinetic medium can do when harnessed with spiritual conviction; how money can be spent to glorify and dignify, rather than function as the handmaiden of spiritual austerity. Much of our critical cenacle is too invested in what is becoming a chic hobby to see the increasing irrelevance that cinema holds to so many today, seemingly Don Quixote-like in delusional and utilitarian “movie the world needs now” proclamations. Tom Cruise sees the ontological threat, and he’s offered his defense in form and spirit. He asked us to be nothing less than human, to step out and experience the wind and the light, the strength and the sweetness. Blockbuster cinema as pure perception, art as a union between old and new, the terribilità of an artist’s spirit made flesh.