Warning: this article reveals elements of the plot of the film Top Gun: Maverick.
Top Gun: Maverick lives up to everything critics have said about it: it’s an entertaining, thrilling and, at times, downright moving film that’s meant to be a true ode to courage. However, it’s also a deeply silly movie that, for all its pretensions to realism (the actors fly in real airplanes!), unfolds the most highly improbable storyline of the entire season.
The thesis of the film (if there is one) is that despite the current prevalence of homing bombs and drones, in a crisis, nothing can replace an ultra-talented fighter pilot who directs 30 tons of metal at hypersonic speed towards a fearsome “danger zone”, which sends its bombs right on the target, then comes back with an acceleration powerful enough to tear the skin from the face of any human being.
And yet, if you look at the film seriously (which I admit is not the best way to do it), its real message, although probably unintended, is the exact opposite.
The film says that the days of virtuoso pilots like Commander Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise, who is reprising the role that made him a star thirty-six years ago) are truly over. Ironically, the film’s real moral is given to us by its most unsympathetic heroes (the stuck-up admirals played by Ed Harris and Jon Hamm), when they tell Maverick: “The future is at our doorstep and you are not invited.” Maverick only manages to contradict their technophilia because the film’s script is preposterous.
Here is the plot, in a few words (sorry if you already know it): a “rogue state” (never named and which does not correspond to any real country, even if it reminds of Iran) built a factory of enrichment in a deep valley surrounded by mountains. The United States must destroy it before the uranium arrives. Maverick, long relegated to a job testing experimental aircraft, is called in to devise the plan of attack and train the new team of Top Gun recruits who will lead it.
The plan in question is incredibly complex: with their F/A-18 fighters, they must take off from an aircraft carrier to reach enemy airspace, arrive at very high speed and very low altitude so as not to be spotted by anti-aircraft radars, climb the slope of the mountain, dive down into the valley to hit their target, then climb vertically out of the valley trying as much as possible to evade enemy surface-to-air missiles, who will now know where the American pilots are and what they are doing.
Everyone thinks it’s impossible until Maverick shows them that he can do it, which will inspire and give confidence to all his teammates.
This is all totally insane. Even if it is in the interest of preventing this enemy country from building an atomic bomb, there is no reason to destroy a uranium enrichment plant before it is in operation. It would take years to enrich enough uranium to build a bomb, and there are many other ways to deal with the threat before that.
On the technical side, the inconsistencies are only multiplying. The F/A-18s don’t have enough range to perform this maneuver, especially at a speed that consumes so much fuel (the Navy didn’t want to use the more modern F-35s because, it was said, this would have involved revealing highly confidential tactics of these aircraft).
But above all, it would have been much simpler and easier to send one or two B-2 bombers to very high altitude (out of reach of enemy surface-to-air missiles) in order to fire GPS-guided bombs. Or, if there was a risk that the surface-to-air missiles could hit the B-2s, their radars could have been foiled by a cyberattack.
A similar situation took place in 2007, when, on a moonless night in September, four Israeli F-15 fighter jets went to destroy a nascent nuclear plant in the Syrian desert by bombarding it with laser-guided bombs and missiles. The operation had been a success. The Syrians had not seen the planes arrive because Unit 8200, the Israeli intelligence service in charge of electronic warfare, had hacked into their air defense radars with a computer program called “Suter”, which had been developed by a US Air Force clandestine unit, “Big Safari”. Suter had disrupted the link between the radars and the operators’ screens, so the screens were showing nothing.
The screenwriters of Top Gun: Maverick could have developed a scenario in the same spirit. It would have been effective and full of suspense – a kind of meeting between Top Gun and Impossible mission. But Top Gun is a Navy franchise. Looking at the first part or its recent sequel, you would never believe that there are other departments in the American armed forces (the US Air Force, the US Army, the Marines…).
This could be understandable in 1986, when the first Top Gun is out. It was in fact this year that, in the real world, the American Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the armed forces so that their various services worked together during operations. Prior to this, the Navy (like the US Air Force or US Army) operated as a stand-alone service.
Today, if a president ordered an attack on a uranium enrichment plant in a foreign country, the Pentagon would plan a joint operation and all departments would want to take part. A single aircraft carrier would never be asked to carry out the entire mission and any sensible plan of attack would first involve the US Air Force, with its high-flying bombers, and US Cyber Command. You could ask a Navy ship to fire a few cruise missiles to clear the way, but that would probably be about all.
To tell the truth, one of the strangest points of the film is that we see the Navy sending cruise missiles in order to open the way by destroying an enemy air base to prevent its planes from chasing our heroes in their F/A-18s (rather old and vulnerable). Some viewers may wonder (as I did myself): if cruise missiles can destroy the air base, why can’t the uranium enrichment plant?
Then comes THE twist. Maverick and his teammate’s devices are shot down. They eject, land in enemy territory and must find a way to escape. Approaching the enemy base, they spot an old F-14 in a protected hangar. The F-14 is the plane in which Maverick flew in the first film. With it, he then managed to shoot down three MiGs, Russian-built fighters. With his young partner (who had never seen anything so old), they board the F-14 and, in short, take off, shoot down a few enemy planes (a lot more recent and efficient) and eventually return to the aircraft carrier.
It’s very nice to watch. But. If these villains had ever had F-14s, it’s unlikely they would still have them, given that they have the most modern Russian fighters. And it is even more unlikely that these old planes are in a condition to fly, that is to say maintained and supplied with fuel (which is why it is thought that it is Iran which is “ the rogue state” in the film. Until 1979, when the shah was still in Tehran, the United States had sold him F-14s. But that was more than forty years ago. Iranian forces allegedly they had long since run out of all their spares and, with the international sanctions, they would never have been able to buy any elsewhere). Let’s say when Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith pilot the alien ship in independence dayit is almost less unlikely.
Top Gun: Maverick is a lot better than the first Top Gun (I saw it again, for the first time since 1986, just before going to see the sequel… and I was surprised at how bad this movie could be). Do not sulk your pleasure: go see the rest! It’s cool, it’s even fun and it’s extremely well done. Just remember to leave your brain at home before going out.