INWhen it comes to choosing the winner of Best Picture, there are many factors that can influence Oscar voters. Great performances, great cinematography, cultural significance – all meaningful, for sure. But if I had a ballot, I’d pick the movie Steven Spielberg said saved the industry: Top Gun: Maverick.
Breathless Spielberg alongside Tom Cruise at the Oscar nominees luncheon in February – “You saved Hollywood’s ass and you could have saved theatrical distribution” – was notable for who said it, but it wasn’t an original observation. After all, people are calling the cinema’s savior Top Gun Maverick since it opened in multiplexes last summer and quickly grossed $1.5 billion. Moreover, they are right. According to Forbes, Maverick’s success “made the difference between a half-decent summer season and a product famine disaster” in 2022, when theaters were short of releases. This was the period when Cineworld filed for bankruptcy protection, so it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to suggest that quite a few cinema chains, not to mention independent cinemas, would be staring into the abyss were it not for the timeless A-lister and its battered F-14 .
But Top Gun: Maverick has the status of “cinema savior” not only because of finances. If that were the case, then Avatar: the Way of Water, which grossed even more, would likely have an even stronger claim to the title. No, Maverick did more than just make an aircraft hangar dosh: it reminded viewers of the purpose of movie theaters – why, even in the age of near-simultaneous streaming releases at home and televisions the size of squash courts, nothing can compare to this burst of color and sound that hits the you in a darkened room with lots of other people.
Top Gun: Maverick revels in the cinematic rush from the panting-inducing first scene of Cruise’s speed-demanding aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell attempting to reach the previously inaccessible (and, in fact, almost certainly unattainable) speed 10 Mach. A big clue as to why the film was so loved by viewers is found on Cruise’s face, who is sweating and wincing from the overload. As far as possible, what we see on screen is real: the actors really flew fighter jets (albeit as passengers rather than pilots), and Cruise enlisted the cast in a brutal three-month training program to prepare them for the intensity of flying at such speeds. The results can be seen on screen in these thrilling time trials and dogfights: action scenes that really do Pop musica rarity in a sea of muddy CGI superhero.
Of course, Tom Cruise himself is essentially CGI at this point, not just in terms of that oddly unchanging face, but also in terms of his willingness to try things with his body that other actors can’t – or more likely want to.” T. Cruise does it’s really not about range more – as many have pointed out, there is only a slight difference between his Maverick and Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible movies. But in his place is the feeling that he is pushing the only role he is currently playing to the farthest extreme, appearing in the same show, but bigger, faster, better. Watching him fight furiously against time is a cinematic thrill in itself. “The future is coming – and you’re not in it,” Ed Harris’ crushing Rear Admiral warns Maverick early in the film. Good luck telling Cruise that.
The cruise is supported by a handpicked crew of rookies (Glen Powell, Monica Barbara, Lewis Pullman) and gray and less gray veterans (Harris, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Connelly). Miles Teller, an actor who for so long seemed unable to escape his real-world reputation as, as a well-known Esquire profile put it, “a bit of a dick,” brings that surly obnoxiousness to his role as Rooster, the irritating son of a recently deceased radio interceptor Maverick, Goose.
And then there’s Val Kilmer, who reprises his role as Maverick’s old nemesis, the Iceman, who, like the actor who plays him, has throat cancer and has trouble speaking. Kilmer’s single scene with Cruise is, unlike bold aeronauts elsewhere, fairly minimalist: just two men communicating via a desktop computer and a series of knowing glances. But the body language between them is so full of meaning, decades after their first meeting, that it’s impossible not to get carried away by the seriousness of the moment.
Top Gun: Maverick is a strong mix of nostalgia. But it is nostalgia – as one of Jon Hamm’s other characters once so memorably explained – in the original Greek sense of the word. It gives us a dopamine hit of familiarity, sure – but sometimes it also triggers a more complicated, painful feeling: a sense of chasing after something lost. Yes, it’s a sequel. Yes, it basically follows the same flight path as the original. Yes, you know exactly where it’s going to land. But it’s a skilfully crafted blockbuster that also connects to something deeper. This is why so many people return to the cinema again and again to experience the momentum of the wheels leaving the asphalt. And when it comes to the best photo, that should mean something.