Tom Cruise is almost 60 years old, and he has never scored better as an action hero. Top Gun: Maverick earned $124 million in US cinema receipts in three days. But geopolitically speaking, it’s even more interesting what’s going on behind his back.
Part One, Top Gun, was a 1986 resurrection of American militarism, discredited by Vietnam. Clint Eastwood also contributed that year as a sergeant in Heartbreak Ridge a platoon of wimps into iron-eaters, but if you were young and wanted something, it was naval pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell: sexy, rebellious and the world’s best. The Pentagon, which provided F-14s and aircraft carriers in exchange for script supervision, saw recruiting surge 500 percent the following year.
Or Top Gun: Maverick has such an effect is doubtful: 55 percent of the visitors are nostalgic people over 40. However, the film undoubtedly boosts the military image, now dented by Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten years in the making, the timing of Top Gun: Maverick not be better. Another round of cold – or even warm – war appears to be a fact with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Chinese saber clattering around Taiwan. These superpowers have been preparing their people for conflict for years. The Kremlin funded a wave of patriotic blockbusters that glorified heroism and sacrifice during World War II. China’s biggest movie hit Wolf Warrior II (kung fu hero wipes the floor with westerners in Africa) was surpassed last year by The Battle of Lake Changjin, in which the people’s army smashes Americans during the Korean War. This year will follow sniperabout sniper Zhang Taofang who kills 214 American GIs under the motto “shoot them all to hell”.
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ does not yet dare to shoot at Russians or Chinese
In that context, Top Gun: Maverick only the beginning of a western answer: people don’t yet dare to shoot at Russians or Chinese. Maverick’s mission is a uranium reprocessing plant in the Middle East, although the snowy landscape points to North Korea. But in the three years that the film was on the shelf, Tom Cruise’s back became a lot more martial.
When the trailer of Top Gun: Maverick came out in 2019 – the film was slated for 2020 – there was a lot of fuss about Maverick’s old ‘lucky coat’. On it was sewn a badge of the tour of the cruiser USS Galveston in 1986, with flags of China’s hereditary enemy Japan and ‘province’ Taiwan. They had disappeared in the trailer. A case of self-censorship: a lucrative Chinese release was probably out of the question anyway, but with a view to future films, the makers apparently did not want to snub China, notoriously for its long toes. In addition, the Chinese tech group Tencent was a major shareholder of co-producer Skydance Media. This is how Tom Cruise’s back symbolized according to the book Red Carpet a deeper trend. Hollywood had gone from being a source of American soft power to China’s lap dog.
So it means something that the offending flags are back on the jacket and the movie poster three years later. Hollywood seems to be saying China in the wake of President Biden: If you invade Taiwan, you’ll find Maverick facing you. Whether a pilot of nearly 60 will deter remains to be seen.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 1, 2022