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My Father Left Me “Top Gun”

June 3, 2022


A Top Gun sequel seemed like a bad idea to me. Decades after the original, there would be no way either to recapture the old magic or speak into today’s world with a relevant message. And surely, they would ditch the real airplanes for animation.

I was wrong about everything. The long anticipated and long delayed Top Gun: Maverick delivers more than even the most optimistic viewer could hope for. And I’ll tell you all about that in a moment.

But first, I want to tell you about my dad.

When I was a kid in the 1980s, my father was a Naval officer, although not an aviator, and he was usually away at sea. I still have a letter he wrote to me for Christmas in 1985, mailed from the U.S.S. Independence, where he was serving on deployment somewhere far away. My sisters and I did not see our dad very often, but we all loved movies. When we were with him, we would have a family movie night that usually featured an old western or a James Bond film or whatever happened to be on The ABC Sunday Night Movie. The one I remember best by far is Tony Scott’s Top Gun, which made an international superstar out of Tom Cruise and thoroughly entered the cultural bloodstream with various iconic elements: the Righteous Brothers’ song performed by guys in summer white service uniforms, “Danger Zone”; Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”; beach volleyball; and the “need for speed”; just to name a few of the film’s touchstones.

Casual fans of the original Top Gun film may forget that there is a sad father-son story beneath the more memorable storylines . . .

I probably shouldn’t have been watching Top Gun as an eight- or nine-year-old; but I loved it then, and I still love it now for all the reasons the general public has loved it for the past thirty-six years. But I also love it because it is one of the strongest links I have to a father who was physically apart from me for most of my childhood and who has always been emotionally apart from everyone, even long after his Naval career ended. Watching Top Gun, listening to its soundtrack, or even just bringing up the topic of the film while dad sat in his chair chain smoking gave me an opportunity to see into his life a little bit. 

When I saw dad intermittently in my early twenties after my parents’ divorce, he and I would get hideously drunk together and drive around his Florida beach town in his Camaro Z-28 convertible, blasting the soundtrack on repeat. It was beyond cheesy—and talk about “danger”!—but it was our way to bond again, this time as men. Dad would occasionally even talk about how demoralizing it was trying to find good work after his military retirement and how he felt lonely in his house as he once felt while keeping watch aboard ship. It was largely self-pity, but it involved me, and I was happy to matter to him a little bit.

In the really sloppy moments, dad might allude to various antics at the Oceana Officers’ Club or tell me something gruesome he saw in Bosnia. He sometimes wore a T-shirt from the then-new clothing store Old Navy—not really his style, but it was a message he believed in. Like Maverick and Iceman of Top Gun, dad was “old” Navy, not what he perceived as new-fangled, touchy-feely stuff of the post–Cold War military. Dad puzzled me, even hurt me by his general aloofness toward me; but on those weird Top Gun nights, I couldn’t have been happier to be along for the ride—to be the wingman to a slowly self-destructing maverick, of a sort.

Casual fans of the original Top Gun film may forget that there is a sad father-son story beneath the more memorable storylines of a rivalry between Maverick and Iceman, the tragic death of Maverick’s co-pilot “Goose,” and the instructor-student love story between Maverick and Charlie, played by Kelly McGillis. In Top Gun, the young officer Pete “Maverick” Mitchell lives with the pain of having lost his father, also a Naval aviator, as the result of a top-secret mission gone awry in Vietnam. Flying fast is Maverick’s escape, and apart from Goose’s family, Maverick is unattached to the world. Fatherless and childless himself, we can only imagine the grief Maverick bears when, while piloting his F-14, he loses control of his airplane, and his best fly-buddy dies. In the aftermath, Goose’s son is left fatherless, like Mav once was.

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Decades later, we meet our emotionally wounded hero in Top Gun: Maverick, where we learn there has been a lot of history between him and Goose’s son, “Rooster,” now a first-rate Navy pilot himself. Maverick is conflicted about his quasi-fatherly role, but he is still seeking the next thrill, serving as a test pilot before being called back to the Navy’s famous Fighter Weapons School, nicknamed TOPGUN, where we last left him back in 1986. We find out that Maverick has distinguished himself many times in combat, and his old buddy Iceman, a high-ranking admiral played by the ailing Val Kilmer, believes he is the only pilot capable of teaching a small group of pilots how to fly a seemingly impossible mission. Maverick perfectly depicts the once-common action movie theme of fierce competitors uniting across differences to achieve a worthy goal. There are no shoehorned political agendas in this film; instead, we are reminded in a scene of a football game on the beach—an obvious homage to the original film’s volleyball montage—that we are stronger when we can find our identity within the needs of a group. For Christians, it’s the simple but too often ignored “body” imagery from St. Paul—no egos and no spare parts. The world needs more of it.

From start to finish, Top Gun: Maverick is an absolute blast to watch. Relying on practical effects in actual fighter jets instead of Marvel-style green screens and CGI, you feel like you’re right in the thick of things. Cruise may be the last real movie star, and he famously insists on doing as many stunts as he can in all his movies. For my money, he always delivers the goods; and in Maverick, Cruise’s dedication to an authentic thrill-ride for his audience pays off bigger than ever. In some ways, Cruise speaks for himself when, as Maverick, he replies to an admiral, who tells him, “Your kind is headed for extinction.” He smiles, shrugs, and quips back, “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

Jennifer Connelly has great chemistry with Cruise, and it is well past time to see her in major roles on the big screen again. Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is the perfect choice to play Maverick’s hard-nosed superior, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson. (And for my part, seeing Hamm in his khakis reminded me an awful lot of dad in his prime.) The young cast portraying the new generation of flyers, led by Miles Teller as Rooster, are all excellent. 

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My dad is still alive, but extremely unwell. He is mostly homebound and will certainly not get to the movie theater to see Maverick. Sitting there in the theater with my own children, I came to the strange realization that Top Gun is part of my dad’s legacy to me and my little family, similar to how Michael Brendan Dougherty describes the country of Ireland as his legacy from his still-living but mostly absent father. When I think of my dad, I often worry I may fall into the same aloofness that has stood in the way of a close relationship between him and most everyone else, including me—the same wasted talent, the same addictions, the same hurt. I fear sometimes that the dad-shaped hole in my life may send me into a flat spin and bring me down. But in the theater, fighting back tears, I found myself suddenly giving thanks for the unwavering presence of my heavenly Father, and thanking him, that if only through a popular action movie franchise, I’ve caught a glimpse of his love through my own flawed human father.

When the final credits of Maverick rolled, it was a moment of catharsis for me. I overstate only slightly in saying Maverick gives me a good feeling about the world again after what has felt like a long emotional exile. And it made me feel close to Dad. On some level, the whole experience of Top Gun: Maverick was like cashing a huge, unexpected second payment of my inheritance. 

Check out Top Gun: Maverick for a great story set amid unrivaled cinematic spectacle.

And maybe say a prayer for an old Navy guy I know.