I’d Rather Be A Maverick (What I Learned From Top Gun: Maverick)

Image by Author - Screenshot of my Cinema Ticket!

There was a moment, more than half-way through the film, when I glanced sideways at my husband and wondered (1) whether he was ever going to get to the bottom of the infinite tub of popcorn he’d been endlessly chomping and (2) why despite only being a boy in short trousers, not yet out of primary school when the original Top Gun was released, did he look so incredibly old? He was born fifteen years after Tom Cruise, he wasn’t almost a pensioner and yet, I knew which one of them I’d rather see play beach volleyball¹. I was mesmerised by Tom’s eternal youthfulness, his hair, his skin, his forehead, his teeth, I considered how often he might need to get his roots done, I knew he had had more than a little cosmetic help, I saluted his refusal to age appropriately. There were points when the lighting and camera angles synchronised so effectively, I wondered whether I was looking at footage of him from thirty-six years ago. I remembered the posters in my teenage bedroom, his bare chest sandwiched between the rest of the Brat Pack, A-Ha, Wet Wet Wet, Pat Cash, the blurry photograph of the guy from Youth Club and thought how times have changed, my daughters have inspirational quotes in frames, there’s no man worth blu-tacking to the wall.

As we drove to the cinema, I had already laid out all my hopes. I was a tad nervous. “I hope the theme song is in it”, “I hope Meg Ryan is in it”, “I hope no-one dies”, “I hope it isn’t cheesy”. We listened to Danger Zone just in case. My husband promised me a McChicken sandwich if it didn’t work out.

As the adverts finished, the lights dimmed and the opening titles rolled, I held my breath and dared to believe. There it was, that defining music, the anthem of all anthems² and I was transported back into another world, a world where I thought anything was possible, when there was so much future yet to be discovered. I couldn’t put my finger on it - it was slower, more melodic, less crashing, definitely less obvious 1980s electric guitar, softened, Harold Faltermeyer was still there but they’d brought in Lady Gaga. It was different, yet the same. It was a bit like me, a girl with some adult added in. It was nostalgia dipped in wisdom and maturity. I slipped into the past, almost four decades disappeared in a flash, I was on the verge of tears already. It helped that there were so many nods to 1986, the aviators, the shirts, the new version of Goose, the new version of Iceman, the motorbike, the Navy terminology, the same seating arrangement at flight school, Kelly McGillis’ house, Great Balls of Fire. I settled down. It was all going to be ok. I was so enraptured for over two hours that I didn’t even finish my hot nuts.

After two years of just getting by, of loss, of disillusionment, of collective sighing, of societal disintegration and absent morals, Top Gun: Maverick was exactly what I needed. It was a hug on a screen, a vision of what could be, permission to move forward, permission to accept myself. I began to believe in miracles. It was full of messages about love, regret, shame, redemption, loyalty, unity, courage. It was one big, long lesson in transformational servant leadership. If everyone knows their leader has their back, anything is possible. Basically, our organisations need more wingmen³. Maybe it was because of where I currently am in life, coming to the end of an era, stepping out into the unknown but it jolted something deep within me. It also confirmed every single one of my choices. I decided it’s probably best to be a maverick.

“It’s not what I am, it’s who I am. How can I teach that?” asks Maverick when deployed to train an elite group of graduate recruits for a special mission. You can try to learn from those you admire, listen to how they did it, aspire to be like them, even wish you had their special guts but you can’t truly be who you were fully designed to be unless you are ready to look your own fear straight in the face. There are many who will settle for less but there will only be some who are willing to take the risks for more. Maverick has to build a team of fearless pilots, not by teaching them what he knows, telling them what he has achieved or moulding them into replicas of him but by inspiring them to believe in themselves.

“You can’t get a promotion, you won’t retire, and despite your best efforts, you refuse to die. You should be at least a two-star admiral by now, maybe even a senator. Yet here you are, Captain”. Despite the longevity of his service, Maverick has not progressed through the ranks, nor reached acceptable career heights. He has refused to conform, to suck up to the right people, he deliberately disobeys the rules, he isn’t afraid to challenge. All he wants to do is keep flying, and preferably faster. He won’t be grounded. So many give up their original passion, spark, voice and spirit to become chained to a title or a status they thought they were supposed to have, beholden to a system that strangles them. They toe the party line until retirement. Usually, the realisation that something has been lost rather than gained comes too late. It takes courage to go against those cultural expectations, to say no thank you, it’s not for me, that’s not how I choose to measure my success.

“It’s time to let go,” Iceman tells Maverick as he struggles to come to terms with his mistakes, weighed down with overwhelming guilt over Goose’s death and the burden of protecting his son. He has to free himself. No matter who we are, where we are, there simply comes a time when we have to lay the past down, let it go. We have to be willing to free ourselves.

“Are you crying, Mummy?” my eighteen-year-old daughter asked me as we watched the end credits. “No,” I said, “But can I just sit here a while longer?”. I needed to breathe it in. I needed to stay just long enough to hear that anthem one more time, to merge the old with the new. Then, I was ready to get up and go.

[1] Apparently there is no net this time round so it’s actually beach football they are playing.

[2] If you do nothing else, I urge you to listen to the Top Gun Anthem and breathe it in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zq7ujKwuRY (external link)

[3] And women obviously…



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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter