American culture underwent such volcanic changes starting in the mid-Sixties that when American Graffiti arrived in 1973, the movie seemed like a time capsule from an ancient epoch — even though it was set only eleven years earlier.
A good-natured comedy about clean-cut teenagers driving harmlessly around small-town California while listening to the radio, American Graffiti kicked off a cultural reaction: Suddenly, stories that cast their gaze back in time, before the recent abominations of Vietnam, assassinations, and hippie folk singers, became massive hits. The pre–Kennedy assassination era was now perceived as simpler, tidier, and carefree. No time period is free of hysteria and traumatic events, but forgetting the bad stuff and remembering the cuteness and whimsy can be powerfully attractive. So Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Grease blew up. Rocky, a big-hearted romance built around a boxing saga that could have been written in 1953, led the box office for 1976 and won the Best Picture Oscar over a scathing sociopolitical satire, Network, and two films about moral and political degeneracy: Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men. Capping it all off, in the 1980 presidential election, a hippie-beloved president who openly indulged American angst was supplanted by an unabashed square — a former G.E. spokesman who radiated good cheer and robust self-confidence.
And what is happening today? America has endured a period of upheaval comparable to the late Sixties. The last couple of years in particular were a nightmare tableau of endless wailing and suffering: Guernica with Lester Holt. Somehow, the country’s biggest race crisis in half a century transpired in the midst of our biggest health crisis in a century.
In 2022, America is exhausted, frustrated, and burned out. What people are longing for is a reset, a reversion to norms. The period before #MeToo, before the murder of George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatter, and before Covid-19, now looks as quaint as the Fifties did in the Carter era. True, the 2008 financial crisis, the Iraq War, and the age of spectacular terrorism make it hard to identify any period this century when things were placid, but that just means any creator who can recapture the optimism of the last 15 years of the 20th century is going to get extremely rich.
Top Gun: Maverick is not a great movie. Neither was American Graffiti! However, its success makes it an important movie. It reveals something about ourselves.
The numbers are astonishing. After a huge opening on Memorial Day weekend of $161 million, TG: M held up with an unheard-of drop of only 30 percent the following weekend, and has continued to pack theaters all month, even though it’s aimed pretty squarely at people over 40. Movies for the middle-aged have a very low box-office ceiling because midlife types are busy raising kids and working their tailbones off. People in this age group often tell me they’re too busy and too tired to drag themselves out to the multiplex, given that their home-viewing setup is perfectly adequate (and offers immediate access to the Pinot Grigio in the fridge). Yet Top Gun: Maverick is the highest-grossing movie of Tom Cruise’s career. It appears likely to be the highest-grossing movie of the year.
One big hook is that its action scenes are not merely fierce and engaging, they unabashedly celebrate the military. People who don’t get out to the movies much want to see TG:M because there’s nothing else like it. Along with small business, the military is one of only two beloved institutions left, and yet Hollywood mostly leaves unslaked this thirst for red-blooded, let’s-smoke-those-bogeys jingoism. Another plus is that the movie’s characters are simple and its storytelling clean, linear, and uncluttered. Middle-aged viewers appreciate the break from the trickiness of the refracted-multiverse movies and their demands that you do your homework before you go to the movies by watching 60 hours of television.
Many conservatives are calling TG:M a rebuke to wokeness, but that’s not quite right. It isn’t an anti-woke movie; it’s merely a woke-free movie. It ignores the kinds of disputes that engage crazy people on Twitter and that increasingly obsess the TV and film industries. (Anyway, it does feature a lady pilot, in the interest of being — try not to blow a gasket here — “inclusive.”) By turning back the clock to that 1986 feel, it dodges all the frazzled political discourse of recent years. No black guys get racially profiled. No women get sexually assaulted. Nobody thinks masculinity is toxic and no one calculates how much F-18 fuel consumption contributes to climate change.
“Finally!” cries the audience. Top Gun: Maverick may not be a classic, but it’s certainly a relief. Audiences were dying for a return to the uncomplicated slam-bang of Eighties and Nineties blockbusters, when identity politics were a strange campus hobby that hadn’t yet infected the entire culture.
Show business these days is at pains to avoid listening to the audience, instead pursuing critical acclaim by producing, say, a Black Lives Matter remake of The Wonder Years or an all-female, multicultural 1776. Some of these creations are more interesting than others, but they’re all chasing the same niche. Meanwhile, you can hardly turn on a baseball game without being blindsided by an identity-politics message. There’s a fortune to be made for entertainment producers who offer the audience a chance to get away from all this — the politics, the guilt, the rancor, and the obsessive focus on bad news. When the media feel the need to bleed, Americans feel the need for speed.