Maverick and the success of simplistic cinema

Anghus Houvrouas on the success of Top Gun: Maverick…

Top Gun: Maverick is the kind of massive, crowd-pleasing blockbuster that felt almost extinguished after a global pandemic threatened to end the theatrical experience. Adored by audiences and critics alike, the film became a phenomenon and the most successful film of 2022.

I always find it interesting when a film like Top Gun: Maverick catches the cultural zeitgeist and becomes such a massive triumph. What about the movie that made it such a hit? Was it the affinity with the original? The presence of the last real movie star, Tom Cruise? Was it the abandonment of traditional green screens and computer-generated effects in favor of hands-on filmmaking techniques? Of course, I don’t think any of this hurts. But I believe that at the heart of the film’s overall appeal comes down to one word: Simplicity.

As the French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (better known by her pseudonym George Sand) so aptly put it; “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to guarantee in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.

In terms of storytelling, Top Gun: Maverick is a simple movie. Almost every choice director Joseph Kosinski made was to keep the story simple and move along at a steady pace. Nothing is left for the audience to decipher. Everything is presented to the audience with total seriousness, with no attempts to deconstruct everything that made the original so successful and not a shred of cynicism to be found.

You don’t know how to feel at any given time? Don’t worry, they’ve got you covered. When Maverick sees Rooster (Miles Teller) playing the piano and it reminds him of his late friend and the boys’ father…the scene cuts to a nice, tidy flashback to the first movie. When Maverick receives a text from Ice, the audience knows who it is thanks to a scene where Maverick sees a framed picture that gives us all the information we need to understand that “Ice” is an old friend and now a high-ranking admiral (also with cutaways to the original).

Top Gun: Maverick is a sequel that doesn’t require you to have seen the original, cut from the same creative fabric as sequels like Rocky Balboa. There’s more meat on the bone for those who witnessed the first episode, but it’s by no means a requirement for you to enjoy the film.

I kept thinking how interesting it might have been not to have revealed who helped Maverick until later in the movie. That the identity of the person texting him could have been revealed later in the film when Maverick is summoned to meet his benefactor face to face. A revelation of sorts that would have favored fans of the original film with an “Ah ha” moment once they saw Val Kilmer on screen. But that’s not the kind of movie Kosinski and Cruise were trying to make. It wasn’t about reminiscing about the first film or engaging in fan service with how carefully their legacy characters were revealed. The story is told in the simplest way for maximum effect.

Not only is it the elementary movie, but it is also extremely efficient and economical with the flow of the story. Obstacles are presented are overcome in moments. After Maverick is taken out of his training position, he gets a pep talk from Penny (Jennifer Connelly) who tells him he has to do whatever it takes to get back.

What will Maverick do? What is his plan? How many scenes will it take to develop the courage and understand the logistics needed to overcome this seemingly insurmountable obstacle? Only one, because 10 seconds later, we see Maverick doing the test course himself to prove to his team and to Cyclone (Jon Hamm) that nothing is impossible. The win is instantaneous and the crowd applauds. All the complications of how Maverick was able to execute such a seemingly impossible plan are irrelevant. A complication that would only slow things down instead of moving forward at full speed.

The film’s mantra “don’t think, just do”. feels like an edict not only for the characters but also for the creators.

This level of simplicity is just as present in cinema. There’s a moment during the film’s third climactic act where Rooster puts his own life in danger to save Maverick who angrily shouts “What are you thinking?” Rooster responds “You told us not to think.” It’s a brilliant little comedic moment, but Kosinski doesn’t apply brute force to make it work.

I expected a quick cut of a close-up of Cruise to really sell his disbelief, but it didn’t happen. The filmmakers didn’t rely on editing to try to manufacture the moment. They didn’t try to force a comedic moment in an attempt to diffuse the tension of the scene. So much of what makes Top Gun: Maverick exceptional focuses on not overthinking these moments. Adopt the “don’t think, just do” mentality and keep it simple.

Very few plot points are allowed to simmer. Characters and motivations are intentionally one-dimensional. Backstories are practically irrelevant. Everything on Top Gun: Maverick is about the beauty of being in the moment and the film succeeds tremendously because it keeps things simple.

It’s a shame that calling something “simple” is often a criticism. There is a big difference between ‘simple’ and ‘stupid’. People love throwing around idioms like “turn off your brain” to help the stomach trip like the fast furious movies. Cruise and Kosinski have made a film that shows the exhilaration of simplistic cinema without ever feeling like it’s at the expense of your cerebellum.

Ironically, Top Gun: Maverick isn’t cinematic rocket science, but it isn’t insulting either. It eschews the hit tendencies of third-act sensory overload and doomsday scenarios. The stakes seem high even if the staging is a bit small compared to other blockbusters. One of the hardest things about making blockbuster movies is making the final product effortless, but that’s what Cruise and company delivered; a masterpiece of simplicity executed to perfection.

Anghus Houvouras

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