Tom Cruise and 19 Dead Children

"Top Gun: Maverick" opens Friday. It's part of the disease.

Tom Cruise and 19 Dead Children

Nineteen children were killed yesterday in Uvalde, Texas. Ten Black people were killed at a Buffalo supermarket 11 days ago. “Top Gun: Maverick” opens wide on Friday. The third thing has nothing to do with the first two things, right? Right?

I could put a movie still here. Instead I’d rather memorialize some of the victims in yesterday’s shootings with photos that their families have released to the public. This is Xavier Lopez. He was 10.

As I imagine many of you are, I’m sitting here this morning seething with impotent rage and sorrow at a country so broken, so bought that it can’t bring itself to stop the slaughter. Australia has had one mass shooting in the 26 years since passing a National Firearms Agreement. Japan, Norway, and the UK all have stringent gun control laws and minimal gun-related deaths. The US has seen over 200 mass shootings so far this year. Robb Elementary School was the 27th school shooting this year. It’s not mental illness. It’s not the breakdown of the American family. It’s not godlessness or video games. It’s the fucking guns.

Makenna Lee Elrod, 10

We like to shoot things in this country. Shooting things is part of America’s DNA and an essential aspect of its psychological profile. It’s how you take things from people who don’t want to give them up, which, in a nutshell, is how the country was settled. Shooting things also fuels the impulse to divide the world into heroes and villains, white hats and black hats, good guys and badmen, instead of the endless colors of the spectrum in which reality actually functions. And because guns are integral to how many Americans see themselves – how many American men see themselves – the thought that they might not be able to avail themselves of their arsenals when they want and how they want and as much as they want makes them terribly insecure and angry. Like babies. Naked. Vulnerable. Not like John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger or the biggest, baddest Twitch warrior on the planet.

Certainly not like Maverick. Coming 36 years after the first “Top Gun,” “Top Gun: Maverick” is not a sequel anyone asked for, but here it is, and it is an exceedingly professional piece of Hollywood product, a machine-tooled blockbuster that pushes every Pavlovian flyboy-fantasy button with adrenaline and skill. It makes the first movie look like the crayon drawing it was, and it is going to make an obscene amount of money selling American audiences the image of themselves they wish they could see when they look in the mirror. Assured, expert, morally upright, and sexy. Heroes. Tom Cruise looks the part – if anything, he’s more chiseled and iconic than he was in 1986. His romantic interest this time is played by a lissome Jennifer Connelly; the first film’s Kelly McGillis wasn’t even contacted by the producers because, in her own cheerful words, “I’m old, and I’m fat.” She’s 64 – she looks like us. Cruise has managed to remain ageless. Maybe it’s plastic surgery. Maybe it’s the Scientology. Maybe there’s a Polaroid in the back of his closet where he’s a wizened, rotting corpse.

Fourth-grade teacher Eva Mireles. She was killed trying to protect her students.

There are no handguns in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and there’s definitely no blood, which is part of my point. There don’t have to be, given that everyone’s flying around in supersonic F-18s armed with rotary cannons and missile launchers. The plot has the aging but agile Pete “Maverick” Mitchell drafted to train a cadre of young Navy fighter pilots – 11 men and one woman of varying ethnicities – for a dangerous mission. A foreign government has a uranium-enriching facility in an underground bunker deep in a mountain valley, impossible to reach for anyone but the most skilled pilots. The training sequences play out like real-life video games, the planes zigging and zagging along the imagined valley floor at top speeds until it’s time for the actual foray.

Which foreign government are we talking about, exactly? It’s never said, nor do we ever see the enemy except for a few faceless soldiers scrambling on an airfield late in the film. The enemy is anonymous – the enemy is just Them, something to shoot at so you can call yourself a hero. The first “Top Gun” was a very successful recruiting poster for the US military. “Top Gun: Maverick” may be an even better one. It makes war look bloodless and fun, and it doesn’t spoil things by introducing any nasty politics. Anyway, giving a name to the bad guys might cut into the international profits.

Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, 10

I watched the movie at a screening a few weeks ago, feeling both viscerally entertained and vaguely nauseated. This kind of jingoistic boo-yah jive has never been my thing, and it depresses me that for millions of moviegoers it is their thing. Thinking about it now, in the wake of yesterday’s massacre, only removes the vagueness and sharpens the disgust. What infuriates me about a movie like “Top Gun: Maverick” is not what it shows but what it studiously looks away from: The human costs of war and violence. The bloodshed and PTSD. The complexities of conflict and the dirty histories that lead us into places like Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran. The things we push down and ignore because they make us doubt the mission, and doubt in this country is the most unforgivable of sins, second only to an acknowledgement of complicity. The movie soothes the insecurity of shallow American patriotism in a complicated moral universe by blasting those complications to smithereens with sterile, exciting CGI craftsmanship. What a wonderful fantasy for anyone uncertain of their power in a changing world, a world not behaving as you would like or as the culture has told you that you deserve. That “Top Gun: Maverick” is so absurdly good at spinning its toothsome simplicities is the cherry on top. You want to believe it. Millions will. And many men will see themselves as Maverick, never mind that a nation of mavericks is an oxymoron and has been for four centuries now.

What will some of those Mavericks do – even just one – when the real world doesn’t conform to the script in their heads, to the pieties of manliness and conflict resolution they’ve been fed? Who will be the enemy at which they point their guns, imagined or real? Because I guarantee you that the 18-year-old boys who massacred Black people in Buffalo and schoolchildren in Texas believed that they were shooting at Them. When in reality they only murdered us.

Rogelio Torres, 10

I say fuck those deluded, hate-filled fools. Fuck the politicians who refuse to pass common-sense gun control legislation and make it easier for killers to arm themselves to the teeth. Fuck Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Senator Ted Cruz for their mealy-mouthed thoughts and prayers mere days before speaking at the NRA convention in Houston this weekend. Fuck the NRA.

And fuck “Top Gun: Maverick.”

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