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 extinct after a global pandemic threatened to end the theatrical experience. Loved by both audiences and critics, the movie has become a phenomenon and the most successful movie of 2022.

I always find it interesting when a movie like Top Gun: Maverick seizes the cultural zeitgeist and becomes such a massive triumph. What about the movie made it such a success? Was it the affinity for the original? The presence of the last true movie star, Tom Cruise? Was it abandoning traditional greenscreen and computer generated effects in favor of practical moviemaking techniques? Sure, I don’t think any of that hurt. But I believe at the heart of the movie’s broad appeal comes down to one word: Simplicity.

As French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (best known by her pen name George Sand) is perfectly stated; “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure 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 made by director Joseph Kosinski focused on keeping the story simple and moving forward at a brisk pace. Nothing is left for the audience to decipher. Everything is presented to the audience with complete earnestness, free from attempts to deconstruct everything that made the original so successful and not an ounce of cynicism to be found.

Not sure how to feel during any particular moment? Don’t worry, they’ve got you covered. When Maverick sees Rooster (Miles Teller) playing piano and he reminds him of his fallen friend and the boys’ father… the scene cuts to a nice tidy flashback from the first film. When Maverick gets a text message from Ice, the audience knows who this is thanks to a scene where Maverick sees a framed picture that tells us all the information we need to know to put together 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 does not require you to have seen the original, cut from the same creative cloth as sequels like Rocky Balboa. There is more meat on the bone for those who have witnessed the first installment, but it is by no means a requirement for you to enjoy the movie.

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

Not only is it the elementary film, it is also extremely efficient and economical with how the story unfolds. Obstacles are presented are overcome in a matter of moments. After Maverick is removed from 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 in.

What will Maverick do? What’s his plan? How many scenes will it take to build up the courage and figure out the logistics needed to overcome this seemingly insurmountable obstacle? Just one, because 10 seconds later we see Maverick flying the test course himself to prove to his team and Cyclone (Jon Hamm) that nothing is impossible. The payoff is instantaneous and the crowd cheers. All the complications of how exactly Maverick was able to execute such a seemingly impossible plan is irrelevant. A complication that would only slow things down instead of going forward full throttle.

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

This level of simplicity is just as present in the filmmaking. There’s a moment during the film’s climactic third act where Rooster has put his own life at risk to save Maverick who angrily shouts “What we’re you thinking?” Rooster replies “You told us not to think.” It’s a brilliant little comedic moment, but Kosinski doesn’t apply blunt force to make it work.

I was expecting a quick cut to a Cruise close-up to really sell his incredulity, but it didn’t happen. The filmmakers didn’t rely on editing to try and manufacture the moment. They didn’t try and force a comedic moment to try and diffuse the tension of the scene. So much of what makes Top Gun: Maverick exceptional centers on not overthinking these moments. Embracing the “don’t think, just do” mentality and keeping things simple.

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

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

Ironically, Top Gun: Maverick isn’t cinematic rocket science, but neither is it insulting. It avoids blockbuster trends of third act sensory overloads and world ending scenarios. The stakes feel large even though the staging is somewhat small in scope compared to other blockbusters. One of the most difficult things in blockbuster filmmaking is making the end product feel effortless, but that’s what Cruise and company have delivered; a masterpiece of simplicity executed to near perfection.

Anghus Houvouras

Leave a Comment