“Top Gun: The Unbranded Cow”

…I bet Goose knew.

If you’re confused by the title of this article, don’t worry. I’ll explain. A “maverick” is a term used in reference to unbranded range animals like cattle. I don’t remember anyone bringing this up when “Top Gun”—a film featuring a Navy pilot with the callsign “Maverick”—hit theaters in 1986.

When I first heard that Tom Cruise was making a sequel to the film that made him a movie star, I was a little confused. It had been just over three decades since the original film and I think it’s common knowledge that anyone who serves in the military can retire after 20 years. I wondered if the sequel to “Top Gun” would be a feature length version of “Iceman: The Later Years”?

Val Kilmer reprised his role for an hilarious SNL sketch depicting Tom Kazansky as an unnecessarily intense airline pilot. It’s just one of many “Top Gun” parodies that have been made over the years.

The original “Top Gun” hasn’t aged that well for a number of reasons so I don’t think I’ll be watching it again before I see the sequel. Frankly, I would recommend that anyone who has fond memories of the original resist the temptation to watch it again, lest their nostalgic feelings be shattered by flaws in the film made more apparent by the sophistication of modern movie-going audiences, from sexist tropes and potential #MeToo triggers to perhaps finally coming face-to-face with the homosexual subtext that’s been exhaustively read into the film over the years—especially in regard to a scene featuring Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the boys.”

This earworm is brought to you by latent homosexual feelings
and the maturity to recognize and accept them for what they are.

It’s my understanding that the original script for “Top Gun” didn’t offer much in the way of backstories for the main characters. This could prove detrimental for a lot of projects but for an action movie relying heavily on visual sequences, not so much. It can also present interesting opportunities for actors to be creative in their interpretations of the characters that they portray.

“Top Gun”’s special/visual effects—from the obvious studio cockpits and targeting animations to the “inverted” exchange with an enemy fighter—were satisfactory for the time but not so impressive today.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
(They really like it when people know something belongs to them)

Flash forward 33 years and in the trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick,” and we see Tom Cruise sitting inside the cockpit of an F/A-18 Super Hornet as it’s launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier. It is not unreasonable to assume that it’s really Tom Cruise sitting inside the actual cockpit of an operational Super Hornet as it’s physically launched from the deck of a commissioned aircraft carrier.

Please take note that I said he’s “…sitting inside the cockpit…” not actually “piloting” the Super Hornet. Though it does appear that he is mimicking the motions a pilot would make while operating the aircraft. The F/A-18F is a tandem-seat variant of the Super Hornet, which replaced the now-retired F-14 Tomcat depicted in the original film, so it would not have been difficult for the Navy to just take Tom Cruise for a few rides and get some GoPro-style footage of his experience for the movie. Would we expect any less when we know that it was really Tom Cruise jumping out of a C-17 from an altitude of 25,000 feet in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout?”

Which brings me to my original concern about the idea of making a “Top Gun” sequel three decades later. Obviously, Maverick is still in the Navy after 33 years. It’s not unheard of. Some people suck it up for longer than the typical 20 but there are limitations based on—among other things—one’s rank and time in service. It is possible to coast to retirement in the military but one can only coast for so long, and it ain’t 30 years! How do I know this?

I don’t recognize me either.

Because, from 1993–1998, I served in the U.S. Navy

Before I continue, I would like to make a request. If we are ever to meet in person—or if you meet any veteran for that matter—please, do not say, “Thank you for your service.” It’s not necessary. While I did voluntarily enlist, I would not have done so if they didn’t also pay me for the work I was doing. I signed a contract, as anyone else would for somewhat stable, salaried employment.

This is probably why the F/A-18 is one of my favorite aircraft.

Having grown up in the ‘80s, I did see “Top Gun” when I was a kid but it didn’t really motivate me to join the Navy. I have four brothers who have all served in the military—three in the Army and one in the Marine Corps—and my Dad served in the Navy at the tail-end of World War II. So there is a tradition of military service in my family. While that was a significant factor in my decision to join, it wasn’t until my brother, Bob, took me to see the U.S. Navy Blue Angels at NAS (Naval Air Station) Lemoore, California that I thought, “Okay, I need to sign up.” Belated congratulations to the United States Navy Recruiting Command (AKA NAVCRUITCOM), you snagged another one!

It should also be noted that when the U.S. military cooperates with the production of a movie, providing access to bases, ships, aircraft, ground vehicles, qualified pilots and drivers to operate them, and additional personnel working in the background, the film production doesn’t pay for any of it, the military does. It’s always been my understanding that such support falls under a line-item in their recruiting budget.

Of course, the military isn’t always onboard—so to speak. The movie “Crimson Tide”—technically a Walt Disney Production—which takes place aboard a ballistic missile submarine, initially had the support of the U.S. Navy. When they learned that the main plot of the film features a mutiny led by the Executive Officer, they declined to participate further.

I love “Crimson Tide!” Sure, the mutiny thing was kind of implausible, and the interior shots of the boat looked way too roomy but, other than that, it contained one of the most screen-accurate representations of the United States Navy that I had never before seen on screen:

Morbidly Obese Chief Petty Officers!

As a retired-Navy buddy of mine put it when the trailer for “Maverick” dropped…

“…I’m happy to announce that it will help the Navy meet manning quotas for cranking and topside rover for the next ten years.”

“Don’t use my f*****g name!”, USN, Retired

In the five years that I wore a Navy uniform, the only time I ever set foot on a commissioned vessel was as a tourist on the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, so some of those references went over my head too.

So, I was doing the math and it just didn’t quite add up. Pete “Maverick” Mitchel was a Lieutenant in 1986—already having a few years of service under his belt before he was selected for the Top Gun program. After 33 years, I figured he’d at least be an Admiral. To my knowledge, admirals don’t fly air-superiority fighters—even if they rose through the lower ranks as pilots—they would not even be in charge of a single aircraft carrier, they would lead a battle group and fleets of vessels. The duties of an admiral are largely administrative and it would be difficult to make a movie about that. You can’t force audiences sit through two hours of staff meetings, phone calls and paperwork!

As I heard Ed Harris’ voice sum up Maverick’s career in the new trailer, the following dialogue put my mind at ease (no pun intended) but only to a point:

“Thirty-plus years of service… Yet you can’t get a promotion, you won’t retire… You should be at least a two-star admiral by now. Yet here you are. Captain.”

Admiral Whatshisname (As of this posting, the IMDb’s got nothin’)

Navy captains usually have to retire at the 30-year mark—one can’t just choose not to—though there are such things as exemptions so I’m curious to see if that’s addressed at all. However, it was that line, “…you can’t get a promotion,” that I found most intriguing about this new movie—more so than anything about its predecessor.

I think most people are familiar with the myth of the American military hero. Dressed to the nines in a perfectly pressed uniform, always advanced in rank—sometimes promoted early—covered in medals, fawned over, celebrated. I know it’s a myth because having served in the military, I can tell you that people who wear a uniform for a living are no different from those who don’t. It’s still just a job and the bar for entry has never been very high to begin with. Are there actual “heroic” members of the military? I suppose Medal of Honor recipients have to go through a pretty thorough vetting process.

There are also those members of the military who are genuinely proficient at their jobs, look good doing them and advance in the ranks. These were the “model” military members that new recruits and junior officers are supposed to try and emulate because one’s military career is inevitably going to be judged by how far one advances in rank—which is also tied to one’s appearance from how well one fits into their uniform to how many officially approvedpieces of flair” one can add to it.

“Petty Officer Puente… We need to talk about your flair, okay?”

I wore a few “pieces of flair” on my uniform but all they really represented were awards of circumstance. I happened to join the Navy while there were American troops in the Middle East still supporting the mission of the first Gulf War so I “earned” the National Defense Service Medal—as did everyone else in the military serving between August 2, 1990 and November 30, 1995. I happened to be stationed at a shore-based Naval Activity at the time that it received a Joint Meritorious Unit Award, which meant everybody else at that command “earned” the exact same ribbon—that activity was slated to be shut down soon anyway so I can’t help but think that its imminent closure may have played into that decision. I also managed to last three consecutive years without going to Captain’s Mast—AKA receiving non-judicial punishment or “NJP” as per Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice—not counting how many times I was threatened with it; but it’s what’s on paper that counts, so I “earned” a Navy Good Conduct Medal.

I saw those model military-types all the time when I was in the service… but I was never really impressed by anyone’s rank or uniform. This attitude may have had its roots in my theatrical experience. A uniform is basically a costume. The people wearing them were just doing what they were told, following orders…Acting!—for all intents and purposes. I understood that it was the way of doing things in the military but it just wasn’t the way that I did things and—no matter how hard I tried—I couldn’t adapt to it.

To offer just one example, I rarely addressed officers as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Wasn’t it enough that I had to salute them? Being expected to say, “Sir” or “Ma’am” in every verbal interaction always felt to me like unmerited adulation. I got around it by addressing officers by their rank. “Yes, Commander.” “No Lieutenant.” “Aye, aye, Captain.” (Yes, I actually said, “Aye, aye.” I was in the Navy.)

In my mind, this served two purposes:

  • 1) Verbally acknowledging an officer’s higher rank was just as respectful* as addressing them as “Sir, or Ma’am.”
  • 2) It was a subtle reminder that I knew they were outranked by somebody else.
    (Regardless of one’s pay-grade, shit still rolls downhill.)

It’s not that there weren’t people in the Navy that I looked up to and admired, they just weren’t stereotypical spit-polished sailors; They certainly stood out from the rest—as “mavericks” tend to do—but instead of disregarding the rules, they took them seriously. They were known for being straightforward, not mincing words and genuinely living up to the Navy’s core values of “Honor, Courage and Commitment.” Of course, their personal dedication to applying those values instead of just giving them lip-service resulted—more often than not—in unfair assignments, hostile work environments and delayed promotions.

In any occupation where advancement in rank is part of the job description, political maneuvering is inevitable. The mavericks that I knew in the service weren’t very political, which is to say that they were honest people who didn’t put up with any bullshit. Unfortunately, putting up with political BS is another job requirement that they don’t tell you about at the recruiting office. I don’t recall it being addressed in the ASVAB exam either.

It was this innate intolerance for often ego-driven posturing that usually resulted in any subsequent rolling shit to be diverted to the guys who wouldn’t compromise their principles to benefit the politickers regardless of whatever promises, empty or not, that they made—more likely implied—if they got what they wanted.

Yes, rules exist to protect whistleblowers and refuseniks alike, but most reasonable people know that there’s always some loophole, or alternate method to exact some form of retaliation. Ostensibly justifiable by any number of reasons that are completely unrelated to whatever corruption was exposed or less-than-honorable objective hindered.

I remember going through “Petty Officer Indoctrination”—after taking the advancement exam for a second time—and being told that becoming a Petty Officer (AKA a non-commissioned officer or “NCO” in other branches) was the first of two major events in any sailor’s career, the second one being advancement to the rank of a Chief Petty Officer. But anyone with a modicum of drive, a hint of dedication and—in some cases—just a little patience, can become a Petty Officer. After all, that’s how I got that single chevron on my sleeve.

There were a number of reasons that played into my decision not to reenlist but a major factor was the suicide of the Chief of Naval Operations, Jeremy “Mike” Boorda, in 1996. Mike Boorda was a Navy “Mustanger”—another term with etymological ties to the historical (albeit, romanticized) American West. He was a high school dropout when he enlisted in the Navy and he climbed the ranks to Petty Officer First Class before becoming a commissioned officer through an “Integration Program” that existed in the early 60s… then he worked his way up to CNO, the highest rank in the Navy, part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and he was the only CNO to have ever served as an enlisted person. To the enlisted ranks, Boorda wasn’t just any Admiral, he was one of us. He was living proof that anything was possible. When he killed himself, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt disillusioned, discouraged and left thinking, “What’s the point?”

My military “career” was not one that many—with any knowledge of how that system worked—would judge as being “successful.” I suppose that, had I chosen to remain in the Navy, I might have been perceived as one of those guys who managed to coast his way to retirement—not because coasting would have been my desired path, but simply because I had just enough presence of mind to know that I was not cut out to excel in that line of work—assuming I wasn’t discharged for reaching my “high year tenure” mark first.

The words intoned by Ed Harris in the “Maverick” teaser, “…you can’t get a promotion,” really struck a nerve with me. In the original movie, Maverick was selected for the Top Gun program despite his tendency to flout authority. 33 years later, we see that Maverick has lived up to his callsign. He’s proven that standing out in a culture that demands conformity is more often penalized than rewarded, regardless of how good one might be at their job. This makes me curious to know what exactly Maverick did during his career that prevented him from being “at least a two-star admiral by now.” It also makes me wonder if he even cares. If he’s content with just commanding a fighter squadron—I assume—since he still gets to fly without having to deal with the tedium of bureaucracy and higher-ranking officers.

The “Maverick” of 1986 didn’t really impress me because he was just a young, arrogant hotshot. However, the “Maverick” that we’re all expecting to meet in the summer of 2020 appears to have a much more interesting story to tell, and I’m all ears.

Born in Los Angeles and residing in Salt Lake City, Joe Puente is the founder of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association and a U.S. Navy veteran.

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