Tom Cruise is eight years older than me. When director Tony Scott’s Top Gun roared into theaters in May of 1986 and conquered the box office, Cruise was the hot commodity that a lot of 16-year-old boys wished we would be when we reached college. He was cool, cocky, disarmingly charismatic, and athletic. We were shocked to learn that he was only 5′ 7″. But nevertheless, he commanded any scene he stepped into and loomed over our generation as an ideal — or, better, an idol.

At that time — we’re talking more than three decades ago — I disliked him.

It wasn’t just envy. But envy was a big part of it: I saw what girls around me responded to, and it wasn’t my tall, gawky, awkward body type. Cruise was like a computer-generated ideal, an image printed on a movie poster that was then transformed into a 3D-model for casting plastic action figure based on that image. It worked: In his blue jeans and leather jacket, he commanded girls’ attention almost as much as the blue-jeaned and leather jacketed pop star George Michael. And even though I was a high-school basketball starter and decent volleyball player in gym class, I knew I’d never have Cruise’s assured athleticism or his confidence. So, yeah — I wanted some of that seemingly effortless magnetism.

Cruise’s Mug of Smugness. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

But no, it wasn’t just envy. I found Cruise’s whole demeanor off-putting. He was so cocky, so contentious, so brusque. And, more importantly, he was a little too aggressive, a little too determined to charm everyone, and that made him seem insecure to me. He seemed a salesman afraid of losing his job. He was a sports car on the showroom floor that might not have anything at all under the hood. He seemed like a commercial for a false ideal.

So I resented his popularity.

When Top Gun arrived, Cruise was already popular an attraction for some moviegoers. Not for me. I hadn’t seen The Outsiders. I hadn’t been allowed to watch Risky Business (too sexy for conservative Christian moviegoers), although I knew its reputation among the cool kids. I knew him only from Ridley Scott’s Legend: A big fan of any fantasy movie, I had slipped into the Village Theater — a 99-cents-a-ticket double-feature movie theater in my neighborhood — to see it. But Cruise, in that film, seemed like a miscast male model who never came close to stealing the show from his surroundings (or, for that matter, Tim Curry’s fantastic villain).

A thrilling big-screen blast off in Top Gun. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

And yet, when Top Gun opened, I loved the movie in spite of Cruise. My friends and I — the unpopular kids, the uncool, the kids with good grades — watched it repeatedly (I’d guess seven or eight times) in that double-feature theater. Over and over again. And then, when it was released on VHS, we watched it at more than one slumber party, turning it up as loud as parents would allow to try to replicate the theatrical experience.

We endured Cruise’s egomaniacal action-figure avatar, and we made fun of him relentlessly. We mocked the clunky screenwriting mechanics that set him up to be an underdog who would obviously humiliate and own his supervisors. We groaned at how the film rewards his relentless rule-breaking. We scoffed at the homoerotic volleyball game, not so much intimidated by the male model six-packs as we were troubled by the camera’s unabashed, worshipful lust for muscular masculinity. Even though were were discomforted by just how much steamier the “Take My Breath Away” sex scene between Cruise and Kelly McGillis was than anything we’d seen in PG movies before, we howled at it, scoffing at its hilarious self-seriousness. It seemed one of the dumbest love stories we’d seen in any movie.

Taking PG-moviegoers’ breath away. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Some of us were more enthusiastic about its nationalistic propaganda than others. And one of my closest friends in those moviegoing adventures would go on to a career in the military, perhaps inspired by the glorification of that hardware. Me — I was already skeptical of anything that made gods of soldiers, of anything that made America seem righteous and justified in its self-appointed role as trigger-happy global policemen. So I couldn’t have been less interested in the American flags or the international conflict giving the action its context.

But when that theme by Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens kicked in, when the heat radiated from the fighter planes on the deck of the aircraft carrier, and when, with the shrieking and roaring of dragons, they took flight, I was captivated. I too felt the need for that kind of speed. It was the magic of how a fusion of imagery and music could make me feel like I was defying gravity. It was a vicarious escape from my complicated world, my complicated high school, my complicated body — and from aggravations and uncertainties that the rest of the movie amplified. To fly with Top Gun pilots was more liberating and exciting than the Star Wars dogfights we knew by heart.

Maverick and Goose “feel the need.” [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Most importantly, it was real. Those weren’t cartoons on the screen. They weren’t the intricate model X-Wings on strings creating an illusion of flight. This had really happened in front of cameras in the sky. It was hard to believe. It was a kind of big-screen joy that no animated aircraft have ever inspired before or since. It was real daylight reflected off of real aircraft wings. Those were real contrails scrawling signatures in the sky.

And I was feeling the same kind of awe that I had felt as a small child when my parents had parked our family car at the edge of the Portland International Airport runway after dark so I could watch a 747 take off at close range, feel the heat of it as it soared overheard, feel the earth tremble with the power of its engines. It’s an incredible thing to witness what human beings can do when they aspire to excellence in any art, and this aerial adventure was my kind of dancing.

A moment of real feeling, matched meaningfully by a rare moment of aesthetic, painterly beauty. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Since then, my respect for Cruise as a very specific kind of actor has grown. I never believe him as an action hero because I still feel suspicious of him. I don’t sense intelligence behind those eyes; I still sense a certain salesmanship. (The Mission: Impossible movies remain, for me, a derivative genre that lacks a compelling lead hero, even though those movies often overcome that problem and become wildly entertaining.)

But if Cruise’s character is someone fearful and insecure behind a facade of courage and charisma? Wow, I believe that. So I love him in Rain Man. I love him (and find his character genuinely horrifying) in Magnolia. He’s absolutely perfect in Michale Mann’s Collateral. If I see Cruise playing characters like this, I’m standing in line right away.

Funny — never once did I find myself hoping for a Top Gun sequel. That’s because I had no desire to revisit those characters. Beyond its cloud-busting ballet of multi-million-dollar aircraft, the movie hadn’t given me anything in particular to care about. Sure, we all feel something when a soldier’s partner is struck down in action. And we all like to see a rookie rise above his superiors’ expectations to be “the best that they can be.” But if you’d told me a sequel was coming, I would have guessed that it would be a predictable case of bigger instead of better, louder instead of more melodic, more extreme and less capable of suspending disbelief.

So, over the last several years as the plans for Top Gun 2 became public and the pop-culture anticipation began to rise (among moviegoers of a certain age, at least), I’ve felt a strange mix of indifference and dread. Moviegoers’ appetite for it seemed worrying. The brashness and bravado of those bare-chested Top Gun egomaniacs doesn’t play now as it once did. It shouldn’t, anyway. It looks to me now like a symptom of deep cultural diseases. Nationalistic propaganda is the worst thing for America right now, as the courts are in session exposing the corruption and criminality that hides behind such flagrant arrogance. We have betrayed our best ideals. We have shown the world that our dedication to democracy is feeble and fickle. We have shown the world that our historic stands against cruel tyrants didn’t really mean much, and that we would sell our soul for the first con man to tell us what we wanted to hear. We’ve shown the world that many of us are striving to re-imagine American for a game of “Might Makes Right” instead of “Liberty and Justice for All.” We have given anyone good reason to call our bluff when we sing our National Anthem or salute a ceremonial fly-over. The empty-headed arrogance of Top Gun‘s contentious characters can now be plainly seen and heard in the campaigns of narcissistic authoritarians who can win the support of half of the nation.

The brash braggart Iceman sounds today like nothing less than a Republican candidate for office. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

The kind of heroes that Tom Cruise tended to play in the ’80s and ’90s seem like prime suspects in any reasonable interrogation of what we now call “toxic masculinity” in American pop culture, with only Mel Gibson seeming more culpable in the big-screen glorification of a destructive archetype. And those rare moments when his character really stood for something, as he did in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, now seem quaint and sentimental, a fantasy of a principled military man from an America that is long gone if it ever existed at all.

And now, Top Gun: Maverick is here. I’ve heard the revival of those Kenny Loggins guitars, felt my ribs tremble in the roar of cineplex sub-woofers, and gripped the arms of my chair as fighter plans blast audiences into vertiginous climbs and dizzying dives.

One thing hasn’t changed: Tom Cruise is still eight years older than me. But almost everything else has changed. I hope I’ve outgrown some of the arrogance of adolescence. I’d like to think I’m aging well, without being sentimental or idolatrous about my youth. Has the character of Maverick grown matured into wisdom? Having had so long to dream up a second chapter, will these filmmakers surprise us with deepening discernment? Or will this be just another pageant of adulation for American military strenght? Will this just be another adrenalin rush for bro-culture?

What to make of Maverick?

I’ll tell you what I thought of it in my next post. Here’s Part Two.

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