Rebecca Grant: What 'Top Gun: Maverick' trailer gets right (and wrong) about the Navy, advanced air combat now

Do you feel the need for speed? Tom Cruise is returning as a Navy fighter pilot nicknamed Maverick in a sequel to the hit 1986 movie "Top Gun." Paramount Pictures dropped the trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick” at Comic-Con in San Diego and its already logged 18 million views, although 15 of those were me.

“Top Gun” was the signature movie of the Reagan-era defense build-up. The film showed Navy carrier aviation in all its glory, with Cruise and his friends in their F-14 Tomcat fighters learning tactics at the elite Top Gun school, then defeating Russian-made jets in combat in the movie’s climax.

The new movie won’t be out until summer 2020, but the trailer’s already revealed thrills, chills, an occasional blooper, and a few surprises, too.

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Here’s what the trailer gets right – and wrong – about the Navy and advanced air combat today.

Major credit to Hollywood for perfect timing. Russia and China are building up big modern air forces that worry the Pentagon. Russian fighters carry hypersonic missiles. The Russians are flying more aggressively than in decades. China routinely sends bombers on mock missions to Guam.  And China now has aircraft carriers of their own.

As a result, Top Gun combat tactics matter more than ever. In fact, the Navy moved Top Gun from California to Nevada to focus on the integrated air planning that’s as important to modern warfare as energy maneuverability tactics. It’s now called the Naval Air Warfighting Development Center or NAWDC. Lucky that’s not the movie title.

Let’s move on to casting. Tom Cruise as Maverick is older and his boss calls him a relic. Sure, we know the F-14 Tomcats flown in the 1986 movie are long since retired, while Maverick isn’t. It’s a plot point. But Hollywood, please note senior military officers are often younger than you think. Actor Ed Harris plays the Top Gun boss but Harris is 20 years older than the real NAWDC commander, Rear Admiral Richard “Snap” Brophy.

Looking good, however, is actor Jon Hamm, wearing three-star rank. Hamm may portray the Air Boss, who now runs all Navy aviation out of San Diego, not a job that existed in 1986. Hamm is a dead ringer for the first unified “Air Boss” Admiral John B. “Black” Nathman, himself a much-admired Top Gun instructor. Nathman was so pleased with the new F/A-18EF strike fighters that in 2005 he famously said: “I want to kiss the Superhornet on the lips.” Jon Hamm, are you ready for that scene?

The trailer doesn’t tell much about the daily grind Navy pilots have been through in the last 20 years. Long missions and heavy bomb loads over Afghanistan, Iraq and in the anti-ISIS fight have worn down Navy carrier fighters. And the pilots. The Navy and Air Force are both short in fighter pilot retention goals.

Then there are the women. "Top Gun" circa 1986 had no women pilots. The sequel correctly cast actress Monica Barbaro as a hotshot female pilot.

Too bad Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly plays the owner of a local bar. Seriously? The female lead could easily have been based on Rear Admiral Sara “Clutch” Joyner. Joyner, an F/A-18 pilot, was the first woman to command an operational Navy strike fighter squadron when she took the VFA-105 “Gunslingers” into the Iraq surge in 2007. Joyner later commanded a carrier air wing – that’s all the planes embarked on the carrier – and now she’s a two-star admiral at the Pentagon.

Although come to think of it, romancing a Navy admiral is maybe out of Tom Cruise’s league.

Now for costumes. The patches on Maverick’s leather flight jacket, which is not actually worn while flying, have been altered from the 1986 original to delete the flags of Japan and Taiwan. Journalists from The Japan Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail reported this as a deliberate marketing move, given that a Chinese company financed part of "Top Gun: Maverick."

The trailer doesn’t tell much about the daily grind Navy pilots have been through in the last 20 years. Long missions and heavy bomb loads over Afghanistan, Iraq and in the anti-ISIS fight have worn down Navy carrier fighters. And the pilots. The Navy and Air Force are both short in fighter pilot retention goals.

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But the biggest surprise is that Maverick isn’t flying the Navy’s fanciest new jet. That would be the F-35C Lightning, the stealth fighter that rules the roost in air war training exercises. The F-35 is low observable to radar and so good at enemy threat emitter detection that Marine Corps pilots flying their own F-35s scored a 15:1 kill ratio against older fighters in a wargame back in 2017. With F-35s around, Maverick and friends flying older aircraft might never see what “smoked” them.

Above all the trailer proves aircraft carriers are still movie stars. "Top Gun" in 1986 gave us a glimpse of the hard work and dedication required for combat excellence. And in summer 2020, let’s hope “Top Gun: Maverick" does the same.”

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