Thursday, December 7, 2023

“Top Gun: Maverick” And The Art Of The Blockbuster Screenplay

In 1982, many months after a boulder first chased a hero through a booby-trapped jungle cave, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and more. Lawrence Kasdan’s now iconic screenplay—routinely cited as the “Eiffel Tower” of action-adventure scripts and was recently on the WGA’s own list of the best screenplays ever written––was not nominated. We’ve heard that story before and since. When “Mad Max: Fury Road” was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, despite being widely acclaimed for its masterful use of structure, character, and theme, it was ignored for Best Adapted Screenplay. You see where this is going? In the eyes of not only the Academy but also the film intelligentsia, there’s a long tradition of dismissing the writing of the blockbuster. These movies are mostly known as commercial spectacles, a combination of stunt coordination, special effects, and rigorous editing to elicit the most kinetic experience possible; this is not the supposed space of the film writer. 

So, what made “Top Gun: Maverick” the rare action-driven movie to get an Oscar nomination for, in this case, Best Adapted Screenplay? Some have speculated that it’s a sign of support for the movie that “saved cinema” last summer. However, by any metric, it’s an immaculate example of movie penmanship. And while others may scoff at that and have since the Oscar nominations on January 24th, allow me to break this down for you…

When screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie speaks about how “Top Gun: Maverick” feels pleasingly old-school, he probably means how it centers character and drama. They aren’t just an accouterment to jet fighters chased by CGI missiles; here they are, jet engines of emotion. More than an exercise in nostalgia, Kosinski and his screenwriters (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, McQuarrie) use the ghosts of the past and present to create an exhilarating action-drama that marries spectacle with a surprisingly melancholic, even spiritual angle. Spielberg would say it all begins with a “good story,” but equally, it starts with a screenplay that shapes theme, character, and feeling through behavior, probably in duress, and ideally, duress in motion. And you don’t get a lot more inherent danger, motion, or speed than the cockpits of a dogfighting F-18 pulling Gs.

Top Gun: Maverick’s” ace in the hole is how it keeps things simple. The writers have described the plot as a “sports movie,” but it’s closer to a “heist” or “mission” movie. Think “Ocean’s 11,” “The Dirty Dozen” or “Guns of the Navarone,” with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell teaching the best pilots how to execute an “impossible” bombing run on a nuclear enrichment plant in an unnamed foreign country and fighting unseen pilots in an unknown political context. “Unnamed, unseen, and unknown” is key. There’s a curiously heightened, almost abstract quality to the world “Top Gun: Maverick” creates, even down to how Maverick’s permanent residence is apparently inside a plane hangar, a fantasy for aviation fanatics and gearheads. To achieve the complex camera mounts inside the cockpits, director Joseph Kosinski joked that they had to keep asking the Navy what pieces of gear they were allowed to remove because it wasn’t necessary to pilot the aircraft. In essence, he and his screenwriters had the same approach to their story: stick to the essentials. Their stakes aren’t geopolitical; they are vividly personal. The action sequences, all wonders, are designed around that human element. After the first aerial training exercise, Phoenix’s response isn’t to make a technical observation about their flying; she keeps it similarly personal: “And now you know something about Rooster.” Some have critiqued this approach as a candy coating to the bitter pill of military propaganda, but “Top Gun: Maverick” is so hyper-focused on character at the expense of all else that on a scene-by-scene basis, it almost operates like a dream-sequence out of “The Sopranos” or “LOST,” each event a doorway for change and growth.

This is the rare actioner where the plot serves character, but character does not serve the plot. Comb through the script beat by beat, and you’ll notice how dialogue usually takes on dual or triple meanings. Scenes resigned to flat exposition––mission debriefs, etc.––stealthily cargo personal or existential weight into the seemingly straightforward situations. Look at the first lines of dialogue, technically a simple mission update: “They say we fell short.” / “That’s not good enough.” Soon after, when Maverick gets a dressing down by Ed Harris’ Rear Admiral Cain, this allusion to phase-out is echoed, only louder: “You should be a two-star admiral by now if not a senator, but here you are. Captain.” / “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” / “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.” By gifting a salt of the Earth Admiral lines of dialogue that allude to themes of stasis, death, and the transience of time, this is another trade of the credible for the personal and the political for the intimate. The screenplay for “Top Gun: Maverick” uses structure, genre, and spectacle to surprisingly follow some of the dramaturgical rules of the psychodrama, where the delineation between “plot” and character” blur. Amusingly, this also applies to one of the movie’s biggest laughs: when an ashen Maverick walks into a diner after parachuting from high altitude, the dialogue implies Maverick’s life is up in the clouds in more ways than one: “Where am I?” Maverick asks. The answer? “Earth.” 

By flattening the plot into a familiar heist/mission structure (and hollowing out a tangible political reality), moments like those are frequent and allow the screenwriters to interweave the four or five central conflicts effortlessly. Maverick teaching the mission to the team inevitably intersects with the surrogate father-son drama between Maverick and Rooster, which is frequently incited by Hangman’s beef with Rooster. The central throughline, Maverick’s journey of learning to “let go,” is reiterated every moment he’s reminded he’s unwanted by the Navy or Rooster. There’s also Maverick and Penny’s (re)blossoming romance. This strategy of the heightened interweaving of character and plot is strong. Observe how the writers exploit the device of ending Act II at the lowest point: a pilot has “G-lock” and almost passes out while airborne, another pilot’s jet is hit with a “bird strike” and hospitalized, Rooster and Maverick fight over the risk of flying ­– “There will be others” / “No wife to mourn you when you burn in” – and the chain of calamity ends in Ice Man’s passing. Each event invokes the specter of mortality and death, hitting most arcs at once: the audience is reminded of the dangers of flying, the divide between Rooster and Maverick grows, and with Ice Man’s death, the one vestige of Maverick’s support at his job is gone. Structure, story, character. 

In fact, for a movie lacking almost any interest in conventional “bad guys” to hype up the danger or consequence, “Top Gun: Maverick” remains an exhilarating experience with a sophisticated sense of how to build stakes on the page. The storytellers are experts at the art of setup and payoff. That can mean a motif in dialogue becoming a signpost for character growth and situational change, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” / “Don’t think, just do,” or how Maverick’s early-film declaration of “I’m where I belong” is only validated more than an hour later when callsign Warlock tells Maverick pre-mission, “You’re where you belong.” There are also sly asides, like the quick citing of circling enemy aircraft to set up their near-fatal entrance 15 minutes later. Most important, though, is how in a McQuarrie-infused touch, the logistics of the final mission are explained at least five times before it begins, giving the audience absolute clarity over what should happen and when. In typical heist/mission movie fashion, we should be so well-acquainted with the beat-by-beat of the finale. When something goes wrong, we’re not only alarmed by the shift in expectation, like the unexpected fly-through underneath a bridge, but the cumulative power of the character-building moments becomes emotional jet fuel for overall intensity. We want our characters to live

Top Gun: Maverick” also continues a long tradition of building stakes in action-adventure movies: keep the hero struggling. We want to see them sweat, fight, and succeed, but never easily. Remember, the very opening scene is Maverick’s “Darkstar” program getting shut down, only to be roasted by Admiral Cain and later by Jon Hamm’s Admiral at Top Gun. This is a move pulled from Buster Keaton to Jackie Chan to Cruise’s own “Mission: Impossible” franchise; it’s an easy way to ground the hero’s humanity. Hearing Maverick’s private, self-deprecating jabs help sell that –”Easy Maverick, let’s try not to get fired the first day” / “Come on!” – giving the insight to say he’s not as confident as his effortless swagger presents.

Yet, “Top Gun: Maverick” achieves this through less obvious channels, devoting unusual care to the “romance” plot. Penny is key to why “Top Gun: Maverick” works. In every situation between her and Maverick, she retains the upper hand. She is independently wealthy, runs a successful bar, and is the only character to see past Maverick’s legendary callsign. She calls him Pete. When he flirts with her, she implies a wounded history and playfully fights back by making him buy everyone’s drinks. Only, he can’t pay his tab and is carried out of the bar. When they go sailing, the obvious domain of the Navy, Maverick is helpless. She teaches him. Along with Ice Man, she is the only one who can. Later, they share the trials of parenting, hard choices, and the trusting of your children, chosen or otherwise. He only breaks protocol, steals a jet, and proves the mission can be flown––one of Maverick’s most impressive feats in the movie––because she gives him courage – “You’ll find a way. I know you will.” When he returns from victory in the finale, she’s not at the runway waiting for him. In a departure from the conventional, he waits for her. Penny is the most important humanizer of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, showing him at his most vulnerable, exposed, and in need of support. 

All of this setup is for the most crucial stretch of “Top Gun: Maverick:” the grand narrative payoff. It is the widely loved final act, specifically after the enrichment plant is neutralized. The secret is what film theorist and historian David Bordwell called “the double ending,” with a first ending of failure and a second that “swerves into a happy ending, sometimes one of stunning implausibility,” a tactic to chase the highest emotional highs and lowest lows. Here, the writers summon all the key themes and character concerns––parental strife, mortality, hope for reconciliation, and the letting go of the past––and create a beat-for-beat series of sequences that mobilize each into stunning action. During the “trench run,” Maverick and Rooster summon the ghost of a dead friend and father, “Talk to me, Goose” / “Talk to me, dad.” These moments intercut in succession.

Maverick and Rooster then both “die” and come back to life. Each of their planes are shot down to save the other, a sacrifice of mutual love, written, blocked, and framed to briefly suggest their death. When we next see them alive, in a sense, they are reborn as a fully bonded pair with their wounds healed. If the first ending is their temporary demise, the second is their hair-brained heist to steal an old-age F-14 fighter and escape. Think, the action climax to the box office sensation of the summer was built around a father figure and his chosen son, in an outmoded aircraft that forces Maverick and Rooster to work together, disadvantage against high odds. And when Maverick beats two next-gen fighters, it’s only because he was told to by his son. Back on the carrier, the mission accomplished, their surrogate family is consummated: “Sir.” / “Thank you for saving my life.” / “It’s what my dad would’ve done.”  

People cried watching the film, and it isn’t because the in-camera aerial photography is beautiful or the stunts are spectacular. I cried too. It is because of character, heart, writing, and the foundation the images and performances could build from. Many of the greatest action movies have some of the most under-loved screenplays. On the Light the Fuse Podcast, McQuarrie remarked that “the specifics of plot tend to overwhelm the importance of emotion, and the more you lean into emotion and away from plot, the more engaging the movie becomes.” McQuarrie, Kosinski, and the other writers understand the art of screenwriting is to show action through character, character through action, and through that, emotion. “Top Gun: Maverick’s” screenplay does that and more, showing the thrilling, emotional power of character-first action and spectacle.

What do you think “Top Gun: Maverick’s Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay? What Oscars do you predict it will win next month? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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