Top Gun Maverick and Straussian Takes

I am in the habit of asking my students to ask me five random questions at the end of each class. They don’t get a choice in the matter: they have to ask me five random questions, and the only rule is that the questions cannot be about whatever I spoke about in class on that day. That apart, anything is fine.

One question that usually comes up in the course of a semester is about my favorite movie, and in response, I usually end up walking the students through my model for judging a movie to be truly awesome.

To be truly awesome, I tell ’em, a movie must do three things:

  1. It must inform. I must know more about a part of the world at some point of time than I did before.
  2. It must provoke thought. I should be able to think differently about a topic than I did before I saw the movie.
  3. It must entertain. I shouldn’t feel bored/restless while watching the movie.

Each of these, to some extent are subjective, and the last two points especially so. But that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to decide for everybody what their model for judging a movie should be, I’m merely explaining my own, and even if you were to adopt this model (or a variant of it), we might still end up judging the same movie differently. In fact, that would be better! Room for more disagreements and discussions, and what else is there in life, no?

So, Top Gun: Maverick. So-so, good or great? (spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might want to skip the rest of the post)

I watched the movie sometime last week and thoroughly enjoyed watching it. It didn’t really inform me of anything (and given that my knowledge of military hardware is non-existent, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on much in the first place), and it didn’t really provoke much thought either. Some, but not a lot.

Did it entertain? Gawd yes, it did. Good popcorn fare, or to use a very Indian phrase, phull paisa vasool.

And that, I thought, was that. Until Marginal Revolution linked to a Ross Douthat tweet, that linked, in turn, to a The Bulwark review of the movie. And that provoked some thought. Again, spoilers ahead, so if you’re still reading, this is the last chance to, well, jettison.

It’s almost like Mav, rather than miraculously surviving an ejection at 7,000 or so miles per hour, perished in that test flight and before he could head on up to fighter-pilot heaven he had to work through his own personal purgatory. All I’m saying is that when Hangman saves Mav’s bacon in the final dogfight while uttering the line “This is your savior speaking” in the tone of voice that can only be labeled “pilot”—memorably described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff as a lineal descendant of “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager”—I don’t think the invocation of the almighty is entirely metaphorical.
And this is what, really, gives Top Gun: Maverick its power. Despite being almost aggressively generic in terms of plotting it is also deeply personal, a window into the regrets of one of pop cinema’s legendarily beloved characters. Maverick is at peace now. He has been to the danger zone and back. He can rest.

Huh. I’ll happily admit to not having thought about it quite that way.

Which brings me to the second part of the title of today’s blogpost: Straussian interpretations.

Like many fans of Marginal Revolution, I’ve been reading the phrase for many years, and wondered what it meant. Here is a link to an essay that does (if you ask me) a good job of explaining exactly what Straussian reading is, and here is an extract twice removed:

Imagine you have received a letter in the mail from your beloved, from whom you have been separated for many long months. (An old-fashioned tale, where there are still beloveds—and letters.) You fear that her feelings toward you may have suffered some alteration. As you hold her letter in your unsteady hands, you are instantly in the place that makes one a good reader. You are responsive to her every word. You are exquisitely alive to every shade and nuance of what she has said—and not said.
“Dearest John.” You know that she always uses “dearest” in letters to you, so the word here means nothing in particular; but her “with love” ending is the weakest of the three variations that she typically uses. The letter is quite cheerful, describing in detail all the things she has been doing. One of them reminds her of something the two of you once did together. “That was a lot of fun,” she exclaims. “Fun”—a resolutely friendly word, not a romantic one. You find yourself weighing every word in a relative scale: it represents not only itself but the negation of every other word that might have been used in its place. Somewhere buried in the middle of the letter, thrown in with an offhandedness that seems too studied, she briefly answers the question you asked her: yes, as it turns out, she has run into Bill Smith—your main rival for her affection. Then it’s back to chatty and cheerful descriptions until the end.
It is clear to you what the letter means. She is letting you down easy, preparing an eventual break. The message is partly in what she has said—the Bill Smith remark, and that lukewarm ending—but primarily in what she has not said. The letter is full of her activities, but not a word of her feelings. There is no moment of intimacy. It is engaging and cheerful but cold. And her cheerfulness is the coldest thing: how could she be so happy if she were missing you? Which points to the most crucial fact: she has said not one word about missing you. That silence fairly screams in your ear.

It’s not just what is written on the page (or shown in a movie, or sung in a song, or even painted on to a canvas), but is about so much more than that. While reading a book, or listening to a song, or watching a movie or viewing a painting, you might want to ask yourself some questions:

  • What are some of the non-obvious messages that the creator wants to you recieve, if only you’re paying attention?
  • What is it about the time and place in which this creation was created that might have prevented the creator from being more open about whatever they wanted to covney?
  • Might your appreciation of the work of art become better if you are able to peel away one layer at a time?

This is by no means a complete list, and once you realize that Straussian readings are possible, you can go back and consume much of what you have already read/seen/listened again (and again). Interpretations become so much richer, nuanced and uncertain (but in a good way).

That’s what a Straussian reading is, and once you’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick again, you might want to think about whether this Straussian interpretation is correct.

Me? I’m very much tempted to agree with it.