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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Enters the Pantheon of Conservative Fan Fiction

Today’s newsletter is a guest dispatch from the Culture desk of The New York Times. Marc Tracy, who regularly covers the intersection of culture and politics, writes about Tom Cruise’s latest blockbuster — and the conservatives who are singing its praises.

“Top Gun: Maverick,” the inescapable Tom Cruise blockbuster sequel, has been hailed as a cinematic throwback.

Many critics have interpreted its story of an increasingly obsolete pilot being called back to teach today’s young people a thing or two for one last mission as a not-so-subtle allegory for the film itself. The movie uses relatively few computer-generated effects, stars the now-60-year-old Cruise and still managed to rake in more than $1 billion globally.

But amid praise from filmgoers who enjoyed the realistic dogfights, filmed with real planes that the real actors rode in, another community has embraced the movie for representing its values and vindicating its outlook: conservatives.

A sampling:

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida: “Any movie that’s not, like, overwhelmingly woke can actually appeal to normal people.” (DeSantis had not seen the movie at the time; he later saw it with his wife for her birthday, he said.)

  • The Fox News host Jesse Watters: “We’ve been longing to see a movie that’s unapologetically American, and we finally got it.”

  • Tomi Lahren, of the conservative sports outlet OutKick and Fox: “The undeniable success of Top Gun is proof Americans are sick of WOKE and just want to watch good movies without a grandstanding social justice message!!”

What’s going on here?

There is a long tradition in which conservatives seize upon a cultural artifact produced by the entertainment industry, which is generally seen as left-leaning, and claim it for themselves.

“This goes back years,” said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant, “and included when we had a Hollywood actor or a reality TV star for president. They feel besieged by the culture. That feeling has only increased, and it’s increased because there’s even more substance behind it today.”

In a recent essay that discussed movies including “Top Gun: Maverick,” A.O. Scott, The Times’s co-chief film critic, argued that one notable aspect of the conservative movement is its antagonism toward the entertainment industry.

“The modern right,” Scott wrote, “defines itself against the cultural elites who supposedly cluster on the coasts and conspire to impose their values on an unsuspecting public. In this account, Hollywood acts in functional cahoots with academia and the news media.”

And conservative activists’ enmity toward Hollywood and other cultural tastemakers has perhaps never been more conspicuous.

DeSantis, whose ability to channel the movement might outstrip any other politician’s (including, arguably, Donald Trump’s), made waves this spring by revoking special tax and self-governing privileges that Disney had enjoyed for its enormous theme park in his state. The governor and the company had clashed over a newly passed state law that bars instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in some grades.

So when “Top Gun: Maverick” entered this culture war with its uncomplicated, feel-good patriotism — it is, among other things, a movie about how awesome U.S. Navy pilots can be, particularly when fighting America’s enemies — conservatives’ sense of alignment arrived naturally.

“When something comes out,” Heye said, “and it’s another version of ‘Rocky IV’” — the 1985 movie in which Sylvester Stallone’s working-class boxer enters the ring with a Soviet fighter named Ivan Drago — “that becomes something that, for the activist part of the base that is looking for something that isn’t critical of their values, they’re going to grab onto.”

This is not to say that Maverick, Hangman and the other pilots in the new “Top Gun” film face off against today’s equivalent of the Soviet Union, whatever country that might be. As in the first “Top Gun,” which came out in 1986, the enemy is not explicitly identified.

Nor are conservative politicians and media personalities claiming that the movie makes a compelling case for policies like tax cuts or gun rights. Their argument has less to do with what the film is than what it is not; less to do with its specific plot or characters than with its vibe.

“It’s political in being apolitical,” said Christian Toto, a conservative film critic and the proprietor of the website Hollywood in Toto.

He contrasted “Top Gun: Maverick” with some films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the gender-swapped “Ghostbusters” reboot. Their efforts at inclusivity — diverse casting, same-sex relationships — could come across, he said, as ham-handed, particularly to conservative audiences whose antennae are already on alert for filmmakers they see as trying to sneak some spinach in with the cinematic candy.

The conservative allergy to such moviemaking decisions flares up, Toto said, “when the audience gets a sense it’s being put in there awkwardly or there’s a message being sent as opposed to organically woven into the story.”

That the pilots training for the daring raid in “Top Gun: Maverick” appear to come from a variety of backgrounds seems not like liberal messaging but realistic detail, Toto said.

“The cast is moderately diverse; there are women as pilots,” he said. “But they don’t comment on it; they don’t base the script around it. It’s assumed these are just very talented people willing to risk their lives for the mission.”

Box-office information does not contradict conservatives’ case. About 55 percent of the opening weekend sales, an unusually high proportion, came from ticket-buyers over 35, according to Paramount.

And — atypically for big box-office hits in this era — “Top Gun: Maverick” has made more money in the United States and Canada than in the rest of the world, according to Box Office Mojo.

Ben Shapiro, a popular conservative pundit who co-founded the website The Daily Wire, had predicted in his rave review that the movie would do better domestically than abroad. “The film itself is pretty red, white and blue,” he said. “That’s just assumed as the backdrop. Which is the way movies used to be.”

Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California who studies China’s film industry, said in an interview that “Top Gun: Maverick” represented an emerging idea that “Hollywood doesn’t need China the way it used to.”

The film’s success could signal that the days of Hollywood studios altering story lines to make their releases more palatable to Chinese censors and audiences — a trend documented in a recent book, “Red Carpet” by Erich Schwartzel — might slowly be on their way out.

And, Rosen added, whatever the film’s actual political message, the argument that it has one at all might have its own uses.

“The controversy over wokeness or whether this is Reagan-era nostalgia,” he said, is “very good for the box office.”

Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, is sitting down for lunch on Friday in Washington with Vice President Kamala Harris, two of his aides have confirmed.

For Newsom, the trip, officially made so he could accept an award and discuss policy issues with lawmakers and Biden administration officials, has doubled as something of a cleanup tour.

On Thursday, Newsom said clearly that he supported President Biden to be the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2024, amid a swirl of reporting by my Times colleagues and others suggesting that liberal voters are not especially enthused about another term for the 79-year-old commander in chief.

News reports, including in this humble newsletter, have noted that Newsom’s rise as a leader in the Democratic Party could put him in competition with Harris, a longtime ally and possible future in-state opponent, in a hypothetical Biden-free presidential primary.

Those stories have gotten the attention of the vice president’s office, while amusing the governor’s staff back home in California. Both camps insist there’s no rivalry between the two leaders.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Newsom volunteered that Harris had been “wonderful” as vice president and said they were just going to “check in, as we do constantly.” He alluded, however, to unspecified “constraints” Harris had faced in office and said it was “a difficult time for all of us in public life.”

Asked what was on the lunch menu, a Newsom aide joked in a text: “Arsenic and arm wrestling. The usual.”

Thanks for reading.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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