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On Disappointment: Top Gun Maverick

Updated: Jun 9

We get used to it, over time. Disappointment. The majority of romantic relationships, jobs, and New Years' eve parties, in my experience, end in disappointment. Our parents end up disappointing us when we grow up, we end up disappointing them in various ways, our best of friends and our favourite indulgences at some point in time disappoint us.


Love the fillet at that favourite steakhouse because that was where you went for your first date with the woman who is now your wife? Well, at some point they are going to get it wrong. Love the cappuccino at Olympia Bakery, because you once had it halfway through a cycle race and you were low on sugar and energy and nothing ever tasted so good? It will never ever again live up to that sacred memory.


And the problem is ourselves, I think. We build these beautiful monuments to sacred memories and moments that the reality if we try to repeat them, can never live up to. And, as a result, we learn to temper our expectations. With wisdom comes a healthy dose of cynicism, and the safety of lowering your expectations, because that way, you can’t easily be disappointed.


But there are anomalies. Sometimes the construct is too strong, and you can’t fight it. No matter how much you tell yourself to not have high expectations, no matter how you try to govern your pregame to avoid disappointment, you just know that you are going to want a lot. And not get it. And walk away slightly more jaded than before. The memory of that steak, the taste of that cappuccino, and the spike in your endorphins as the bass starts thumping, the jets start to fuel up and the credits stop rolling… that very moment when the intro stops, and Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone kicks in, and you know IT IS ON. You know you’re not going to get it, but still, you can’t help yourself to live in a hope that is hopeless.


Sometimes… just sometimes… not always, but just every now and again, whoever is in charge gives us something truly special. A treat that makes us believe again, that tells us that disappointment doesn’t need to be a default and that even the highest of expectations can be met… crushed… and make you feel 12 years old all over again.


Yes, sports fans, I’m talking about Top Gun: Maverick.

Maybe you, like me, are a child of the 80s. A product of childhood heroes like Luke Skywalker, Danie Gerber, and Pete Mitchell…Maverick.


“Maverick, your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.”


“I feel the need…the need for speed!”


“She’s lost that loving feeling, Goose.”


“You! You are still dangerous. But you can be my wingman anytime.”


Tom Cruise movies have given us more great quotes than probably any actor of his or any other generation. But Top Gun… Top Gun is the defining moment. Whether you were 12 or 50 or not even born yet, this 1986 classic about fighter jets and arrogant flyboys is ageless, timeless, and as an effective recruitment ad for the US Navy, priceless. It represents youthful arrogance and vitality, and masculine exuberance, it is a visual and sensory feast for the eyes and it is the kind of movie you can watch over and over and over again.


You’ve watched it as a pre-teen with your mother, onboarding the first pop song you will ever love. You’ve enjoyed it as a student with your flatmates, rather than studying. You’ve gloried in it as an intern at an international program with 20 guys from 15 different countries, who all share a nostalgic love of the movie. And you’ve appreciated it with your wife, after the babies have gone to bed, on a cold winter’s night by the fireplace with a glass of wine.


You’ve identified with Maverick’s struggle to come to grips with his dad’s shadow. You’ve celebrated the conquering of his personal demons, you’ve grieved with him the loss of his best friend, you’ve felt his redemption was your redemption and you always always want to feel the kind of bro-love that he finally finds with Ice.


That movie was...is... perfect. It’s a Cullinan diamond of once-off perfection, and no universe exists in which the moneymen of Hollywood should tamper with that sacred memory.


And yet, that’s what moneymen do.


Because they know you. They know you’ll go watch a sequel/remake even if it’s bad, they know they really just need to do a few basics right, and you’ll go watch it and fill their pockets. They don’t care that you walk away slightly disappointed, because hey: That’s the game.


Three years ago, pre-pandemic, Tom Cruise revealed they were making a sequel. Top Gun: Maverick was coming, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach. What should have been excitement was instead that slightly nauseating feeling you get when you know you’re about to do something that you’re going to regret, but you’re going to do it anyway. They were going to do it. They were going to force me to go watch them demean and reduce the sacred memories of something perfect, and I was powerless not to play their game.


The movie, of course, was delayed. Global events pushed it back again… and again… until, as we look to be out of the woods of our shared distorted reality of the last few years, it finally hit the cinemas last week.


I wasn’t paying attention. I had resolved not to care. My experience with the Star Wars remakes had taught me that good is not great, great is the memory, and there is no way not to be disappointed. You can only LIMIT Your disappointment by faking ambivalence.


But I made the mistake of tuning in to my favourite radio station. The DJ happens to be my age and demographic, and I enjoy his cultural reference and contextual banter. So when he started to talk about the movie he had just watched… how he had prepared to go disappointed, and how he couldn’t believe that he wasn’t… and he urged every single listener to believe, and to go…it was like he was talking straight to me.


Now, going to the movies is quite a project in my house. Going solo is easy, I just take time for myself. Getting Caroline to come with me entails babysitters, pre-planning, and emotional priming that it isn’t another stupid sci-fi flick. But we lined up my mom, delayed for about a week so we could go healthy (there’s a nasty cough going round), unencumbered with crises from work (travel is well and truly back, and the phone is non-stop), and found great seats at an early evening time.


Heavy traffic almost made us miss the start. I am so glad we just made it because let me tell you this:


The movie delivers. It delivers on every conceivable level, whether it is flyboy thrills, escalating stakes, bringing back your favourite characters and evolving them in ways that respect the original but make complete sense for the current reality and introducing new and fun characters that maintain the youthful energy and sexy core of the story. You can try to have low expectations, but the moment you sit down, and that base music starts, and you know they are going to respect your impossibly demanding memory… your expectations soar with the soundtrack, and you are so glad they did because man THIS IS FUN!


After we left the cinema, I finally had a look at the online buzz. The movie is going to make at least a billion bucks and probably break all the records. People like me (and people nothing like me) will go back to see it multiple times, and Tom Cruise will have the biggest payday a movie star has ever gotten. A new generation of hot young stars have just landed, and Hollywood… well Hollywood has restored my faith that they aren’t always just going to cash in, but sometimes do the work.


I think a fundamental tenet of the way I teach business is to Underpromise and Overdeliver. But sometimes this is really really hard to do, and to Overpromise (because you can’t help it) and still Overdeliver? That’s very rare. My hats off to the folks who made this happen. It was a great date night with my wife, I literally cried three times as the innocent kid inside me got a look in again, and the adult in me could appreciate the craft, care, and courage that it took to get this done.


Let me give you three reasons why it’s as good as it is:


THE WHY:

Simon Sinek would be proud. Tom Cruise was clear. The reason he did this movie was to craft a love letter to aviation. In a world of small box streaming and CGI overdose, the last of the world’s great blockbuster movie stars resisted all offers to release on Amazon or Netflix, knowing that the audience – ME – needed to see this on the big screen. So that we can properly receive his love letter. And what a letter it was. The action sequences, the loudness, the speed, the chaos… they pushed the envelope above and beyond anything we’ve seen before, and it was glorious. And you could tell. You could tell all the cast members, all the technical people, the scriptwriters… everyone was having the biggest party of their lives making this epic movie that would transcend what we thought we knew about sequels. It is compelling to see the machine move towards fulfilling its purpose.


THE WHO:

Tom Cruise, like him or loathe him, stands alone at the top of the pile. His commitment to doing his own stunts gives the action a uniquely Cruisin flavour. But this is solidified by the way he introduces real and touching character development to this movie, and that the inevitable redemption arc and bromance elements that we want – that we need – are done in a fresh and respectful way. It’s only possible because of the team assembled. The director is someone I’m going to pay attention to, and Jerry Bruckheimer was once again behind the scenes. The movie is a triumph of picking the right players and putting them in the right seats. Cruise - like the height of their powers Barcelonian Messi - shines because of the talent around him. Any one of us can learn a lot from that.


THE WHAT:

The magic of anything is to make it look easy. But the delays in the launch date were compounded by reshoots. They didn’t settle for OK. They wanted GREAT. No, not great. Top Gun was GREAT. This needed to be more. And the hard work shows. We would all love multi-million dollar budgets and the best talent in the business, but we’ve also all seen that the machine stutters and fails even with all of that. What makes for a triumph of storytelling is minding the details. The love scenes are great but age-appropriate, the egregious abs beach scene is useful in the story context, and they completely caught me offside with the twist on the story that I thought I was being told. And I walked away amazed that they had not only checked all my boxes but checked a whole bunch I didn’t even know I had. They stayed on message but augmented for a new generation. Genius.


Tom Cruise, you haven’t lost that loving feeling.


I suspect I will go back to my default setting. I will still approach the mining of old favourites for sequel value with a touch of trepidation. But I will also allow a little bit of hope to shine through.


I think we’re all lucky to have been a part of this cinematic event, because post-pandemic, it is truly special. It is symbolic and exceptional. It is a reminder that the social construct of going to the cinema is still a valid one, that blockbuster movie stars and great storytellers are still among us, and that – if I’m lucky – date night at the movies might make a strong comeback.


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