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Top Gun: Maverick, set to open May 27, sits at a sky-high 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. After seemingly endless pandemic miseries, it feels like there are whole audience quadrants hungry for an old-school, PG-13 popcorn movie, a throwback for parents who can revel in nostalgia while their kids enjoy the action.
But Top Gun also cooks up a pretty complicated stew of feelings for some — feelings about politics, about the fate of the business and, for me unexpectedly, emotion that had nothing to do with the action onscreen. (Truth: I had never even seen the original film until I watched it on Netflix the night before I went to the sequel’s May 4 premiere in San Diego.)
While most critics obviously liked the movie, the politics of the film created a sense of unease for more than one. Writing that the original had “all the narrative complexity of a music video crossed with a military recruitment reel,” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney said the queasiness (despite the film’s multiracial cast) has only intensified in the post-Trump age, “with patriotism curdling into white supremacy” (a point he made weeks before the latest white-nationalist terror attack, in Buffalo). Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times concurred that it was “best not to think too long or hard about … the fetishization of U.S. military might.” And he raised another key point on the minds of many: “Is this movie one of the last gasps of a dying Hollywood empire? Or is its emotionally stirring, viscerally gripping and proudly old-fashioned storytelling the latest adrenaline shot that the industry so desperately needs?”
The audience at the premiere I attended just seemed ready to surrender to the star power of Tom Cruise, who (with Mission: Impossible 7 still unfinished) is enjoying a spectacular international ride, including the helicopter landing in San Diego, a royal premiere in England plus a role in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebration and, in Cannes, eight fighter jets overhead expelling smoke in red and blue to match the colors of the French flag and a “surprise” honorary Palme d’Or.
It was a long road, getting to this moment. Skydance’s David Ellison, as a very young heir to billions, years ago sought out the original’s director, Tony Scott, and persuaded him to consider the idea of a reprise. But in 2012, Scott stunned Hollywood by leaping to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro. Cruise had been with him just two days earlier, scouting locations for the film. This version of the movie was finally greenlighted in the Jim Gianopulos regime, and much about the premiere and the film’s splashy rollout was already planned two years ago. (As Cruise has noted, there was no world in which Paramount wasn’t going to hold the film for a full theatrical run. Because he’s Tom Cruise.)
Now Paramount is poised to enjoy what looks like a global hit just months after Shari Redstone ousted Gianopulos partly for being (in her mind) too old-school about theatrical releases. She committed to a full push into streaming just before Wall Street’s infatuation with it started to cool. Paramount+ is building subscribers, but on the theatrical-movie front, the company has been dining very well on meals prepared by the departed chef. It’s a cliche in Hollywood that executives hit a hot streak after they’re fired, but Gianopulos’ run in this respect has been pretty remarkable. Even the old-fashioned The Lost City is a whisker away from $100 million in domestic box office, and that’s not supposed to happen anymore, at least for a comedic romp that is neither a franchise nor a superhero movie.
At the premiere in San Diego, to which Gianopulos was unsurprisingly not invited, someone asked me how I was enjoying the party. “Feeling a little bad for Cinderella,” I answered.
For many — including me — Cruise himself evokes a heavy mix of feelings. He’s been a movie star since he was 21, still huge in an era when there aren’t many left. His commitment to being a movie star is unflagging. He’s taken chances on a variety of material but still delivered the blockbusters, decade after decade. Still, a lot of people can’t forget — and those old enough to remember 2005, couch jumping and all, were vividly reminded by Cruise himself — that he is also deeply committed to Scientology. Lawrence Wright, Alex Gibney, Leah Remini and others have had plenty to say about what’s disturbing about the organization, and I’ve written a lot of words about Cruise and Scientology myself.
The issue isn’t what Cruise believes in private. Celebrities have always been valued by the group as “ornaments,” says longtime chronicler and Scientology critic Tony Ortega, but Cruise is the church’s biggest celebrity and crown jewel. If Cruise were to leave and denounce the group, Ortega says, “I doubt Scientology could survive it. That’s how important he is.” (There’s no sign he’s considering it.) He adds that Top Gun is “a huge boost for individual Scientologists, who will see the success of the Top Gun sequel as a vindication of Scientology, even if the movie has nothing to do with it.”
At the May 4 premiere at the San Diego Civic Center, Cruise stood onstage and, with immaculate politeness, thanked everyone involved. (He thanked Redstone and Paramount CEO Bob Bakish, who were there, but saved his most lavish praise for Ellison.) The audience included rows of naval officers in their immaculate white uniforms, and of course Cruise thanked the Navy, too. I wondered whether any of those officers gave a thought to Scientology or if they were just dazzled, like millions around the world, by that high-wattage smile and the undeniable movie-star magic.
For me another wave of emotion came when the lights went down and the screen was filled with “Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer” in giant letters. Bruckheimer wasn’t obligated to give Don credit on the screen more than 25 years after his death, but he did.
I wasn’t in Hollywood for the original Top Gun, but I was around for the aftermath, when Simpson and Bruckheimer were in their testosterone-fueled glory, with massive deals at Paramount and then Disney. At Paramount, the two sat at a long shared desk. Don was brilliant and funny and profoundly self-destructive. He was also one of my most important early sources on this beat, a true professor of Hollywood-ology. He absolutely gloried in the gossip and social comedy of the town. I knew about the madness, the hookers and the blow, and he knew that I knew and took a dim view. It was understood, but it wasn’t my job to look after him or scold him. It was my job to learn and report.
When Nancy Griffin and I were working on Hit & Run, our book about Jon Peters and Peter Guber, we were invited at one point to Jon’s house. Don called me before and after, insisting on knowing and interpreting who sat where and what, if anything, we were offered to eat or drink. He deconstructed the whole encounter. As a regular customer, he arranged an introduction to the troll-like Madam Alex, the precursor to Heidi Fleiss, and I had tea at her house, poured by one of her “creatures,” as she called them. Alex — then already in a turf war with Fleiss — lay in her bed and filled me in on the Hollywood sex trade, specifically as it related to the characters in our book, and then some. It was invaluable.
When Disney chairman Michael Eisner fired studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994, Don worked the phones and filled me in on what had gone down and what they were saying about each other. I couldn’t believe it, but they didn’t seem to suspect that he was reporting back to me. I still remember his enthusiasm, his delight, his outright joy when the story came out in Vanity Fair.
One January afternoon in 1996, we spoke at great length in anticipation of his first interview about his recent, painful split with Bruckheimer — who, very understandably, couldn’t cope with the insanity anymore. I told him he’d have to address the matter of the doctor who had been found dead from drugs in his pool house the previous August. “What do I say?” he asked. I told him I couldn’t advise him, but I offered to let him off the hook entirely; I didn’t want to put more stress on a person whose health had long been a worry. But Don said he’d do the interview, and we planned to meet. Only hours after we hung up, someone called me and said Don was dead. “No, he’s not,” I said. “I was just talking to him.”
That was more than 26 years ago. He was just 52 years old. But Don and Jerry were together again, on the screen, at the Top Gun premiere. And despite the politics, the L. Ron Hubbard of it all, the uncertainties confronting the world, it felt, at least for a flickering moment, that things were as they should be.
This story first appeared in the May 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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