The Difference Between Then and Now: Top Gun

I actually forgot about going to movies in a movie theater. I hadn’t been to a movie theater since 2019, and I’m not even sure how many movies I saw that year. But I really liked going to movies. I would scour the movie listings to see if anything was playing and head over on a Saturday afternoon for some popcorn and entertainment. There’s something about a story on the big screen that puts me in a better place if only for awhile. So this week on Stephen Colbert, he interviewed the actress that plays Penny Benjamin in Top Gun: Maverick. Oh yeah…. that volleyball scene brings back some great memories.

I texted my friend Liz and asked her if she wanted to go. After a minute reflecting on her distaste for some of Tom Cruise’s antics, she decided she’d let that go and take a trip down memory lane. After all, the Cannes Film Festival gave Cruise a 5-min standing ovation, and the reviews have been downright glowing. Maybe it would live up to the hype. We booked tickets at the IMAX to get the full experience and Liz suggested we watch the original on Netflix as a primer.

As soon as I started watching the original, I started having flashbacks of my life in 1986. I was a teacher at a public school in Jacksonville, Florida. I was 25 years old and two years into my 11 year marriage to my first husband. I knew nothing. I knew I had a drinking problem but had no idea what to do about it. All of my childhood stuff was bubbling up unchecked. Seeing a movie with a pretty young woman groveling at the washboard abs of a squadron of hot, sweaty young men was the kind of fantasy that made me forget the my fears about the future. All of my life was before me. I was scared to death I wouldn’t be able to measure up and was too afraid to talk about it. Fantasy was always welcome.

Shirtless muscle men in an obviously over-sexualized story with very little plot did not have the same effect on me this time. It seemed silly. The music was good, but I wasn’t all that impressed with the stilted acting and obvious one-liners meant to move the story along. They all looked so young and were so focused on stupid things. Now I know that the fairy tales don’t really have a happy ending and not everybody makes it out alive. Hot bodies age and get sick. Love is much more complicated when you have to pay the bills and deal with another person’s complicated issues in the midst of dealing with your own. When Kelly McGillis’ character says, “This is going to be complicated,” I laughed out loud. You have no idea, young lady.

All that aside, I was super excited today to see the movie. The theater was packed and I wondered how many had seen the original when they were young and naive. Those were the days when movies only premiered on the big screen. You could watch it at home but not until it made its way to network television years later. Everybody went to the movies. Tom still looks great, of course. His body is a tad less ripped, and his rugged jaw has a softer edge. But that smile that lights up a room is exactly the same. Maverick is still a bit cocky, but it is not the same cocky of the young 21-year old character emboldened by increasing risk-taking. His eyes reflected a sadness of a life lived hard, and he had more wisdom in his decision-making.

I won’t get into the story too much, but all of the old characters were there – some in person and some just in flashbacks or reflections. Maverick’s matured complexity was so compelling that I could hardly separate it from my own. Life at 61 has so much more meaning than it it did at 25. Everything that happens is seen in the context of what has come before. Everything also weighs heavily against the reality that there is less life before me than there is behind me. A change of course is not as easy to pull off.

In May of 1986 when the original premiered, the Chernobyl accident had just occurred, and the space shuttle had blown up in a public spectacle watched by millions of schoolchildren. It would be one of the first national tragedies that I lived through as an adult. Now there have been so many tragedies both personally and professionally that it seems like tragedies are the norm. I’ve weathered and grown from losses and can still be moved to tears when a memory strikes a nerve. My memory of my drive home from the first Top Gun brought back the happy laughter of that marriage and the never-ending sadness of losing it. One cannot be separated from the other.

They say that this part of our lives has the potential to be the most creative. I see it in this version of Top Gun. The characters had so much more depth. The plot was much more focused and suspenseful. Of course the special effects have vastly improved over the years. The writing was better and felt more real. The love story was tender and rich with the fullness of two people who have known each other for a long time. A palpable sadness hung over the characters as they looked back on their lives of the last 35 years. It all felt very real to me.

Is a movie different depending on where the viewer is in their life? At this age I am keenly aware that I am lucky to be alive. Not everyone gets to live this long, and every day I wake up is another chance at living the life of my dreams. Those dreams look a lot different than they did at 25. I expected more of the characters in this movie, and they delivered. I actually really want to see it again. But for my 25-year-old self, the football scene in today’s version delivered the goods as well as the volleyball scene in the first one. I groaned when I was watching it. Maybe I still dream about some of the same things as I did when I was 25. It’s just that my expectation of how it will all turn out is a bit more realistic.

4 Comments on “The Difference Between Then and Now: Top Gun

  1. I appreciate your review- I didn’t really like the first movie but so many friends loved it- it’s good to hear there is more depth and the wisdom which comes with ageing… and yes, isn’t it wonderful to go to the movies again? I have gone twice in a fortnight here, it’s such a novel treat

  2. Hi, Sharon – really good blog. I never saw Top Gun – lots of people are surprised when I admit that, and my kids used to quote from it all the time. I can’t even tell you why I didn’t see it.

    I can definitely identify with the nostalgia of years gone past, though, the good and the bad. I suppose it’s all made me who I am today. My sister’s younger son turned 40 yesterday. I remember the day he came home from the hospital very well. I agree with you that we are SO lucky to to still be alive and be in good health. What a blessing!

  3. Pingback: Ahhhh!! Summertime in SW Michigan – Midlife Moments

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