Five principles from Top Gun: Maverick that relate to National Service
Beneath the breathtaking aerial shots and flight sequences, I find the story at the film’s core relatable to my past experience in National Service.
Note: Minor spoilers ahead.
The sequel to the 1986 film Top Gun is finally set to release on May 25, after multiple delays since 2019 in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Top Gun: Maverick takes place 30 years after the original, in which the main character Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played again by Tom Cruise, has become a test pilot since graduating from Top Gun in the last film, avoiding any advancements in rank.
The main story begins when Maverick is called back to the Navy to train a batch of Top Gun graduates for a specialised mission that no living pilot has ever seen, and is forced to confront his past in the form of his late companion’s son Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, played by Miles Teller.
Besides bringing back the well-loved aerial sequences and actor Val Kilmer, who reprises his role as Maverick’s former rival turned friend Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, Top Gun: Maverick introduces a new love interest through Penny Benjamin, played by Jennifer Connelly, and a new roster of up and coming big screen actors who play as the graduates.
Despite most of the flying action being foreign to me, watching the film through the lens of a National Service (NS) reservist still makes me instinctively relate to moments in the story, which can be narrowed down to five principles.
1. Finding a source of motivation in doing anything
Though he lost his close companion Nick “Goose” Bradshaw in a training accident in the first film, Maverick keeps his spirit alive when finding the confidence to achieve the impossible.
Several instances in the film, Maverick would mutter to himself, “Talk to me, Goose”, as he pushes the speed limits of his aircraft beyond Mach 10 in a test flight at the beginning and later on in his F-18 during the main mission.
Similarly, Rooster, despite his built up resentment towards Maverick due to the loss of his father, is driven by his father’s spirit to complete the main mission of the film, uttering “Talk to me, dad” as he navigates through the windy course to reach their target.
As I watched this, I also recalled the beginning days as a full-time national serviceman (NSF). In the first two weeks of training, my peers and I only viewed our duties as a matter of conscription, nothing more.
But as training progressed and times got tougher, especially during our week of field camp in our Basic Military Training, that’s when the matter of motivation kicked in. We needed to find our sources of strength to keep going, otherwise the idea of giving up would be imminent.
One significant moment was when we received letters from loved ones whilst facing the harsh conditions of the field camp. It ingrained in me the need to know what I was fighting for – not just the nation, but my loved ones as well.
2. Never leaving a man behind
In the film’s climax, Maverick’s F-18 is shot down by an enemy aircraft. With no radio response and no sign of him in sight, the rest of the team along with the commanders back at base presumed him dead.
Waking up within a snow-piled forest, having parachuted down from the aircraft moments before explosion, a bruised Maverick is forced to fend for himself as another enemy aircraft tries to hunt him down.
As the enemy aircraft prepares to take the final shot to obliterate him, Rooster returns to save the day and shoot them down. The pair subsequently find their way out of the enemy’s airbase to safely return home.
In the same way, what National Service imparts is the principle of taking care of one another, down to getting us to pair up as buddies in Basic Military Training (BMT).
From routine checks on one another’s current physical well-being to being answerable for each other’s whereabouts, the crux of this bond is prominent throughout our service, even in a larger group like a platoon or company.
Though most NSFs will probably never experience something as life-threatening as what Maverick and Rooster went through, the core mindset in a team is very much relatable.
3. The need of a balance between work and play
As the batch of Top Gun graduates prepare for their specialised mission, the film is scattered with instances of bonding and competition within the group.
The group is first introduced to each other in a bar run by Penny, where the audience is privy to some tense conversations between soon-to-be rivals Rooster and Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin, played by Glen Powell. However, the moment is soon forgotten when the crowd begins to joyfully sing an old tune Great Balls Of Fire, with Rooster on the keys.
Later on, when tensions go to an all-time high, to the point Hangman and Rooster exchange throws and insults, Maverick comes in with a unique solution – getting everyone out of the four walls of the classroom and having a simple beach ball game session.
Similarly in National Service, moments of conflict within the platoon or even a section is common, be it not seeing eye to eye on the way to carry out a mission or the unwillingness to let others take the lead.
But ultimately, aside from post-training pep talks, I realised upon reflection that what got everyone to build a foundational bond was to do unrelated activities like a cohesion barbecue lunch or a games day in camp.
Back then as an NSF, I thought of those team building activities as a waste of time, but truly those times were key in helping us to take the tension away from the duties and rebuild a healthy team dynamic.
4. Acknowledging that sacrifices must be made along the way
With the loss of Goose during the training accident in the first film and having to train Rooster in preparation of the mission, Maverick continues to reel in guilt and fear of losing a loved one.
Even in his dating life, Maverick is revealed to have had a brief romance with Penny over the years, unable to have a continued relationship in part due to Maverick’s posting to the airbase in the Mojave Desert in California.
As the day of the mission approaches and training intensifies, Maverick is forced to confront the various sacrifices he has made along the way in order to progress in his relationship with Rooster and Penny. With Rooster, it was the need to accept that Goose is gone and that they still have each other, and with Penny, to understand both of their needs and redefine their love for one another.
Even in National Service, this principle takes precedence in the two weeks of confinement in BMT, learning that time is something we would sacrifice in our service.
Time we could use for leisure, to spend with loved ones, to do anything we want, will need to be instead spent on training up ourselves to protect our nation.
Coming in fresh-faced straight out of school or work, the restrictions placed around the lives of enlistees are sure to be a tough pill to swallow, but ultimately it is these sacrifices that are needed to achieve proper protection of the nation.
5. Putting aside differences when it’s down to the wire
Throughout the film, Maverick and Rooster are in constant tension with the unresolved resentment and guilt of Goose’s death.
The tension at times erupts into heated exchanges within the pair, to the point of a near accident when Rooster attempts to defy Maverick’s orders during a flight training.
But when both are left stranded in the enemy’s territory in the aftermath of the warfare, the two are forced by circumstance to talk things out and learn to trust each other to get themselves home safely.
The story arc is very much comparable to working out conflicts within a group of individuals from differing backgrounds, having to learn to live and work together for two years in National Service.
For sure, personalities clash and each person has his own working style, but each will realise the importance of trusting and depending on one another when it comes down to executing group tasks like fire movement and combat shoot.
Though also forced by circumstance to work things out, the need of reconciling differences is still imperative to how successful the team will be, in training and in warfare.
At its heart, Top Gun: Maverick is a telling of an individual who fearlessly fights for his passion, but learns to embrace his loss, put his trust in others and become a team player.
Beyond just watching it for the thrills, there are moments of reflection and nostalgia that one can appreciate from the film as well.
Top Gun: Maverick will be released in cinemas islandwide and is best viewed in IMAX format.