Top Gun: Maverick – All Writing Is Political
This week, we’re doing something special. I’m actually sharing a video from my latest Thursday Night Writes Class. This is the free class that I do every Thursday night. But this particular lecture, I felt was so timely and so important that I wanted to share it with everyone on the podcast. You’ll notice we had some sound issues. The sound is not as good as you would normally expect from the podcast. But I think you will get a lot of value out of this content. And hopefully, it will affect your writing for the better.
If you do the exercise, and you’d like to share your results, feel free to join the JKS Writers Collective Group on Facebook, and you can share your results there and get feedback from our community. Thank you so much. And enjoy.
I went to see Top Gun: Maverick a couple of days ago. And I had an amazing time. And then I got really angry. And it’s not a popular thing to say that Top Gun: Maverick got me angry. Everybody loves this movie.
But I got angry.
I got angry because I think Top Gun: Maverick is such a missed opportunity. Because the film has dumbed down war to a place where we can all feel so good about it.
It’s dumbed down war to a point where there are no consequences, there is no death– there’s not even a moment like Goose’s death in the first movie. There are no consequences to being a maverick and refusing to follow any rule. And anybody in charge is a total idiot, so there’s no risk in being a Maverick, because you’re so obviously right and everyone else is so obviously wrong. And the girl that you’ve wronged, again and again, and again, is still going to be there waiting for you forever– apparently for the last 30 years. And, nothing we do is going to have any frickin’ consequences.
I think part of the reason Top Gun is doing well is for exactly that reason. All of us want to escape right now. Who doesn’t want to escape?
I’m not arguing that Top Gun: Maverick is anything other than a successful screenplay.
Sure, we can get into the formulaic aspects of the film’s structure. And if we wanted to get really specific about its applicability as a model for new writers. It’s not. You can’t sell Top Gun: Maverick as a new writer. You can’t follow a formula that is predictable and succeed unless you happen to own a franchise that everyone in the world is nostalgic for.
But outside of those issues, the screenplay for Top Gun: Maverick is tight as hell. And it’s doing everything the writers want it to do. It’s a joy ride. It gives you the fun you’re looking for. It’s got well-built characters that all have really clear wants and go on really clear journeys. And it’s got some of the most incredible stunts ever filmed.
And no one could argue that it’s been anything but totally financially and critically successful.
But it’s still a missed opportunity.
Top Gun: Maverick wants to be a piece about drones. It wants to script who we’re becoming as America.
It wants to be a film about the difference between being the pilot in the pilot seat and making decisions based on what you know is right and wrong. And being a drone, following a plan without conscience or connection, where there is no feeling in war, where you are playing a video game.
The script starts out with that promise.
It starts out like this: Maverick you’re the old guard. We’re getting rid of you. We don’t need pilots anymore. We’ve got drones. (in fact, we have a mission that probably should be flown by drones considering the pilots keep blacking out from the G forces as they try to practice it).
The movie promises that it’s going to tell us why it’s important to have a human being in the cockpit. A human being with a conscience, and the ability to make decisions.
In other words, in its opening scenes, Top Gun: Maverick is promising to become a movie like A Few Good Men. In fact, the script is only a couple of tweaks away from actually delivering on that promise.
And I would suggest to you all that what we need right now is not an escapist romp, even one that makes everyone a lot of money and makes audiences super happy.
What we need right now is A Few Good Men in the freaking air.
All writing is political.
And I don’t care even if you disagree with me politically. I don’t care what your political views are at all. Writing is political. Your script is political. Top Gun: Maverick is political. Because it sets the world for people that say war doesn’t hurt. It creates that world in an even more dangerous way than the first Top Gun, where at least there are some consequences to war and radical rulebreaking– at least Goose dies. It creates that world. And it makes that world feel real or an entire generation of movie-goers.
It sets the rules by creating a mythology that there are no consequences to your actions– and by the way, don’t pay attention to the rules. Don’t pay attention to the people in charge. They are so stupid, that whatever crazy idea you have is probably right.
And there’s a part of me that thinks a lot of people storming the Capitol on January 6, we’re thinking exactly that.
And so the movie made me angry. But it also gave me an idea, which is to help you guys figure out the political side of your writing, whether you are writing a movie that is overtly political or not.
When I wrote The Matthew Shepard Story, that was an overtly political movie.
But even if you’re writing a goofy action movie– Guardians of the Galaxy, for example. It may seem like just a goofy action movie, but it’s actually a meditation on loss. It’s teaching people how to deal with and make sense of loss. And therefore it means something, and therefore it moves people, and therefore it has a political effect of allowing people to see themselves and others in a more empathetic way.
You can apply what we’re about to do to an existing piece of writing, or it could be an idea for a brand new piece. We’re going to do a series of exercises today that help you find this political aspect– this meaning– in your own writing.
But first, there’s something I have to make clear.
There’s a reason Top Gun has been sanded down to a place where he can offend nobody. There’s a reason why all those edges have been removed.
Because we live in a divided world.
You don’t want to alienate the Republicans, but you also don’t want to alienate the Democrats. You don’t want to alienate the moderates, but you also don’t want to alienate the radicals. You want everybody in the world to come see this movie.
It is often the case that producers will try to rub the edges off of your writing.
And your job as a writer is to go do exactly what Shakespeare did– Oh, sure. Yeah, happy to work with you there… Now, let me sneak the meaning.
Meaning, in screenwriting, doesn’t come from getting up on a soapbox and preaching to the choir. Meaning actually comes from your character’s journey.
A writer who wanted to could tell the same story about the faceless enemy who’s just doing bad nuclear stuff, who you’ll never see, so you can’t offend anyone– and of course the pilots– as you know when you blow up a pilot in one of these crazy 5th Generation planes, they just magically parachute out. Even they don’t get to die…
You could write that movie, even with the directive that they have to remain faceless and nameless and from no identifiable country or political affiliation other than bad– and you could make something out of the fact that we don’t know them.
You could make Tom Cruise deal with the fact that he doesn’t know them. That he doesn’t see them. That he’s kind of just translated them into a one-dimensional vision of “the enemy” with no empathy or humanity to them.
There are moments when Top Gun: Maverick almost does this!
There’s a very interesting: “do, don’t think” theme which runs throughout the screenplay of Top Gun: Maverick.
(Again, this advice might be good, for example, for a writer trying to break through a creative lock– but maybe is not the best advice for fighter pilots flying lethal jets. But regardless…)
There’s this great moment between Maverick and Rooster, right after Rooster comes back to save Maverick, who’s just sacrificed himself for Rooster.
Maverick yells, “What were you thinking?” And Rooster responds, “you told me not to think!”
It’s one of the only moments in the movie that’s actually dealing with the complexity of reality. That’s seriously discussing and developing that theme and looking at it from multiple sides and asking “is it really that simple, or is it more complicated than that?” within the structure of your character’s journey.
You can give producers all the commercial stuff that they want, and you can still have meaning in your script. Because the meaning is delivered in the character’s journey.
Whatever your main character’s journey is, that is the story that the audience is going to tell themselves about what it means to be a hero.
This is true even if you’re writing an antihero. When people watch Walter White, when people watch The Godfather, they’re still learning a version of what it means to be a hero, even if it’s a tragic version, where they can feel the consequences of making certain kinds of choices.
What we do as screenwriters is allow the audience to experience our main character’s journey, and recognize a part of themselves in the character: that’s me up there.
And by taking a character on a journey, we allow our audience to go on a journey that changes them.
Top Gun: Maverick has the same effect on the audience. It takes a character– in fact an entire cast of characters– on a journey that allows the audience to say “That’s me up there…”
And it teaches them… that all the crazy choices we make are going to have no consequences, and if we just stop thinking and start doing, everything’s going to turn out to be just fine.
I’m not saying that Maverick isn’t a successful film. I’m saying it made me angry.
I’m not saying it doesn’t do everything it wanted to do and doesn’t give the audience a much better experience than a lot of the crappy movies out there.
It’s a tight script, and it works.
I just think when everyone in the world is going to see your movie, wouldn’t it be nice if you actually helped change them in way that actually helped?
Wouldn’t it be nice if you left them just a little bit better, or at least a little bit wiser than they were when they sat down to watch?
And I don’t think that the writers would have had to sacrifice anything in their story to actually do that.
Top Gun: Maverick is a successful script. And it made me angry. But we’re gonna get past anger.
Because one of the mistakes that a lot of angry scripts make– and I’ve written them– one of the mistakes that political scripts make is that often their goal is to “raise awareness.” Their goal is to get you riled up: oh, man, that makes me angry.
This is true even if you saw, many years ago, An Inconvenient Truth, (which is still inconveniently very, very true). You get to the end of Inconvenient Truth and you are whipped into a fervor. You’re ready to get out there and save the world.
But then the film doesn’t tell you how you can actually do this.
All this “awareness” is raised, but no action is raised.
When I’m writing a political film or political show, (and again, every show and every film is political) the first question I ask myself is this: What is the action step that I want somebody to take after watching my film or show?
This is the first step of your writing exercise.
I’ll give you an example in The Matthew Shepard Story.
This was the action step I wanted someone to take after watching my movie:
I wanted the mom to pick up the phone and call her kid.
I wanted a mom who had maybe kind of had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with her child about their sexuality to pick up the phone and call her kid. And I’ll talk later about how I did that.
For right now, what is the action step?
That action step doesn’t have to be super political.
It could be:
I want them to make peace with their anger.
I want them to do something that makes them happy.
I want them to notice something they haven’t noticed before.
It doesn’t have to be a super active action step. But what is the action step that you want them to take?
STEP 1: Take a few minutes, and free-write about what is the action steps you would like an audience member to take after watching your film or show.
If you’re having a hard time finding that action step, think of like something really small. If you can’t get them to do something big, you might be able to get them to do something tiny, that would just make things just a teeny tiny bit better.
If everybody did it, maybe it would make things a lot better.
The next step in writing a film that affects things politically is to ask yourself, who is the audience that you think you can actually transform? Who is the audience that you think will go with you?
The reason that I am asking that question is that, too often, we decide that we want to change everybody. And we end up tilting at windmills.
When I was writing The Matthew Shepard Story, I wasn’t writing for the gay audience. Because quite frankly, they already knew. And what the hell did I have to tell them that they didn’t already know much better than me, a straight man? I’m knew I wasn’t writing for them. I couldn’t do them justice.
And I also wasn’t writing for dad. Even though dad has a great journey in that movie. I wasn’t writing for dad, because I didn’t think dad would tune in to watch the movie. I just didn’t think I could get him.
And I wasn’t writing for bigots. I didn’t think that I could get a bigot to tune in and watch The Matthew Shepard story. I just thought, there’s no way they’re watching this movie, not the person who’s actively homophobic. I thought that the movie potentially could help them, but I didn’t think they were going to watch it.
The person who I thought might watch it was mom. The mom who feels a little estranged from her kid, who feels like she’s a good mom, but feels a little bit estranged because she’s uncomfortable with her child’s sexuality.
She maybe thinks “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the right way to handle that, and she has inadvertently cut herself off from her child because of that.
And I thought I think I can get her to tune in. Because I think she’s wondering, why do I feel so distant? And I think she’s wondering, is my kid okay?
She was my audience.
STEP 2: I want you to take just a couple of minutes to write about who your audience is?
Who do you think you can actually get to take the action step?
I want you to get real about it. If you want to target neo-nazis and teach them to overcome their prejudices– great! But how are you going to get them to watch? Who do you think you can actually change with this film or show? Who’s going to tune in, that you can actually change? And how are you going to get them? How are you going to get them to watch that they can go on this journey?
(This is another reason I’m so angry about the missed opportunity of Top Gun: Maverick– because everyone wants to watch this film! All the people who most need Maverick to take them on that kind of journey are already going to show up to watch Top Gun: Maverick!)
We are not just entertainers. We are writers. We are the shapers of the mythology of tomorrow.
We live in a world where war is real, and has real consequences. Where human rights are being taken away, not just in far away places, but right here.
That doesn’t mean your writing can’t be fun. That doesn’t mean you can’t write a big popcorn movie. But it does mean that you have a responsibility to consider what that big popcorn movie is actually telling people about the world. What mythology is it building?
There are a bunch of people shaping mythology with fiction.
We’re going to use fiction to shape mythology with the truth.
And that doesn’t mean your truth is truth for everybody, that means your truth is true for you.
So that’s what you’re going to ask yourself: who is the audience that you believe you can move with your truth.
STEP 3. For all you dreamers and innovators, this is the hard one. How are you going to meet your audience where they are?
Often our instinct is to get on our soapbox and show people how they’re supposed to be. But when you start off by showing somebody how they’re supposed to be, you often lose the opportunity for them to connect with your character and think, that’s me up there.
And when you lose the opportunity to get people to think, that’s me up there, you lose the ability to actually affect that change. You just become another annoying person on a soapbox shouting, “you’re wrong!”
Telling someone “you’re wrong” like that has never changed anyone.
There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. If your goal is to get people who think like you to rise up and do something crazy. Maybe you want to preach to the choir.
But usually preaching to the choir is not the right call. Usually, you want to speak to the people who need you, and that means that you are ahead of them. They are not in the place that you’re in, because if they were, they wouldn’t need the movie.
(And by the way, sometimes in the course of writing the movie or the show, you realize you’re not in the place you want to be. Maybe that’s why you need to write the movie. Maybe you have not arrived at who you think you’re supposed to be. Maybe you have to reconceive your point of view as well.)
For example, in The Matthew Shepard story, this is the scariest thing that I did.
When I met Judy Shepard, Judy said to me very clearly, I have no regrets about my parenting. I know I was a good mom. Matthew knew I loved him. I know Matthew loved me.
And I knew that that’s where she had to start.
But I knew her character couldn’t stay there.
Because if, at the end of the movie, Judy is still saying, I know I was a good mom, the Mom who’s watching is not going to pick up the phone.
Mom’s gonna pat herself on the back and say, yep, I did a good job.
Now, one thing you want to know, I will never lie to make a political point. And neither should you.
I like to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I will never write something that I don’t believe is true, just because it serves my politics.
The question that I was asking, during the week that I spent with Judy, was, does she have regrets that she is not conscious about?
And the clue that I got was when she told me what she was saying when she traveled around to speak. She was seeking out parents of LGBTQ children, and her message was don’t tolerate your children, embrace them.
And I thought, wow, there’s only one reason that a mom who just lost her kid travels around the country saying don’t tolerate your children embrace them. I bet she feels like she tolerated Matthew instead of embracing him. And that’s just too hard of a thing for her to confront at this moment.
And so I met the mom who was watching where she was emotionally and politically. When we meet Judy, in my script, she is in that place of I was a good mom, who was wronged. My child was taken from me, and I want the death penalty for the person who did it.
Over the course of the story, I move Judy and Dennis to the place where they can look at each other and they say, we failed him.
Because that’s the moment that’s going to make mom pick up the phone.
Watching a bad mom fail him isn’t going to do it. Because mom’s just going to tell herself, well, that’s not me.
But watching a good mom realize she failed her son by not asking the question. That’s going to do it.
And this leads into Step 4 of the exercise.
STEP 4: How are you going to sculpt the structure of your character’s journey in order to create the action step you want in your audience?
In The Matthew Shepard Story, watching a bad mom fail her son isn’t going to get mom to pick up the phone, because mom’s just going to shrug it off, well, that’s not me.
But watching a good mom realize she failed her son by not asking the question– not asking what was going on in his life. That’s going to do it.
How are you going to meet your target audience where they are? How are you going to use that? How are you going to sculpt the structure of your character’s journey in order to create that change?
Your words have the power to change people.
If you’d like to share your exercise, and get feedback from our community, please join the Jacob Krueger Studio Writers Collective on Facebook.
And please join us in the action step of combatting the Supreme Court’s attack on women’s rights by making a donation to Planned Parenthood. For the rest of the summer, we’ll be sending all contributions to Thursday Night Writes to Planned Parenthood, and matching the first $1000 of donations.
*Edited for length and clarity.