Top Men at Work

Top Gun: Maverick
Directed by Joseph Kosinski ◆ Written by Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr., and Peter Craig ◆ Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise ◆ Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Our Man in Havana (1959)
Directed and produced by Carol Reed ◆ Written by Graham Greene ◆ Distributed by Columbia Pictures

I saw Top Gun: Maverick with my godsons, who liked it quite a lot. I, by contrast, found it annoying to see Tom Cruise still in such good physical shape, appearing on screen with his toothy smile to welcome us to his grand new movie. This piece of business done, he immediately launched into an advertisement for his next Mission: Impossible installment, including a lengthy preview filled with himself barreling through crowded streets via motorcycle and Mini Cooper, performing James Bondian stunts. (I suppose that Cruise figures if he’s not tall enough to play Bond, he can nevertheless perform his stunts, albeit in a different movie.)

At the start of Maverick, Cruise’s character, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, is called in to the office of the admiral in charge of the Top Gun detail. The admiral tells Maverick that he’s the last of a dying breed, since the Navy will no longer be using manned planes for its attack and defense missions in the future. But, just before he’s grounded forever—wouldn’t you know it!—a manned mission suddenly becomes imperative. A rogue country (read: a nearly unmentioned Iran) has been detected developing a uranium enrichment facility that must be destroyed pronto, however risky the mission.

Presto chango, Maverick is back on duty—only this time not as a flyer but as a teacher. Of course, Maverick can’t abide teaching. So without a by-your-leave, he disobeys orders, hops into an F-18, flies to the desert mock-up of the enemy’s uranium site, and takes it out. Thus he shows everyone that not only can it be done, but he’s clearly the man to do it, precisely because he doesn’t think—he does!

This is also the one piece of advice Maverick has managed to deliver to his short-term students: “Don’t think up there; just do.” It’s a sort of variant on the refrain repeatedly uttered by Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, when he counsels Luke Skywalker in piloting his X-wing fighter: “Let go, Luke; feel the Force.” I wonder what real pilots would say to this advice.

The rest of the film is a one-man affair. Maverick disobeys orders but nevertheless wins his superiors’ admiration when his rule-breaking brilliantly succeeds. Maverick romances Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), an old flame who has come back to the states from Serbia to run an off-base bar. She keeps telling our boy not to look at her like that, which he of course does anyway, but you can’t blame him because she so evidently keeps inviting that look. Naturally, they soon reignite the bygone flame. Then there’s Maverick denying missions to Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), one of the best pilots on the base, because he’s the son of Maverick’s rival-turned-friend from the first film, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, a role reprised by Val Kilmer, though now his character is bedridden and ill (Kilmer’s voice was damaged by throat cancer).

A predictable spoiler ahead: as you will have expected, Mr. Cruise’s character will be the pilot chosen for the actual mission. I’m not breaking my critic’s obligation. No one will be going to Top Gun expecting anyone other than its biggest star to be in the cockpit for the film’s climactic scenes.

And now a confession: I find watching Cruise in any film to be a trial—and for non-cinematic reasons. I can’t suspend my knowledge of his life outside film, principally his membership in the so-called Church of Scientology for which he acts as a promoter and recruiter, despite knowing, as he must, the grave damage this foul organization has done to thousands of its present and past adherents.

But, to continue. If Cruise’s film is stocked to its rafters with his own smiling presence, Graham Greene’s second collaboration with Carol Reed, Our Man in Havana, is founded on the emptiness of vacuums. Eleven years after their Viennese adventure, The Third Man, they teamed up again to adapt Greene’s comic novel to the screen, which is my classic film focus this month. With a cast that includes Alec Guinness, Ernie Kovacs, Ralph Richardson, Burl Ives, and Maureen O’Hara, Our Man in Havana is one classic that is not to be missed.

Greene’s novel is a study in the lengths to which intelligence services will go in order to ensure the continuance of their operations along with the gushing flows of government funds they claim are necessary to sustain them in their struggles with the “other side,” whatever that side might be—it is characteristic of Greene that he does not precisely identify the antagonistic other in his spy novels.

The narrative begins with the most ordinary and feckless of men, James Wormold, a British expatriate played by Guinness, who manages, improbably enough, a vacuum-cleaner shop in Havana. Into Wormold’s life marches an MI-5 agent named Hawthorne, played with ridiculous hauteur by Noël Coward, dressed in a black woolen suit and wearing a homburg hat despite Havana’s sunny, 90-degree climate. To speed his way to his target, he uses a folded umbrella as a walking cane. As such, he attracts a three-piece guitar band that constantly follows him with a jubilant song wherever he goes, the refrain of which is Donde va? (“Where are you going?”) Hawthorne thinks he knows where he’s going, but events will prove him spectacularly mistaken, to his and Wormold’s dismay.

When Hawthorne gets to Wormold’s shop, he walks in and examines the vacuum cleaners as though he were a customer. With the barest introduction, he begins his attempt to recruit Wormold. He needs an agent— a respectable, knowledgeable man with contacts—to keep watch on events in Havana under the rule of its military dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Practically laughing in Hawthorne’s face, Wormold explains that he has no contacts and no politics and therefore can be of no possible use. Hawthorne nevertheless persists. With an offer of a $150-a-month salary and another $150 in expenses, Wormold becomes interested and takes the assignment.

Not knowing what to do in his plumb assignment, Wormold decides to do nothing, until the service’s London office complains. By that time, he’s become accustomed to his newfound affluence and is determined not to lose it. He has an expensive daughter named Milly (Jo Morrow) to look after. So, to secure his position as an intelligence agent, he sends the London office what he suspects they want. He creates fictitious subagents and puts them on his payroll. This works well, at first. But then he takes a fatal step. Using his vacuum cleaners for models, he draws what appear to be gigantic weapons being built in Cuba’s nonexistent snow-covered mountains.

When the British intelligence agency’s head, played to bumbling perfection by Ralph Richardson, sees Wormold’s fantastic sketches, he excitedly remarks that such weapons will make the hydrogen bomb seem conventional. An assistant asks if this is desirable, to which his boss replies, “Of course, it’s desirable. No one worries about conventional weapons.” And here the film rapidly becomes a farcical cat-and-mouse caper. The “other side,” believing Wormold’s reports, decides to eliminate him. When told of this, he complains to Hawthorne, who blandly responds that espionage is a dangerous profession and if he’s so easily frightened, he shouldn’t have taken it up.

Guinness is perfect as the ordinary little man entirely out of his depth. But, faced with threats, he surprises himself and us by rising to the occasion. He receives the unintentional aid of Havana’s chief of police, Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs), who tells Wormold he’s had police intelligence spying on him as well, though he didn’t believe Wormold was an agent until he learned that the “other side” was planning to kill him.

Determined to stay alive, Wormold cleverly lures Segura into a game of checkers using miniature whiskey bottles instead of chips. When a player wins a square, he must drink the bottle he thus captures. This equalizes the game inasmuch as the winning player’s faculties diminish with each of his successful jumps. In this ingenious way, Wormold has only to allow Segura to win as many bottles as possible to render him inebriated enough to fall asleep. Wormold is then able to take the captain’s gun and, thus armed, hunt his would-be killer.

Alec Guinness plays checkers with miniature whiskey bottles in Our Man in Havana (Columbia Pictures)

At this point, the film shifts gears. Leaving satire behind, it becomes a spy thriller with a deadly denouement on its agenda.

How Wormold finally deals with the threat that faces him is the stuff of inspired farce, which I will not further discuss here, lest I deprive you of the fun of your own discovery. I’ll only add a word about the vacuums. Greene’s point in this send-up of the espionage game is that suspicion creates a fatal vacuum in the imagination, a vacuum that sucks into its self-created maelstrom all the fear, hatred, and destructiveness of which the human heart—devoid of love and trust—is capable.

Top image: Tom Cruise flies upside down over a mountain range in Top Gun: Maverick (Skydance Media)

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