THE planespotters were out in force last week, when Prestwick Airport played host to five F/A-18 Hornets from the US Marine Corps. On their way to Poland, participating in a Nato force projection exercise in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the craft also happen to be one of the stars of the recently released sequel Top Gun: Maverick.

I’m immune to all of the aforementioned charms. I shiver in my bed at night, imagining the nuclear consequences of a Western drive to militarily humiliate Putin and his elites over Ukraine – given that both sides do not rule out first-use of “tactical” battlefield nukes.

Scotland as a heather-wreathed extension of Airstrip One, accommodating Nato forces (and who knows, maybe Trident) without demur, seems to me a poor and supine start to national independence.

But it’s interesting to note that this Top Gun sequel, for all its blockbuster bluster, is also riven with insecurities. James Crabtree in the FT wrote last week about the shifts in geopolitics that the film indicated.

The National: Tom Cruise

Top Gun: Maverick’s opening minutes suggest that flyboys like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (played by the freakishly perfect, nearly-60 Tom Cruise) are about to be superseded by AI-guided robot drones. “The future is coming,” says Ed Harris as a grizzled general to a smirking Cruise, “and you’re not in it”.

The rest of the movie seems like a near-traumatised, over-stated response to this challenge. Which, as Crabtree notes, could as easily be sourced in the fact that China is the world’s leading military drone-maker.

But of course, like the original movie, Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t specify exactly what nationality “the enemy” is. Even the Japanese and Taiwanese flags on the back of Maverick’s jacket have been blurred in this movie, “to avoid even the chance of annoyance by vigilant Chinese censors”, notes Crabtree.

So you might be pivoting to China as a geopolitical threat to American supremacy… but you want to keep your movie’s adversaries ambiguous, so you can ship content to all available markets. Dignified?

Not much.

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They doth protest too much elsewhere in Top Gun: Maverick. Indeed it happens throughout, in every head-spinning fighter sequence. As the extended trailers unsubtly reveal, these are not digitally generated, but the filming of real in-flight manoeuvres.

The clearly thanatotic Tom Cruise glows when he talks about his fellow actors’ faces shuddered with the G-forces generated by actual aerial drops and loops: “You can’t really fake that, you have to do it.”

However, of course, what they’re doing is nothing at all – except being strapped in behind the military pilot, remembering to switch on their multi-lens camera, and mugging away as their cheeks ripple. For this movie-goer, knowing this completely punctured my suspension of disbelief.

But at the same time, it’s a powerful metaphor for the general audience, in their role as citizens facing armed conflict. We are stuffed in the back of the war machine; invited to pretend we have agency over anything; feel buffeted by the experience but with no choice in the matter.

Once you frame it that way, nothing in the movie is going to work much for you. Though it’s still fascinating to watch Tom Cruise throw himself around, like a kind of rubber object that celebrates his nation’s supremacy.

His name has always been too perfect. It’s a literal missile, and also an ideal characterisation of American military superpower — loftily hovering above the world, disciplining the unruly as their aviator glasses glint. (Biden (below), embarrassingly, wears them too.)

The National: President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One

It’s intriguing to see how the critics of this film have cleaved down the middle. One side says, “leave me alone and let me watch my well-executed action blockbuster in peace”. The other is unable to ignore the deep legitimations and consensus that movies like Top Gun: Maverick establish.

The NME’s Mark Beaumont is particularly mordant. These Top Gunners “are as likely to consider the wider geopolitical implications of an unprovoked international attack as the cast of Fast & Furious are to start indicating”.

The Wrap’s Alonso Duralde notes that “the flying sequences are breathtaking enough to make you forget that these guys and gals are engaging in the kind of combat scenarios that start wars”. On Cruise’s role as instructor to the next breed of Top Guns, Duralde notes: “The movie really serves as the ultimate Gen X Dad fantasy… a 50-something gets to outsmart and outperform the younger generation’s best and brightest.”

At a certain point, you get exhausted with deconstructing the thuddingly obvious: this is military recruitment propaganda under the cover of superbly crafted movie entertainment. So what? And then I yearn for something that actively pursues peaceful conditions and assumptions.

Luckily, I am writing this from the Realisation Festival in Dorset, set up by Jonathan Rowson, the Scottish ex-chess grandmaster and director of the “soul-tank” Perspectiva. Jonathan has just hosted a discussion with the even-more-intensely Scottish theologian and peace/climate campaigner Alastair McIntosh.

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As a colleague commented to me, there was a lot of masculinity in Alastair’s presentation of arguments about the worth of non-violence – “like a Highland preacher infused with the spirit of Loki”.

But instead of Cruise’s playing with the limits of life and death in simulations of war, McIntosh brings a message that spiritual experience helps you overcome your ego, your top-gun-ness, especially in social communion with others.

There’s an equal thrillingness to Alastair’s vision, where great collective change comes from the very opposite of Hollywood fight fantasies.

He writes in his new book on climate change, Riders On The Storm: “Gandhi was explicit on the matter. Instrumentalism was out. ‘Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and must be an inseparable part of our very being.’ Anything less, any reduction to the calculus of a numbers game, and we only reproduce the domination systems to which we thought we were opposed.”

Alastair, while possessing his own eternally youthful energy, is in many ways the anti-Cruise. Rather than crafting warrior narratives against unnamed, faceless foes, Alastair helped to create social initiatives like Govan’s boatmaking-and-crafting centre GalGael.

As he explained, the name comes from a diverse 9th-century community, strung between the Irish and the Scottish coasts, who were composed of both the “people of the heartland” (Gael) and the “stranger” (Gal). There are, by definition, no shadowy others among the GalGael.

I tentatively asked the profoundly deaf Alastair a question. Did his denunciations of “mechanistic materialism” survive the fact that he can only hear us through his Bluetooth “techno-stick”, passed through the audience? And that he had already fulsomely mentioned Zoom and the web that day?

Alistair’s answer was characteristically expansive. But it ended up with his proposal that every meeting of Google’s ethics board – if he were ever to be appointed to it – would begin with a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer: “deliver us from evil!”

Now there’s a top gun.