‘Top Gun: Maverick’: Will this box office juggernaut bring Tom Cruise back to the Oscars after 23 years?

For many decades, there’s been a massive disconnect between the movies considered summer blockbusters and those considered Oscar-worthy. There have been a few exceptions like Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and Baz Luhrmanns “Moulin Rouge!,” which both opened in May (in successive years, no less), and both of them making enough of an impact that many months later they were able to influence academy voters to give them love. Those movies came out over 20 years ago, though, and times and release patterns have changed, but maybe it’s time to revisit this idea.

Last weekend “Top Gun: Maverick” became Tom Cruise’s biggest blockbuster in the actor’s nearly 40-year career, setting a brand-new Memorial Day weekend record of $160 million, while also receiving stellar reviews and gushing audience reactions. The movie is a direct sequel to the 1986 “Top Gun,” which was a huge summer blockbuster in its own right – one of the biggest movies of that year, no less. That also received four Oscar nominations, but mainly in technical categories and for the Berlin song “Take My Breath Away,” the only Oscar it actually won.

“Top Gun: Maverick” seems to be the perfect storm for Cruise to make his mark at the Oscars for the first time in nearly two decades. It has been 22 years since Cruise was nominated for his supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” and he has only been nominated for three Oscars total, all for acting.

Based on the reactions to “Top Gun,” including at a high-profile Cannes Film Festival premiere, Cruise has a chance of getting “Top Gun: Maverick” into the Best Picture race, especially since we’ll have another year with 10 nominees.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has never been nominated for an Oscar, maybe because his name has become synonymous with popcorn fare rather than Oscar bait movies. On the other hand, Bruckheimer is a 10-time Primetime Emmy winner. Know why? Because he’s one of the producers on CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” which has won Best Reality/Competition Program 10 times!

Most movies – and “Maverick” is no exception – start with a great screenplay and Cruise and Bruckheimer have been working on this one for many decades. Christopher McQuarrie, who first directed Cruise in “Jack Reacher,” but has since directed the previous two and next two “Mission: Impossible” movies, may be considered “Maverick’s” secret weapon, since he also gets a screenwriting and production credit. McQuarrie won an Oscar way back in 1996 for his screenplay for Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects,” and his involvement with “Maverick” is apparent.

It would certainly be nice to commend director Joseph Kominski on his brilliant work putting “Maverick” together, but it feels like every single year the directing category is so crowded, it’s hard to imagine the directors branch nominating an action movie filmmaker, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.

But that’s not to discount the chances of Cruise getting a fourth acting nom, because his performance as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is absolutely stunning, a far more robust and rich performance than the one given by a 23-year-old Cruise in the original movie and maybe anything since. Cruise has many great scenes in the film, but few can or will forget his reunion with Val Kilmer as “Iceman,” now suffering from a similar form of cancer to the one Kilmer faced himself.

There are other actors doing equally solid work in “Maverick,” including Miles Teller, as Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, the son of Anthony Edwards’s “Goose,” Maverick’s best friend who died in the original “Top Gun.” Teller has many great scenes with Cruise, and the same can be said for Jennifer Connelly, although her role as Penny Benjamin might be even smaller than Kelly McGillis‘s in the original movie. And then there’s Kilmer himself, who gives an incredible performance mainly using his eyes, which makes his single scene one of the movie’s high watermarks. There’s just such a strong cast around Cruise that I wouldn’t even discount the SAG Awards nominating the ensemble cast, but it might instead get nominated for its stunt performers.

Next, let’s talk about the cinematography by Chilean DP Claudio Miranda, who already won an Oscar for his work on Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” The way that “Maverick” is shot, putting the viewer right into the cockpit with Cruise and the other fighter pilots, is part of what makes it such an exciting cinematic experience that must be seen on the biggest screen possible. If the cinematographers’ branch in the academy is as excited by what they see as movie audiences have been, Miranda might be shooting for his third Oscar nomination.

One can’t help but be equally impressed by Eddie Hamilton’s editing that not only made so many of the action scenes more exciting, but also was beneficial to the dramatic scenes. Hamilton edited the previous two (and next two) “Mission: Impossible” movies, as well as a number of movies for Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), so he has more than ample experience. The fact that the original “Top Gun” received an Oscar nomination in the Film Editing category is more than enough to be hopeful that its sequel will do the same.

Another reason to see “Top Gun: Maverick” in the largest theater possible is the incredible sound work done by the crew that not only captured any sounds from set but also created an array of effects to enhance the aerial scenes.

The team doing the sound in the movie is so big it’s hard to single out just one or two, but it’s significant that re-recording mixer Mark Taylor previously won an Oscar for Sam Mendes’s “1917” with three other nominations to his name, including one for last year’s “No Time to Die.” Re-recording mixer Gary Summer is a seasoned veteran who has won four Oscars out of 11 nominations that go back to 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” Sound mixer Mark Weingarten won an Oscar for Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Those three alone are fairly impressive, especially when you remember that the original “Top Gun” was nominated for its sound. (Sadly, it lost both sound categories to Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” but to be fair, that was a war movie that also won Best Picture that year, a tough combo to beat in that craft contest.)

Although Cruise and Kominski worked hard to do a lot of the aerial dogfights practically with all the actors learning to fly the jets to further the authenticity, visual effects are still necessary, even if some of them may have been supplementary. Granted, Visual Effects nominations tend to go to movies with flashier CG creatures and environments, fantasy and science fiction and superhero movies, but “Maverick’s” use of visual effects is so seamless and fluid that the academy’s VFX chapter should be fairly impressed.

That brings us to music, which played an important role in the original “Top Gun” being a success, and that is likely to be the case this time, too, since Lady Gaga provided the original song “Hold My Hand,” which could be her third Oscar nomination in the Original Song category in which she already won an Oscar for “Shallow” from “A Star is Born.” (I mean, the song is no “Take My Breath Away,” but at least it’s primarily used in the end credits and not every time Maverick is gonna hook up.)

Lady Gaga is also credited for the film’s original score along with recent two-time Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, and original composer, Harold Faltermeyer, with Lorne Balfe credited for producing the score. The score is indeed great, and definitely worthy of an Oscar nomination, even if that’s typically another tough category to crack.

I’m not sure that fields like production design, costume design, and hair and makeup will be craft categories where “Top Gun: Maverick” can get support, just because those are categories where nominations tend to go to much flashier work. Production design often goes hand-in-hand with cinematography, but in this case, Jeremy Hindle’s contemporary work feels so authentic and naturalistic that it may get overlooked.

In conclusion, “Maverick’s” best bets for Oscar nominations are: Best Picture, Cruise for Best Actor, Best Original Song, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Original Score — that’s eight, certainly not a bad haul.

Also possibilities: Teller for Best Supporting Actor, Connelly for Best Supporting Actress.

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