Stephen Malina

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Movie Review - Top Gun: Maverick

Since I’ve been going around telling everyone how Top Gun: Maverick (TG:M) is one of the best action movies of our generation, I’d figured I’d try and write down some of my thoughts while they’re still fresh.

The core reason I love TG:M is that it’s an unapologetic paean to excellence, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Maverick) embodies excellence as a fighter pilot and teacher, pushing both himself and his students to exceed their perceived limits and their planes’. The rest of this post focuses on TG:M’s portrayal of excellence and the lessons it imparts.

Embodying the Art

Mechanical sympathy describes how masters come to relate to their tools as extensions of their will rather than separate objects. TG:M makes mechanical sympathy visceral. Top Gun does an amazing job of portraying Maverick’s mechanical sympathy for jets.

A key plot point in the movie revolves around Maverick’s mission plan starting with a seemingly impossible 2 minute and 30 second weaving route through a mountain range at dangerously low altitude. Maverick believes this plan presents the best chance for allowing his team to both complete the mission and get back alive, but both the commander of the Top Gun school and the pilots who will be going on the mission come to view completing the lead up flight so quickly as impossible. Having been kicked out of the team lead role, Maverick, desperate to revive the pilots’ hope so they have a chance of surviving, resolves to show the pilots the route can be flown within the timeline. Maverick steals a plane from the hanger and unexpectedly radios in to the control tower that he’s going to run the route in 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Maverick’s mechanical sympathy is on full display here. In strong contrast to the trainees, who seem to interact with their planes almost entirely through the joystick, Maverick’s entire body participates in the flight. Description doesn’t due it justice, but the way Maverick breathes and leans into the turns gives the sense that he’s feeling and manipulating the plane with his entire body. For the trainees, controlling a plane isn’t all that different from a game except where one is inside the plane being controlled. For Maverick, it’s a dance.

Other small touches in the movie reinforce this perception. Multiple scenes show Maverick running his hand over the engine of a jet, highlighting his emotional rather than purely intellectual appreciation for the planes. As his first act as a teacher, Maverick, with characteristic flourish, tosses the manual for the planes in the garbage, telling the trainees that “your enemies have read it [the manual] too.” While this mainly shows Maverick’s willingness to violate the Navy’s norms, it also hammers home that his relationship to his plane and its limits is primarily physical and empirical rather than intellectual.

Mechanical sympathy is relevant to excellence broadly because it extends beyond operating machines. The best low level programmers don’t just know the operating characteristics of their hardware, they can feel it. The best engineers don’t just know the torsion math, they can feel the limits of their materials. Nikola Tesla presents an extreme, and potentially exaggerated but still interesting, example of this. Tesla famously claimed much of his success at invention came from his ability to simulate the operation of machine in his head, replacing the need for some experiments.

I could visualize with the greatest facility. I need no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind… I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop.

Even mathematics, as abstract as it gets, seems to involve a form of mechanical sympathy. In his survey of eminent mathematicians and physicists, Hadamard found that many of them, most famously Einstein, related to mathematics visually or kinesthetically rather than purely symbolically. This math overflow thread provides some nice examples of similar sentiments from contemporary mathematicians. Terry Tao’s answer is one such example:

For evolutionary PDEs in particular, I find there is a rich zoo of colourful physical analogies that one can use to get a grip on a problem. I’ve used the metaphor of an egg yolk frying in a pool of oil, or a jetski riding ocean waves, to understand the behaviour of a fine-scaled or high-frequency component of a wave when under the influence of a lower frequency field, and how it exchanges mass, energy, or momentum with its environment. In one extreme case, I ended up rolling around on the floor with my eyes closed in order to understand the effect of a gauge transformation that was based on this type of interaction between different frequencies. (Incidentally, that particular gauge transformation won me a Bocher prize, once I understood how it worked.) I guess this last example is one that I would have difficulty communicating to even my closest collaborators. Needless to say, none of these analogies show up in my published papers, although I did try to convey some of them in my PDE book eventually.

While I know nothing about evolutionary PDEs, this clearly showcases the role analogies and physical intuition play in doing math for Tao. A form of mechanical sympathy seems to have played a role in Feynman’s magician-like feats. Feynman’s lecture style involved lots of waving hands around and gesturing and he himself described his internal experience of doing physics as synesthetic or even psychedelic:

When I see equations, I see the letters in colors — I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Ernde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to recognize the importance of mechanical sympathy than it is to cultivate it or teach it. TG:M touches on this challenge too. In a discussion with Penny, Maverick’s love interest, Maverick tells her something along the lines of “I can teach them the skills but I can’t teach them to be me.” Maverick can provocatively throw away manuals, run routes faster than anyone thought, and show his affection for his planes in front of the trainees over and over again, but ultimately, he can’t teach them to be one with the plane in the way he is. That’s why he’s exceptional.

Cutting the enemy

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

In a pivotal scene in the movie, Maverick and Rooster are surrounded and outgunned by two 5th generation fighter jets. The situation seems unwinnable, even for a legend like Maverick. Maverick tries to convince Rooster to eject but Rooster and we, the audience, can tell Maverick’s holding back because he can’t bear to lose Rooster. Rooster calls him out on this, “if I wasn’t here you’d go for them.” Maverick continues to deliberate for a second, but after one more back-and-forth, a switch flips and he tells Rooster to strap in. BOOM, before we or Rooster can react, Maverick’s wrenching the stick left, firing on one of the two planes. Despite preparing, we see Rooster thrown across the plane by the turn’s suddenness and ferocity.

I’ve replayed this scene in my head over and over again since watching the movie and it still gives me goosebumps. The fact that both we and Rooster know what Maverick is about to do and yet he still surprises us captures the essence of fighter pilot excellence. It represents the physical embodiment and culmination of a point Maverick’s been emphasizing again and again both to the trainees and the other members of the Navy throughout the movie, being a fighter pilot is about winning and surviving. This is what cutting the enemy looks like in a dogfight. No hesitation, no bowing or signaling your attack out of chivalry, just a vicious, iron desire to win and survive.

Like mechanical sympathy, focusing on cutting the enemy isn’t limited to physical, adversarial domains. One of my favorite portrayals of the formidableness and directness the quote speaks to in the context of intellectual work is found in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s the 12 virtues of rationality. Describing the final virtue of “the void”, Yudkowsky references the Musashi quote and then writes:

Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement. More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory. If you fail to achieve a correct answer, it is futile to protest that you acted with propriety.

How can you improve your conception of rationality? Not by saying to yourself, “It is my duty to be rational.” By this you only enshrine your mistaken conception. Perhaps your conception of rationality is that it is rational to believe the words of the Great Teacher, and the Great Teacher says, “The sky is green,” and you look up at the sky and see blue. If you think: “It may look like the sky is blue, but rationality is to believe the words of the Great Teacher,” you lose a chance to discover your mistake.

Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.

You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory”. But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.

If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”

I’ve found that the idea of “cutting the enemy” has helped me deal with various challenges. While TG:M shows the embodiment of literally cutting the enemy, this quote acts as inspiration for orienting towards an “enemy” in lieu of a real life enemy (as someone described it on Twitter, playing a PvE rather than PvP game). Whether it be solving a programming problem, making sense of messy or seemingly contradictory data, or figuring out an organizational problem, reminding myself to “cut the enemy” helps me avoid distraction and cut through bullshit to the real problem at hand.

TG:M isn’t just a parable

An obvious retort to all this is that any insights based on TG:M come with all the challenges of generalizing from fictional evidence. This would be devastating critique if not for the fact that TG:M’s Maverick has a real life counterpart, John Boyd, who embodied the same traits as the fictional Maverick.

John Boyd, who I learned about from Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War, was a famous fighter pilot who early in his career attended the real life version of the Top Gun school (Fighter Weapons School) and graduated top of his class. During his time at the school, Boyd was given the nickname “Forty Second Boyd” because he had a running bet that he could defeat anyone, including the instructors, in air combat maneuvering in under 40 seconds. Unlike Maverick, however, Boyd later had an incredible career that involved both inventing a new theory of aerial combat and then going on to lead the “Fighter Mafia” in reforming the air force and subsequently army. Boyd’s ideas about observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loops heavily influenced US military strategy in the Gulf War and continue to influence it today. I struggled to find confirmation of Top Gun taking inspiration from Boyd’s life. Given the insane resemblance – Top Gun literally includes a bet with push-ups as the wager on whether anyone can defeat Maverick – I assumed there’d be someone from the TG:M team acknowledging Boyd as inspiration. Perhaps there is and I just can’t find it, but for now I’m left a little frustrated with the lack of more explicit acknowledgement of Boyd’s legacy and its influence on the movie.

As the book describes, Boyd had a deep mechanical sympathy for the physics of flight, which combined with his later engineering education to allow him to co-design the Energy-Maneuverability theory of aerial combat. Coram describes the co-designer of the theory’s perception of Boyd’s embodied thinking as follows:

Christie realized that Boyd had the ability to look at pages of numbers and visualize their meaning. He could look at what to most people would be a confusing jumble of arcane math and see an airplane with the variables of altitude, airspeed, temperature, angle of bank, and G-load. As Boyd sat at the table, his head moved and his shoulders rolled and his fist pulled back on the stick and he mumbled as he flew the numbers. He said to Christie, “The charts sing to me. I hear music when I read them.”

On top of that, Boyd had a famous speech he’d give to people he was recruiting with a message in line with the idea of “cutting the enemy”:

“And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

While this is partly about loyalty to principles, the underlying idea of focusing on doing something rather than self-edification is part of what enables one to cut the enemy rather than get caught up in petty squabbles or politics.

In fact, Boyd’s life may provide even more relevant lessons to the pursuit of excellence than Maverick’s. (Maybe I should review the Boyd biography? As always, would love to hear from readers who would enjoy that.) While Maverick hit a glass ceiling due to his unwillingness to “play politics” and desire to just fly planes, Boyd managed to change military doctrine while remaining principled throughout, albeit with similar “guardian angel” help from superiors as Maverick had with Iceman.

Conclusion

Insofar as my blog has running themes, one big one is a fascination with the pursuit and display of excellence. My post on energetic aliens examines how personal energy influences it, and my recent post on Elmer Gates examines the systematic cultivation of certain facets of it. TG:M complements these by showing rather than describing excellence. Being fictional, the movie doesn’t have to deal with the harsh constrains of reality and can instead focus on dramatizing and drawing out key facets of excellence’s pursuit. Combined with the real-life parallels to Boyd, I feel comfortable using it as inspiration.

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