Why Top Gun: Maverick's Joseph Kosinski Should Be Nominated For Best Director

"Top Gun: Maverick" is the biggest film of 2022 and on its way to Oscar glory, so why isn't the man who directed it, Joseph Kosinski, at the forefront of that buzz?

If you'd asked critics at the beginning of 2022 what would be not only the most commercially successful film of the year but one of its most unanimously adored, it's unlikely that "Top Gun: Maverick" would have been many people's first choice. The sequel to the Tony Scott '80s cheese classic, released 36 years after its predecessor, saw its premiere delayed multiple times and fought against an early VOD release. In a year still blighted by COVID-19 and cinema attendance in a slump, it didn't seem as though a Tom Cruise nostalgia vehicle could pull in customers.

How wrong we were! "Top Gun: Maverick" has grossed an astonishing $1.487 billion worldwide, staying in the top ten of the American box office for over four months. It has a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes and was recently named the best film of 2022 by the National Board of Review. It seemed unlikely this time last year, but now, "Top Gun: Maverick" is a true Oscar contender. It's become more likely that the film will receive, at the very least, a Best Picture nomination, as well as a slew of technical nods. Yet one name is curiously missing from this conversation: the man responsible for directing it all.

Joseph Kosinski Was an unlikely director choice

Joseph Kosinski seemed an unusual choice to direct "Top Gun: Maverick" when it was revealed that he'd landed the job. He'd worked with Tom Cruise before, on the underrated sci-fi "Oblivion," but he wasn't exactly considered a filmmaker of note. His previous works, like "Oblivion" and "Tron: Legacy," had been solidly reviewed and made respectable grosses but many saw him as just another IP guy. In the current franchise era of Hollywood, it's not tough to find a nondescript director-for-hire to helm your $200 million sequel and keep them in line with the studio's rigid demands.

But what Kosinski has over the average filmmaker in this subgenre is a meticulous appreciation of craft, particularly in terms of growing technological advances in cinema. He's got more in common with James Cameron than, say, Taika Waititi, a great director who often seems uncomfortable with the sheer scale of VFX required for the "Thor" films. While "Tron: Legacy" was lacking in the story department, you could not fault its visual flair and use of burgeoning photo-realistic CGI. Having worked with Cruise before, he also had a strong grasp of practical effects and stunts, which the actor is infamous for. Any new "Top Gun" movie would need someone willing to commit to its star's vision but have the skills to turn the movie into more than a bunch of planes flying and a Kenny Loggins call-back.

Why Top Gun: Maverick works

It's easy to downplay how astonishing the experience of seeing "Top Gun: Maverick" on the big screen is. The spectacle is unbeaten. Truly, nothing else in cinema in 2022 came remotely close to the thrill of those jet fighter battles. But the film isn't just set pieces. There's a real heart at its core. This is the story of a man ready to be thrown on the scrap heap who finds purpose with a new generation in his field. Kosinski is smart in how he balances peacock-strutting masculinity with humor and pathos. There are enough call-backs to the first film to satisfy die-hard fans but it stands on its own two feet as a cohesive and complete narrative.

Cruise, a three-time Oscar nominee who long abandoned drama for bombast, gives one of his best, most lived-in performances as the older, occasionally wiser Maverick, a man holding onto his purpose in life yet haunted by the death of his friend, Goose, decades prior. It's not hard to read the film as an allegory for his career: the near-invincible force who is consistently under-estimated then reminds the world that he's the only guy doing this for a reason. It helps that he's supported by a never-better Miles Teller and endlessly charismatic Glen Powell.

And make no mistake: none of this film would work without the guiding hand of a director who knows exactly what they're doing. Kosinski shoots the pilot scenes with flash and fervor but never sacrifices visibility for the viewer. There's an authenticity here, yet enough self-awareness to lean into the silliness (yes, we get topless sports once more.) It's a miracle any of this works as effectively as it does, and Kosinski should be praised for that. So, why isn't he a shoo-in for awards glory?

The Oscars are still blockbuster skeptics

While we have the same conversations every year over whether money-grabbing blockbusters or Marvel movies should get Oscar recognition, it is worth noting that the Academy hasn't entirely shunned commercial spectacle with its displays of prestige. Remember, "Jaws" was a Best Picture nominee. So were "Black Panther" and "Dune." It's not uncommon for those major IPs to do well in categories like Best Visual Effects or Best Cinematography. Last year, "Dune" practically swept the tech awards, and for good reason. Yet the director of that film, Denis Villeneuve, didn't get nominated for Best Director. Ryan Coogler wasn't recognized for "Black Panther." Even Steven Spielberg was famously shut out of the category with "Jaws." When he was nominated for some of the greatest blockbusters of all time, like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," he lost to more so-called respectable fare.

There's a strange mental block in place with many Oscar voters when it comes to celebrating directors like Kosinski. It implies that the film is a great display of craft but that the person behind the camera shouting "action" had nothing to do with it. There's also this sense that a film like "Top Gun: Maverick" isn't a complete movie, as though it's all sound and fury signifying nothing. That couldn't be further from the truth. If it were then it's doubtful the movie would have pulled in so many viewers for so many months, even as other flashy franchise fare came along.

Kosinski vs. Tom Cruise

Another aspect that keeps Kosinski out of the spotlight of his own film is the presence of one notable megastar: Tom Cruise. He stands tall as perhaps the last true movie star, the most enduring figure of Hollywood for the past 40+ years. As the A-List pyramid of power topples, the intellectual property has more clout than the actor starring in it. Cruise is a rare exception, able to sell a film based on his name alone. He's also the only American leading man who has the means to do his own increasingly elaborate and dangerous stunts, crafting films almost entirely to show them off. It helped to make the "Mission: Impossible" series more popular than ever and earned him the ability to get "Top Gun: Maverick" greenlit.

"Top Gun: Maverick" is seen far more as a Tom Cruise movie than a Joseph Kosinski one. It's a star vehicle, not a director's showcase. Cruise gets the clout for all of the stunts, not the guy who crafted the entire work from beginning to end. That doesn't help Kosinski get the credit he deserves, although we can't blame anyone who has to struggle with escaping the mighty shadow of Tom Cruise. If the film gets a Best Picture nomination, then Cruise will be listed as a nominee because of his producer credit, something Kosinski does not have. If there's any justice, Joseph Kosinski will be pushed to the forefront, not only of the awards season madness but of the narrative of "Top Gun: Maverick" as a truly great film. He's cemented his status as one of our era's great blockbuster directors, so why not allow him a shot at the Oscar?