30 Years Later, We Feel the Need... the Need to Revisit 'Top Gun'
I saw Top Gun for the first time the day I graduated from middle school in 1986. Needless to say, at age 14, I fucking loved it -- I didn't know what chemistry between romantic leads was supposed to look like; I didn't realize that plots could or should be fat. When you're brimming with testosterone and blissfully ignorant of quality cinema, Top Gun can only be described as "pure awesome."
That was 30 years ago. Now that the movie's as old as the reviewers who crapped on it were when it came out, I'm popping it back in my DVD player, Googling anything remotely contextually relevant, and bashing out 30 thoughts on what I once considered one of the greatest films of all time.
1. This movie is a stealth tearjerker...
What I remember most from my first time isn't the movie itself, it's walking up to the theater and seeing a classmate sitting on the curb crying her eyes out after catching an earlier showing. I asked what was wrong, and she just bawled, "Goose!" An hour later, I was crying, too -- even on rewatch. Anthony Edwards plays the perfect tragic sidekick: he is completely selfless, giving 65% of himself to Maverick -- playing Mav's radio intercept officer in both the cockpit and in life -- and the other 35% to his family. The only time he's sad is when those obligations collide; his only personal indulgence is his mustache. Tragic sidekicks only work when they deserve better, and nobody deserved better more than Goose.
2. ...but not because of the soundtrack
Harold Faltermeyer's "Maverick Is Sad/Goose Is Dead" theme belongs in a Dario Argento horror scene where the very sad heroine is taking a nice bath right before her apartment building is infested with demons. But the stupidity of the "MIS/GID" theme is more than made up for by Faltermeyer's "Top Gun Anthem," featuring longtime Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens (he also played on Michael Jackson's Bad). It's so damn triumphant that it obliterates all trains of thought diverging from "This movie/America is the bomb!!"
3. It's surprisingly light on jingoism
At least when compared to, say, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Missing in Action, Red Dawn, or Iron Eagle. The Russians are barely in Top Gun -- sure, their MiGs enter disputed airspace and their pilots are robotic dicks, but they're not presented as the vanguard of an invading force, and the script contains pretty much zero anti-Commie dialogue.
4. But the movie has plenty of historical rewrites
Maverick's maverickness is attributed to his always flying against the ghost of his father, a Vietnam-era pilot who, according to the official government account, died because he "screwed up." Later on, Viper (Tom Skerritt, who served in the Air Force in real life) reveals that Maverick's dad died a hero saving his squadron, but "that's not something the State Department tells dependents when the battle occurred over the wrong line on some map."
Now, that's some insufferable John Rambo bullshit on levels both macro (that line was either the border of Laos or Cambodia, a fragile country whose collapse following its hapless entanglement in Vietnam ushered in one of history's most brutal regimes, but hey, who cares about cartography) and micro (surely the State Department would've just said, "He died heroically... over Vietnam" instead of needlessly trashing his reputation, potentially pissing off the family enough to launch an inquiry; is "If we say he screwed up, they'll never suspect he was flying over Cambodia" even remotely logical?)
All that being said: this irresponsible nonsense is ultimately less about Hollywood helping America get over its Vietnam complex, and more about Maverick's character development. Yeah, it's lazy character development, but they couldn't very well say Maverick flew recklessly because he had ADD -- that'd be boring, and also, Tom Cruise doesn't believe in ADD.
5. The screenwriters were either terrible at math, or had access to classified government secrets
At the time of filming, America's bombing of Cambodia was believed to have commenced in March of 1969. It wasn't until Bill Clinton's release of Air Force data in 2000 that we learned the sorties had started four years earlier, on October 4th, 1965. Duke Mitchell's plane disappeared on November 5th, 1965.
6. Seriously, these songs
Everything you need to know about the difference between the 1970s and 1980s can be learned via back-to-back listenings of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone." Bon Scott really was headed to hell; he died from "misadventure" (i.e., booze) a few months after finishing that song. The only danger Loggins courted was recording so many songs for soundtracks that people felt compelled to make up a legacy-defining nickname for him, "The King of Movie Soundtracks."
7. They use "Take My Breath Away" like a matchmaking Terminator
Every time you think Cruise or Kelly McGillis has killed off the romantic subplot via their terrible chemistry, up pops Berlin's Academy Award winner for Best Original Song, methodically stalking them with a passion that absolutely will not stop, ever, until sweet, sweet love is made.
8. Val Kilmer embodies everything that's wrong with Method acting
If Kilmer were to defend this preening locker-room man-strut performance, he'd say something like, "The pilots who go to Top Gun don't spend their entire lives preparing their minds to walk around that locker room in a towel. They're just kids who dreamed about flying, and once they realize they also have to shower together, they don't have the emotional equipment to handle that experience. As a trained actor, I can represent that guy in that locker room more effectively than a guy who was there. And that's why I'm going to prance around like a rooster." What Method haters fail to understand, though, is that there are windows in time when realistic depictions of pilots walking around a locker room are wholly insufficient to capture the national zeitgeist, and what is required is, in fact, Professional Actor Val Kilmer Channeling a Pilot Walking Around a Locker Room. One of those windows in time is summer 1986.
9. But this is one of Meg Ryan's best performances
She convincingly plays a woman happy with her life and the good man she's found, despite whatever strains his other allegiances have put on their marriage. A lesser actress would have come across as naïve, or barely there; Ryan comes across as a force of nature, a wave of joy that recognizes the circumstances but refuses to be diminished by them.
After Goose dies, she tells a shell-shocked Pete Mitchell: "God, he loved flying with you, Maverick. He would have flown anyway... without you. He'd have hated it, but he would have done it." Her delivery is overflowing with empathy, anguish, reproach, and the sense that she already knows that if she's going to put her life back together, she'll never be able to see Maverick again. That scene was a hell of a lot harder to pull off than a fake orgasm.
10. Is it a gay epic?
You can't settle the debate by taking a courtroom approach. For every additional piece of evidence that screams, "Yes! God, yes!" (how did Tom Skerritt stroking Tom Cruise's back while Cruise wears nothing but tight white briefs not even make Tarantino's rant?), another surfaces to undermine the theory (the erotically charged elevator scene was a reshoot, and Kelly McGillis wore a hat because she'd already changed her hair for another movie, not to appear more boyish). Unless you know the director's intent, it's all a little silly, anyway: you can't call a bunch of guys gay just because they're young, shirtless, and un-self-conscious; and you can't deny the possibility either, because probability-wise, some of them are definitely gay. The only certainty here is that no man should ever play beach volleyball in jeans.
11. Well, there's no harm in speculating
As long as you're not looking for a definitive answer, and especially if it gives you another reason to rewatch Top Gun. If you can't help yourself, though, look elsewhere: there's homoerotic subtext in pretty much every 1980s movie involving males under the age of 25, from Porky's multiple penis-inspection lineups to Youngblood's Patrick Swayze/Rob Lowe involuntary pubic shave. (Actually, don't watch that -- it's really uncomfortable and offensively unmoored in reality, like if Lars von Trier filmed a scene about typical North American locker-room shenanigans.) Also, South Pacific.
12. Michael Ironside sure seemed confused
The conversation where Tony Scott explained to him that he didn't have to kill anybody with his bare hands must have been hilarious. "I should at least bite someone, right?" "What? Um... Hey! Can somebody bring me a Fresca? Where in the hell is the goddamn, er, Fresca?"
13. "Never leave your wingman" doesn't make any sense
The wingman supports the lead aircraft. Leaving your wingman would entail deliberate maneuvers designed to lose that support, which you'd only do if you were defecting. If Hollywood has the lead and Maverick decides to leave Hollywood to chase after Viper, Maverick is not leaving his wingman, he's abdicating his own wingman responsibilities. Granted, "Never abdicate your wingman responsibilities" is not a line for the ages, but given that people have based their entire life philosophies on this backwards rule, we should try to come up with something both snappy and accurate for...
14. Neither does the idea of Top Gun II
A sequel?! Top Gun without that ensemble cast might as well be Edge of Tomorrow II: More Tomcats -- but Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer both want to do it. Bruckheimer says the new plot will involve Cruise showing young pilots how stupid drones are, but that seems unlikely: Cruise insists he'll only do the sequel if it doesn't rely on CGI, and to do a movie leveraging extensive military hardware, you've got to play ball with the military on script approval, a sketchily dependent relationship the original Top Gun helped seal. As is evident by the prevalence of "predator" references in newspapers not reporting on a sequel to another sweet 1980s movie, the military does not think drones are stupid.
15. Tom Cruise hadn't quite nailed the leading-man look
This might have been the movie that charted him on a course for Ultimate Hollywood Power -- but you can tell he hadn't achieved it quite yet because in many scenes, he looks almost as short as he actually is. There's no way 1996 Cruise would have allowed Anthony Edwards to appear 7 inches taller than him, not when he wouldn't let Katie Holmes appear 2 inches taller than him at her own damn wedding.
16. And his "I'm about to have sex" face is ridiculous
It should be called Innocent Terror. It's like Blue Steel melted in the inferno of a 12-year-old boy's emotions. If you could look that vulnerable while staring at someone that hard, you would re-lose your virginity 12 times a week, only to wake up afterwards to a note reading, "You were wonderful, I know you're going to make some lucky girl very happy."
17. Not all ejection malfunctions end in tragedy
Sometimes they end in MAXIMUM REFRESHMENT.
18. Cougar is the most interesting supporting Gunner
Aka John Stockwell, aka John Stockwell Samuels IV. If you were around in the '80s, you might recognize him from his earlier films, Christine and Losin' It, which, shockingly, was directed by Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential, 8 Mile) and follows an even younger Tom Cruise as he loses it to Shelley Long. But that's just the acting. Despite being from Galveston, Stockwell started out as a model in New York in the 1970s and '80s, smack in the middle of The Andy Warhol Diaries. There's John hooking up with the future Bianca Jagger, even as Mick was courting her; there's Hamptons goddess Barbara Allen comparing John to uber-handsome artist Peter Beard; there's John "falling in love" (according to Warhol) with Walter Cronkite at the 21 Club bar; there's John rushing up to see a dead body in the middle of the street(?!) Stockwell later dove into directing -- kinda literally, with the azure masterpieces Blue Crush and Into the Blue. Oh, and his next feature is Kickboxer: Vengeance, starring a little slice of Belgium named Jean-Claude Van Damme.
19. Having only one black character is pretty realistic
The Navy and Air Force's records of recruiting black pilots (and, presumably, RIOs) remained, by their own admission, pretty dismal well into the 2000s. So, perhaps fittingly, Sundown is one of the most perfunctory Mandatory Black Guy roles ever written. Clarence Gilyard is forced to spend most of the movie just lurking around, most painfully in a towel, perched over Jester's shoulder, trying to figure out what the hell to do with his face as the camera unintentionally trains on him for like a minute. When he finally gets to talk, it's to bitch out Maverick for not engaging, a dress-down so devoid of empathy, it's almost as if nobody bothered telling him GOOSE JUST DIED. Also, he's a black man whose call sign is Sundown.
20. Top Gun was basically a two-hour-long commercial
Ray-Ban Aviators: huge sales spike. Kawasaki Ninjas: unparalleled superbike dominance. Even military recruitment went through the roof -- the Navy experienced a massive surge in inquiries, with very rough estimates indicating that 90% of the increased interest came from dudes feeling the need for speed right after downing a giant box of Goobers.
21. But the Navy couldn't legally leverage the movie for recruiting
They could provide the jets, carriers, and expertise necessary to get the movie made and ensure the script was sufficiently Navy-friendly, but they couldn't call up potential recruits and ask, "Oh, hey, have you seen Top Gun? It'll be just like that." They did figure out a clever workaround, though, with the above commercial that evokes Top Gun through a vastly shittier knockoff version of "Danger Zone." The US Navy: where resourcefulness never sleeps, because this terrible song is always blaring.
22. The actors prepared by going on real Navy missions
Tony Scott filmed real planes flown by real Navy pilots, but the final ingredient that helped him achieve the kind of in-air tension and excitement CGI will never match was having the actors all ride along on F-14 hops. (Kilmer was the only cast member who refused, because experiencing things makes great performances impossible.) Whatever you think of the acting generally, during the cockpit scenes, every alarmed head-turn and "Shit, that was close!" comes from a place of true manic exhilaration. For those scenes, I'll take a legitimately pumped-up Rick Rossovich over any actor ever, even Eddie Redmayne (or Val Kilmer).
23. This might be Top Gun's most lasting image
That sky is the color of whatever mustard they use in heaven. Jesus, it's all so beautiful.
24. Rick Rossovich is the best well-meaning doofus ever
I'm willing to bet all the money still left in Jeb Bush's Super PAC that no one in Hollywood has ever had a bad thing to say about Rossovich. His goodness must come from a real place -- though, as with any good actor, his ability to project a real place from inside of a fake place (i.e., movies) takes real chops. Him not even being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Roxanne should have been the scandal of the 1988 Academy Awards, instead of the far-less-significant or -surprising controversy that the media actually did report on -- namely, that Chevy Chase sucks at hosting awards shows.
25. The American educational system is broken
I assumed I'd be able to Google at least 14 different graduate theses on the cultural, political, and psychosexual implications of the love scene between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, but I haven't been able to track down even one.
26. It cost $15 million to make Top Gun
Five years later, it cost $26 million to make Charlie Sheen's Top Gun parody, Hot Shots! There are plenty of perfectly rational reasons for this: Tony Scott saved a fortune by ceding script approval (he only had to pay for gas for the jets); brink-of-stardom Tom Cruise was only paid $2 million; Tim Robbins was only paid $2; inflation -- but all the rational explanation in the world won't change the fact that life ceased to have any semblance of meaning the moment the Hot Shots! budget reached $15,000,000.01.
27. "Mighty Wings" was kind of lame
I would definitely pay to see a movie where the real Cheap Trick were kidnapped by Scientologists and replaced by Cheap Trick robots who interact with the cast super awkwardly before recording Top Gun's godawful closing-credits number, "Mighty Wings." During the recording session, Robot Rick Nielsen's circuits would start sparking wildly, and he'd look really nervous because he's afraid Jerry Bruckheimer will figure out what happened, but Bruckheimer just says, "Wow! Now, that's some rock 'n' roll!" and Robot Rick Nielsen and the rest of Robot Cheap Trick are like, "Yeah!" and have the bestest time finishing the song as the real Cheap Trick are flung into outer space inside the two-dimensional square prison from Superman II.
28. The movie has its own official commemorative day
The "Official Top Gun Day" Facebook page has over 21,000 fans -- pretty impressive for a page dedicated to a movie that came out eight years before the launch of GeoCities. According to its website, Top Gun Day is "like Talk Like a Pirate Day, only way cooler," and I have to agree that participatory moves like "Call your friends and tell them, 'I'm going to Top Gun!' and then hang up" are way cooler than saying "matey" and "argh" for 24 hours. Its call-sign generator might be a little off, though; apparently, if I enlisted, I would be Lt. David "Gun Shop" Blend.
29. There's some fantastic scolding
James "Mr. Strickland from Back to the Future" Tolkan and Paul "Don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns" Gleason from The Breakfast Club could form a two-man Reprimander Hall of Fame. "If you screw up just this much, you'll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong!" is such a great line, and Tolkan's delivery is something of a miracle: he couldn't possibly sound more serious, but even at the beginning of the movie, you can tell that he's harboring the most grudging second-chance offer of all time.
30. Love it or hate it, it's as '80s as it gets
The most poignant line from Roger Ebert's review: "Movies like Top Gun are hard to review because the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless." He believed that then, and I believe it now, but maybe there were more good parts than the film's contemporaneous critics allowed for, and not all of them happened in the sky.
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David Blend is Thrillist's director of content. His favorite Tom Cruise movie is All the Right Moves, but that's mostly because he's a huge fan of Craig T. Nelson. Enter his personal danger zone by following him on Twitter.