The summer of 1986, when Top Gun was released, was the last summer I spent as an unemployed teen. Back then, I had no car and no money, and outside of the month I spent at a summer camp for honors students—and the month I spent moping around the house, pining for the girl I met at that camp—I mostly blew whatever cash I had on albums and video rentals. And because I fashioned myself a sensitive alterna-teen, I tended to rent David Lynch movies and ’70s auteurist stuff, not Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, I was pretty insistent back then that I didn’t like big, loud action movies—a fact I remained convinced of until a buddy of mine dragged me to Die Hard two years later.
So I didn’t see Top Gun when it was first released. And I didn’t catch it on cable, because we were a no-cable family. Or on VHS, because I was more interested in other kinds of movies. I did see Tom Cruise in Cocktail, which is basically Top Gun in a bar, and then Days Of Thunder (Top Gun on a racetrack). And I’ve also seen Hot Shots! parts one and deux, and Quentin Tarantino’s speech in Sleep With Me about Top Gun’s homoeroticism. So in a way, I feel like I know the movie inside and out, even though—until a couple of days ago—I hadn’t actually, y’know, seen the thing.
Perhaps I’ve been unduly influenced by Tarantino, but during my first-ever viewing of Top Gun, I was overwhelmed by its eroticizing of the macho. It was the first thing I noticed, and tough to ignore. In addition to all the roaring, thrusting machinery on display, Top Gun contains countless scenes of damp, shirtless men, either hanging all over each other or sizing each other up from inches away. Yes, there are women in the movie. There’s the mannish Kelly McGillis, who looks bigger than Cruise, and the chatterbox Meg Ryan, who’s like one of the guys. And yes, there are soft-lit sex scenes filled with lots of licking. But mostly, Top Gun is fully engaged with casting a lusty eye on the world of men, with their neatly trimmed moustaches, perfectly styled hair, and tight white underpants. I gotta admit, these guys look pretty gorgeous.
Credit is due to director Tony Scott, who was not yet in the half-bored-half-crazy phase he’s been in for the past five years. The Scott of the ’80s and ’90s knew how to give warmed-over genre fare an incandescent glow, as though he’d found a power source within these stories that others had forgotten how to switch on. And Scott had to bring a lot to Top Gun to overcome its slip of a plot, hacked out by screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. (whose post-Top Gun career consisted of the scripts for Legal Eagles, The Secret Of My Success, Turner & Hooch, Dick Tracy, Anaconda, and The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas). The arc to this story couldn’t be much shorter or narrower. Cruise plays a kick-ass fighter pilot, in competition to be the best. Cruise loses his partner and subsequently his confidence. Cruise flies to the rescue of his colleagues during a heated dogfight. The end. (Oh, and along the way, he lets go of his anger toward his dead father, or something like that.)
The dialogue in Top Gun struck me as pretty corny, though perhaps I only felt that way because I’ve heard these lines repeated so many times by friends and parodists. “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.” “I feel the need… the need for speed.” “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” Val Kilmer coughing “bullshit” while Cruise tells a story about flying inverted above a Russkie MiG. These exchanges barely registered with me, because they’re so familiar. Similarly, the big scene early in the film where Cruise tries to seduce McGillis by singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” doesn’t seem anywhere near as cute and romantic as it reportedly did 20 years ago. It just seems painful and forced.
The “Loving Feeling” scene is also representative of Top Gun’s odd relationship with music. The Top Gun soundtrack is one of the prime examples of how to turn a blockbuster ’80s movie into an ancillary moneymaker: Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” were huge hits, largely because they were used in the movie in scenes which were shot and edited like music videos. The rest of Top Gun was scored to the razor-sharp electro-stylings of the ’80s soundtrack’s best friend, Harold Faltermeyer. And yet the characters actually in the movie don’t seem like they’d be huge fans of “Axel F.” Cruise and his buddy Anthony Edwards sing The Righteous Brothers. Edwards bangs out “Great Balls Of Fire” on the piano for his wife and kid. Cruise wins over McGillis by delivering a long monologue about how his mother loved Otis Redding. As was common in the ’80s, rockabilly and R&B become in Top Gun an immediate signifier of “authenticity.” Even though nothing about these characters seems especially soulful or earthy, they do recall the words to some wildly popular old songs, so they must be good people.
I have to hand it to the makers of Top Gun, though. This combination of now-dated music with classic pop—just like the combination of an MTV look and classic movie archetypes—partly explains why the movie still plays. It’s both of its time and out of time. Consider the ostensible bad guys of the piece: Top Gun is set in the waning days of the Cold War (though few knew it was the waning days at the time), which means that Cruise and company are training to dogfight the Soviets. In the big climactic sequence, the boys get their chance, when a disabled ship floats into disputed territory and the Navy flyers have to keep the MiGs at bay. The enemy pilots remain faceless and voiceless, hidden behind helmets and goggles, which only heightens the movie’s timeless feel. The enemy has a name, but in every other respect, it’s non-specific.
There’s definitely something disingenuous about making a gung-ho war movie in which the moral cost of combat is kept purposefully vague. From the opening credits on, Top Gun plays like what Sam Fuller would’ve called “another goddamn recruitment film.” In fact, many of the actual ads I’ve seen for the armed forces over the past two decades take their cues from Top Gun, with its slow-motion shots of fighter jets moving through the mist on the decks of aircraft carriers. It’s also worth noting that the movie features a headstrong hero who doesn’t really change much from beginning to end. At the start, Cruise is depicted as a maverick—that’s his code name!—willing to risk the taxpayers’ investment in ultra-modern aircraft in order to prove that he’s worthy of his commanding officers’ love. Then he has an accident largely unrelated to his hotshottery, and watches his best friend die, which makes him temporarily gun-shy. Cruise snaps out of it in time to save the day, but what does he learn, really? That he’s too bullheaded? That he needs to learn to follow orders sometimes? That he has a responsibility to the American people that supersedes his cockiness and daddy issues? No, the lesson of the movie is that Cruise’s selfish instincts have been right all along, and are what he should pass on to the next generation when he becomes a Top Gun instructor himself. He embodies a quote on the bulletin board at the academy: “Have A Bandit Day.”
I confess that I’m not really that bothered by Top Gun’s questionable message, because it’s a highly entertaining movie. I enjoyed catching up to it at last, and not in some kind of ironically detached way, either. This is a good-looking film, brisk and exciting, and the cast is phenomenal. Edwards as Cruise’s best friend, and Kilmer as his greatest rival, reduce affability and chilly efficiency to their respective essences, while Tom Skerritt, James Tolkan, and Michael Ironside play steely commanders with just the right touch of the paternal. It’s also amusing to see Adrian Pasdar and Tim Robbins pop up in small roles—especially Robbins, who seems pretty far removed from the liberal firebrand he is today when he’s barking at Cruise to get his head in the game and gun down some commies.
Oddly enough, the one person I felt fairly ambivalent toward when the credits rolled was Cruise. I’ve always been something of a Cruise apologist. Even as I was scavenging for arthouse fare at my corner video store as a teen, I was still wearing down my videotape of Risky Business (taped off of broadcast TV, but still compelling even without the nudity and profanity). I’ll go to the mat now for Cruise’s performances in Eyes Wide Shut, Minority Report, and Jerry Maguire, three of my favorite leading turns of the past 15 years. And yet watching Cruise in Top Gun, I found it hard to believe that this was the same guy who would out-act Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man in two years, then follow that up with an Oscar-nominated performance in Born On The Fourth Of July. Cruise became a superstar largely because of Top Gun, so it’s surprising to see what a blank he is in this movie, coasting on a megawatt grin and the occasional middle-distance brood.
Then again, the movie probably wouldn’t work if we didn’t believe Cruise was the kind of arrested adolescent who leaves a paper plane on the pillow next to a woman after sex. Top Gun is a Howard Hawks picture with the subtleties removed, which means we don’t really need to be invested in the hero’s backstory or his emotions—we just need to know that he has them. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t see Top Gun when I was 15 years old. Back then, I would’ve been too mature for it. Now I’m content to sit back and let it zoom.