REVIEW: Top Gun [1986]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 110 minutes
    Release Date: May 16th, 1986 (USA)
    Studio: Paramount Pictures
    Director(s): Tony Scott
    Writer(s): Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. / Ehud Yonay (California magazine article “Top Guns”)

Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.

There’s no arguing that Top Gun isn’t a pro-military piece of glossy propaganda. Between Matthew Modine declining the lead role because it would go against his politics to Tom Cruise admitting four years later that a sequel would be in poor taste considering its sanitized view on war to the Navy literally having script approval to change plot points to better suit their recruitment needs, everything about it screams jingoistic idealism. That it would eventually be preserved in the National Film Registry therefore says more about the talent that was able to overcome that legacy than it does the film itself. We’re talking about the aerial photography (which tragically took the life of Art Scholl), the Oscar-winning music, and the vibes. It’s simply too much fun to deny.

Because, let’s face it, the script is threadbare if not atrocious. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. went through multiple rewrites as they took inspiration from a California magazine article entitled “Top Guns” that profiled the San Diego-based Naval Air Station Miramar known colloquially as “Fightertown USA”. They had to think of a story worth telling around its place as the breeding ground for the best pilots in America—one with sex appeal, melodrama, action, and a non-descript enemy combatant able to render any US military engagement that of a heroic, self-sacrificing agent of good. So, they gleaned tidbits from their experience on the base, trumped up the emotional impact while exploiting the job’s psychological toll, and crafted a dual romance on the ground and in the air.

This is crucial since the former is hardly scintillating regardless of any chemistry or appeal Cruise (as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell) and Kelly McGillis (as Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood) possess. Calling their blossoming relationship corny is generous with sequences like Charlie flying through red lights to catch Maverick and admit she was hard on him during class (she’s one of his private sector instructors) because she didn’t want everyone to know she’d fallen in love. But there’s also the fact her character was originally written as an aerobics instructor when the Navy nixed plans to have Maverick’s love interest be a woman pilot. Only upon seeing an attractive civilian woman working as a specialist did the film’s male brain trust surely giggle while transforming things into a “forbidden” student/teacher affair.

It’s funny because it’s all noise anyway. What it means to be with Charlie has little effect on Maverick besides stroking his ego (he won the unattainable) and kicking him in the pants when the plot takes him off-the-rails. She’s a pawn. An outsider. She’s there because director Tony Scott needed to include love scenes and letting Maverick have sex with a fighter jet wasn’t exactly mainstream despite the film practically being a metaphor for exactly that. Between the lens of adoration for these hunks of metal while highlighting the excitement of flying at insane speeds to complete impossible maneuvers and the overtly homoerotic nature of Fightertown’s internal competition to win “Top Gun” status in their graduating class, it’s a wonder these men care about women at all.

Why? Because Charlie isn’t the trophy. “Top Gun” is. Maverick wants it and knows his unparalleled piloting skills should win it. Iceman (Val Kilmer) proves his antithesis as an analytical and technically sound foil, though. He’s just as good and wins within the rules rather than pushing boundaries to the point where he’s more liability than help. The film is therefore a race to the top by way of the bottom. Everything Maverick does to gain an edge puts him closer and closer to oblivion while Iceman simply shakes his head and watches. The latter is actually trying to teach this hotshot the error of his way. Sure, there’s animosity and a combative tone while doing it, but Iceman understands they’re a team. Surviving trumps winning.

Even though how that lesson finally hits home is written on the wall from the very beginning, it’s no less brutal in its ability to annihilate Maverick’s seemingly indefatigable confidence. Cash and Epps Jr. write Top Gun with circuitous narrative mirroring that proves rudimentary but also impactful considering the amount of time we spend with these guys. Whether busting each other’s balls or revealing how full of life they all are, the rivalry between the duos (pilot and Radar Intercept Officer) of Iceman and Slider (Rick Rossovich) and Maverick and Goose (Anthony Edwards) is more playful than it is ruthless. Scott doesn’t need to pit his characters against each other because the real enemies are the faceless bogeys over international waters and these vulnerable men themselves.

And that’s a commendable angle to take. We see the impact of PTSD in the opening scene—the kind of unshakable fear that no number of singalongs or volleyball matches can erase. “Top Gun” leaders Viper (Tom Skerritt) and Jester (Michael Ironside) try to instill that this is a mental fight more than anything else. You need to feel immortal to make the split-second decisions necessary to cheat your mortality. It’s one thing to succeed in test runs, but another to survive a weapons-hot encounter and realize how close you just came to death. So, when death does arrive, overcoming that cost isn’t about flipping a switch. It’s about throwing yourself back into the fire to see if you sink or swim. Will Maverick be ready next time?

The dialogue and performances leave a lot to be desired (I love Kilmer, but his charisma isn’t enough to excuse the fact his character is written like a robot), but Edwards is at least allowed some three-dimensionality as a father and husband above an officer. His Goose reminds us that this isn’t a game. What these pilots are doing is about something that goes beyond bragging rights or trophies. It’s about saving lives at the possible risk of their own. We get glimpses of this through backstory (Maverick’s father was disgraced due to his death being classified), but it would have been nice to drive it home via a conflict. That the climax (no matter how suspenseful or effectively shot) proves soullessly inert beyond aesthetics is highly unfortunate.

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