I figured I should probably watch 1986’s Top Gun before my press screening of its impending sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. Often it’s the case with classic films — I use the phrase loosely here — I’ve not seen that I’m embarrassed to admit that. I can’t say that’s true here, but I am mystified as to how I’ve managed to avoid this movie for almost 40 years. I’m not sure how I missed it when it was new. I mean! Summer of ’86, when this was released, I was 17 years old, and I was going to the movies a lot. It was the season of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Manhattan Project, Aliens, The Fly, and Stand by Me. All was geeky GenX glory. Maybe there were just too many movies. Strange to think that could be it, when there are so many more vying for our attention now. But the quantity could have seemed overwhelming then.
Anyway. Finally. I did a Prime rental and watched it. And what a hoot Top Gun is! Mostly not in a good way, but the cultural impact of this movie cannot be denied. It was the beginning of the rise of Jerry Bruckheimer (Gemini Man, 12 Strong) as a producer with a palpable presence in the industry even to outsiders, and arguably one of the few who isn’t also a director whose stamp on a movie — big, loud, and bombastic — is as recognizable as that of some directors. It cemented the careers of star Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, American Made), just three years out from Risky Business, as a major movie star in a way that simply does not happen anymore; and of director Tony Scott (Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123), just three out from his Hollywood debut with The Hunger. It somehow failed to do the same for Cruise’s love interest and early Strong Female Character Kelly McGillis, but then again, she was almost 30 years old so we can’t have expected much more from such a dried-up old hag, of course.
As is often the situation with movies that loom large in the zeitgeist, Top Gun felt very familiar even though this was my first time with it. Jet-fighter pilots! Leather bomber jackets! (They were such a vibe after this movie came out.) Zooming around on motorcycles sans helmets! Kenny Loggins on the highway to the danger zone! Michael Ironside. My god, the 80s-ness of it all. (The score is by Harold Faltermeyer.) It was like coming home to my suburban American adolescence of shopping-mall style and summertime top-40.
And yet I saw things now that I am absolutely certain would not have registered with me if I’d seen this when it was new. This tale of hotshot Navy pilot Lt Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) and his radar intercept officer (I had to look that up), Lt Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards*: Experimenter, Planes), attending elite flying school is taking place a scant decade after the end of the US’s debacle of a war in Vietnam; Tom Skerritt’s (Ted, Whiteout) instructor, call sign “Viper,” served there. In my GenX head, Vietnam feels almost as remote as World War II, because I have no memory of it. (I was in kindergarten in 1975, when the US withdrew. My dad was in the army before I was born, and he oh-so narrowly avoided being deployed to Vietnam, so the war had no impact on my family.) The fact that this movie is nearly exactly as removed in time from WWII as it is from today seems less shocking. Tom Cruise is only seven years older than me; that would have seemed like a lot in 1986, but it’s nothing now. How could he be that close to Vietnam?
(*I would go on to fall a little bit in love with Edwards’s Dr Mark Greene on ER. I’m not sure that would have happened if I’d been associating him with Goose’s goofiness.)
And then there’s all the Cold War stuff bubbling in the background here. The film opens with Maverick and Goose engaging in some airborne shenanigans with a couple of Soviet MiGs over the Indian Ocean, which is why, because of Reasons, they end up at the southern California fighter school known as Top Gun. The movie ends with another dogfight with MiGs. And yet this movie is weirdly apolitical, at least overtly. These words are never uttered: Russian. Soviet. USSR. Cold War. The closest anyone gets is “the other side.” The slyness of the propaganda! Look how cool these neat-o zoomy planes are! Why are such incredibly talented, highly trained, yet arrogantly reckless pilots needed to fly them? We couldn’t possibly say.
All the chummy camaraderie of these fit young men ready to die for… something… is rendered onscreen by director Scott with a sunny, breezy homoeroticism that is, I’m sure, completely unintentional, and yet off the charts. Hilariously, Cruise has practically no chemistry with McGillis’s defense-contractor instructor at the school, even though the two of them are meant to be irresistibly drawn to each other. (She’s mostly only interested in hearing about his top-secret encounter with the MiG, anyway.) Edwards’s Goose and, in a couple of brief scenes, early Meg Ryan (The Women, In the Land of Women) as his wife have more sizzle even when they’re across a big room from each other.
No, the real electricity here is between Maverick and another student, Lt Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer [The Snowman, Palo Alto], in yet another of the starmaking roles of this movie). They’re rivals, each determined to “win” their Top Gun training, except what are meant to be intimidating staredowns is instead adorably flirtatious up-close lingering eye contact. They will have play-dogfights in their penis-shaped fighters above the “hard deck.” (Later all the boys will play half-naked beach volleyball.) Cruise and McGillis’s final kiss at the end of the film feels anticlimactic. What the movie really needed was a long passionate smooch between Maverick and Iceman.
Maybe we’ll get that in the sequel?