Why Tony Scott’s ‘Top Gun’ Endures 30 Years Later

     May 16, 2016


How many times can you sit through a movie that you don’t find particularly good? There are certain movies that, despite having very little (if any) respect for, have come back to my TV screen several times over, each time yielding almost nothing in the way of satisfaction or even meaningfulness. Some of this can be blamed on youth, as one must learn, over hours of watching a vast breadth of films, what makes a great movie to you, and certain films will be pleasant to watch and yet which nonetheless feel empty, misguided, or just plain insubstantial over time. Others are films that have single elements – a particularly rousing performance, a handful of transcendental jokes, or even a particular contrivance that speaks to a personal experience – that somehow render the surrounding detritus passable. Nostalgia can be an awfully strong force as well, but it will finally let you down. Trust me on this.

The so-bad-its-good doctrine is perhaps the elephant in the room in this situation, but its also a bit misleading. I would watch movies as categorically ridiculous as Weekend at Bernie’s or Loverboy ten times over before I’d ever set eyes on a mediocrity like The Imitation Game or, heaven help me, Argo again, but it’s not because of their perceived lightness or because I get some inane pleasure out of making fun of those films. Something like Weekend at Bernie’s is a genuine curiosity, one that shirks conventionality in almost every facet other than (arguably) form, and though the creative team’s oft-inexplicable decisions yield less-than-stellar returns, the outcome certainly is distinct, and jubilantly so. There’s something to be said for the exploratory element of movies that don’t come together at the end, but clearly enjoy the meandering, secret route that they take to get there.


Image via Paramount

Even in this thinking, Tony Scott’s Top Gun is a uniquely beguiling work, easily the most prominent film in the late auteur’s oeuvre that deserves drawn-out, hopefully inebriated discussion. I’ve seen Top Gun well over 20 times, and as I understand it, that’s a relatively low number when put into comparison with people who love this movie. I don’t love it. I enjoy it thoroughly every time I watch it, but the caveats to this enjoyment are endless. Everything from Tom Cruise’s performance to the beguiling script to the intermittently atonal editing makes me wish I could sit down with Scott and ask him innumerable questions, most of which would start with “Why.”

Why, for instance, is Goose, played by Anthony Edwards, married? His better half is played by Meg Ryan, a formidable actress when she wants to be, and she appears in a handful of scenes as a sassy drunk and loving wife to the flying partner of Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. She’s also the mother to Goose’s only child. Ryan is fine in the role, but the screenplay clearly doesn’t care about how she deals with having a husband in such a dangerous occupation, nor is it even vaguely fascinated by her personal thoughts or feelings. She’s used strictly to make Goose’s death all the more tragic and to show that Maverick is capable of being friends with a woman, rather than simply aiming for a roll in the hay.

You could dismiss this as one of the average, run-of-the-mill misogynistic totems of modern popular filmmaking, which it is indeed, but Ryan, in her brief time, gives the character indisputable energy, a vitality that makes the film’s lack of interest all the more bewildering. The same goes for Tom Skerritt’s Viper, the man who takes a father-figure role for Maverick when the young pilot is surprisingly picked to enter the titular elite program. Throughout the film, there are moments where Viper imparts some vague, innocuous wisdom, assumedly derived from his years as a top-class fighter pilot, but the script never deems to get serious enough about the military, despite the fact that military service is the ostensible subject of the film.


Image via Paramount

To a degree, that’s for the better, however. Scott, working from a script from Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., doesn’t find the intellectual core of the work of being a pilot at all, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in anything beyond the God-given skill of Maverick’s work. Considering the fact that the backbone of the narrative is focused on Maverick’s relation to his similarly gifted father who died during a flight mission, the “God” in that sentence should be underlined, as Maverick is something of a Christ figure without the humility and other less-fun aspects of His personality. Scott and his writers see the military as a humongous boys club, and the best-of-the-best program of the title is a sort-of class-act dick-measuring competition, with Maverick seemingly coming in second to the odds-on favor, Iceman (Val Kilmer).

The rush of Scott’s film is that the subtext of Iceman and Maverick’s attraction to one another, the desire to “fly” one another’s brains out, seems to ride up toward the service, but stops short of taking the radical last action of finally allowing that subtext out into the open. Each exchange, nearly every single word of dialogue, is so bold-faced, plot-focused, and cheesy that it seems to clearly be a kind of code, a brazenly envisioned veil to hide the roiling inner-workings of Maverick, Iceman, Goose, and, of course, Kelly McGillis’ Charlotte Blackwood. The decoding of all this dialogue, in the moment, is the fun of the film; if any of it were to be taken at face-value, the film would be borderline insufferable. The downside, finally, is that the film makes it explicitly clear that its vision of swaggering fighter pilots is completely sincere, despite the bare-chested volleyball scene soundtracked to a song called, no kidding, “Playing With the Boys,” written and performed by Kenny Loggins.

The homoerotic tension that is felt consistently throughout the film, specifically through Iceman and Maverick but also between Maverick and Goose, renders McGillis’ character near meaningless. McGillis is a talented performer, and she makes the most of the part, but she only has one great scene – when Maverick drops by her house and they enjoy a talk about Otis Redding’s classic “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” and Maverick’s memory of his mother playing the track over and over. There’s a hint of a complicated psychological connection in this scene, an intimacy that goes beyond mere dominance, which the rest of the film is almost exclusively concerned with. Beyond this moment, Charlotte, or Charlie, as she’s called, only acts as another hurdle for Maverick to inevitably Conquer with a capital C, seducing the older, smarter, and far more mature doctor despite all her insistence that nothing happen. There relationship is denoted by nothing so much as her final admittance and succumbing to his vague greatness.


Image via Paramount

It’s ultimately all on Cruise’s back, and the film survives on his oft-dismissed yet simply undeniable abilities as an on-screen performer and persona. Top Gun more-or-less created the archetype of Cruise’s entire filmography, with a surprisingly few exceptions – Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky, etc. – and it should come as no surprise that those exceptions have proven to be his most challenging, poignant work, with an especial nod to his work with Stanley Kubrick. For all its formal efficiency, over anything like insight, visual rhythm, or imagistic poetry, Top Gun moves, and has a leanness that doesn’t forgive its immeasurable transgressions and faults as much as it makes it harder to hold onto them. By the time you realize how utterly unconvincing and chauvinistic Cruise’s character is acting by relentlessly pursuing Charlotte when they first meet, the movie has moved on, and evened any unsettled feelings outs with a proudly cheesy rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by Cruise and Edwards.

Wrapped in a narrative that taps directly into the international conflicts and unerring machismo of the time, culminating with an honest-to-god dogfight that calls Maverick back to action after Goose’s demise, Top Gun remains the quintessential Tom Cruise movie, helmed by a admirable director who had a long career of ceding his film’s focus to the performers and the script. Despite the numerous hits that would follow, Top Gun remains in the #1 spot on Cruise’s IMDB page, and though he’s had plenty of memorable lines over the years, the one’s from this movie are still the ones I most often hear bandied about.

Returning to the film just this week, my final thoughts were that Cruise should never, ever topline the sequel or reboot, whenever that finally does (pun intended) get off the ground. The narrative is charged by youth, by a careless, talented, and, yes, ridiculous young pilot taking on and bending the cornerstones of the most rule-obsessed, and yet continuously scandalized, institution in America. Get Jack O’Connell or Jack Reynor in the role, and have Cruise sit in Skerritt’s seat, as the accomplished professional who has survived to know every nook and cranny of his unique art, and is now ready to pass along some wisdom rather than attempt to outpace the new class.


Image via Paramount


Image via Paramount

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