Childhood favorites week continues, and here on day two we have Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986). Communicating what this movie meant to me as a child seems almost insurmountable. On the one hand, the reason I would pop it into the VHS player was more about watching some fighter jets fly around and shoot missiles at each other than anything else. But on the other, this was the most emotionally mature movie I would both watch and enjoy until making it past the difficult and confusing stages of puberty (coincidentally, a word used in the film by Kelly McGillis which I wouldn't come to understand until I had already fallen in love with her). The prevalence of drama and romance over action in this movie surprised me on my most recent viewing, and both helped explain the complex feelings I have for it and made me think that maybe this isn't the trashy action movie I remembered it being.
So, obligatory plot summary time, skip this paragraph if you so desire. Pete Mitchell, call sign Maverick (Tom Cruise), is a young and reckless fighter pilot in the United States Navy (a naval aviator, another term I passed over as a kid). After the number one pilot in his squadron quits, Maverick and his partner Goose (Anthony Edwards) get the chance of a lifetime and are sent to Top Gun, the best of the best fighter pilot training school (and, if you were curious, sort of a real thing). I don't want to ruin anything on the off-chance that somewhere I have a reader who hasn't seen it, so suffice it so say that we get the basic school drama plot points but with more mature tone and deeper emotions. There's a love interest, relationships with friends and enemies, and, of course, childish pranks.
Before I get too far into the movie, I think it's necessary to address a somewhat recent phenomenon. 20 years after the film's release, a fake trailer was posted to YouTube which recut the movie to look like a love story between Maverick and Ice Man (Val Kilmer). While this is played for laughs, it's not because the new trailer's creator simply twisted scenes and dialogue to make them fit his goals. A similar tension actually exists in the movie between Cruise and Kilmer's characters, but instead of using romance to alleviate the tension, director Scott uses antagonism and bromance. Throughout the film, the two pilots are constantly at each other's throats trying to prove who is the best, until finally at the end of the movie they share a loving embrace. This possible homoeroticism is eclipsed by the heterosexual union of Maverick and Charlie (a girl), but seeing this movie after studying Eve Sedgwick and homosociality in college definitely gave me a new appreciation for it (especially the dialogue between Hollywood and Wolfman: "This gives me a hard on." "Don't tease me.").
|Mandatory shirtless volleyball scene.|
So the most obvious thing about Top Gun is that, like Independence Day before it (and in a way that feels reminiscent of the underrated Battleship), the movie is basically a recruiting video for the military. In fact, according to producer John Davis, recruitment for naval aviators increased 500% after the movie came out. I mean, completely discounting the awesome (and unparalleled at the time) fighting sequences thousands of feet up in the air, there are things like recruiting posters in the bathrooms as if the rest of the movie weren't enough. It even worked on me: until about high school I was convinced I wanted to fly fighter jets. The thing is, it's not impossible to make a movie about the military without fully embracing some ideological, nationalist hogwash. Starship Troopers (I promise I'll write about it one of these days) is a perfect example of a film that uses a military setting to critique militarism. You just have to realize what you're doing as a filmmaker and utilize some tact.
Like I mentioned above, when I put this movie on as a little person it was undoubtedly just to watch planes fly around. The irony is that there's a really solid movie buried in the character interactions and dialogue and I'm sure I didn't watch a minute of it. To begin with, this is an early movie in the careers of several top notch actors like Tom Cruise (he was 24 at the time), Anthony Edwards (also 24), and Val Kilmer (27), and while they only have smaller parts we also get to see 25 year-old Meg Ryan and 28 year-old Tim Robbins. Top Gun also features veteran actors Tom Skerritt and James Tolkan (of Back to the Future fame), as well as a recent personal favorite of mine Michael Ironside. No matter how many times I watch this movie, the way these actors play their characters never gets tired.
Another thing that surprised me while rewatching this was the quality of the cinematography. While this is obviously a far cry from art house, or even something more modest but still visionary like Children of Men, Top Gun isn't the jumble of airplanes and biceps I assumed it was before revisiting. The first thing that jumps off the screen is the movie's attention to its color palette. The opening scene with planes taking off from an aircraft carrier begins with exclusively oranges, browns and reds, as a way of saying, "Yeah, this is an action movie, but we didn't just borrow our parents' camera. Keep your eyes peeled." The filmmakers are also no strangers to visual metaphors and callbacks. There's one scene transition in particular that caught my eye: the previous scene ends with the dialogue "Maverick just quit" and the next scene opens with a commercial airliner in the background, a reference to a line from earlier in the film where Maverick's commanding officer threatens that if he screws up he'll be "flying a cargo plane full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong." The movie's no visual masterpiece, but it's certainly more than just your stereotypical action movie with planes.
|Color palette and visual metaphors.|
Fair warning: pretty big spoilers in this last paragraph.
Where Top Gun truly shines for a (slightly) more mature audience, however, is in its drama. I'm sure some of my emotional reaction to the movie was caused by the fact that I grew up with its characters, but there are some serious emotions on the line. Maverick grows up without his father and is forced to shift his emotional dependence onto his copilot Goose which in turn gets filtered down into their joint (mis)adventures with women (referenced in the opening bar scene by the bet they make regarding "carnal knowledge of a woman"). He then has to deal with feeling unappreciated by his girlfriend (an instructor who must hide her admiration for him and who eventually leaves for a better job) and with the guilt of feeling responsible for killing Goose (it wasn't his fault but he still failed to save him). Maverick starts out with very little emotional support and then has that support cut out from under him. These emotional coordinates are certainly nothing new, but especially considering that (for me at least) this movie was cherished for little more than its four fight scenes, there's a lot more depth than you might expect.
Before I go, here's the gif of Tom Cruise putting on his aviators that you came looking for.