By Marc S. Sanders
For a movie that focuses a lot on showers, men’s locker rooms and bare chested sweaty and chiseled volleyball players, it’s a wonder that it is called Top Gun. Maybe the title has another indirect meaning to it, other than a moniker for a Navy fighter pilot school of the elite. Maybe these guys are elite for a different reason.
The Tony Scott film that is supposedly about the top one percent, the best of the best, American fighter pilots in the Navy is arguably the most important film in Tom Cruise’s career. It launched the actor into a superstar sensation that has hardly faltered since the movie’s release all the way back in 1986. But is it a good movie? Well, yes and no.
I’ve always loved Tony Scott’s filmmaking technique. Sure, his sun-soaked film shots are constantly repeated. He always relishes in enhancing the beaded glow of sweat drenching his actor’s faces, arms and chests. It’s seen in nearly every moment of Top Gun, as well as other celebrated pictures like Crimson Tide, Beverly Hills Cop II and True Romance. Orange sunlight blankets palm trees and beach lined streets. Bar saloons and military headquarters are lit in sexy blues and greens. It may lack originality after seeing a few of his films, but it just makes the movie all the more sexy.
Tony Scott is also a well-versed director in action sequences. He’ll get your pulse racing and Top Gun is the best example. The fighter jet sequences in this film are masterful in editing, sound and speed. It’s fantastic to see how the planes will twirl around and then shoot themselves straight up into a vertical trajectory in the sky and finally cut in on actors Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer for a “WOO!” moment in the cockpit. This stuff still holds up.
Yet, unlike other modern-day films that focus on cadets or students in our armed forces, Top Gun doesn’t concern itself with the discipline of what it takes to serve in the Navy. This is the informal, class clown version of An Officer And A Gentleman. You only need look as far as Tom Cruise’s character’s pilot call name, Maverick. The name itself is a one-word thematic description of what you are watching. So, the kid who learned to say “what the fuck” in Risky Business, went on to do daredevil flybys while disobeying orders.
Maverick’s real name is Pete Mitchell. He has no family except that of his co-pilot, Goose (Anthony Edwards). The disappearance of his Navy pilot father remains a mystery…because it is sexy and cool to have a mystery for your handsome hero in a film like this. Call it DRAMATIC HEFT!!!!
When Maverick and Goose get the opportunity to attend “Top Gun” – a fighter school specializing in training the best pilots in the world in aerial dog fighting – they are intent on getting their names on the plaque for the best of the best of THE BEST. Competition comes in the other prettiest of the pretty boys with Iceman (Val Kilmer). These are all great likable characters. Yet, even when I saw this film at sleepaway camp at age 13, I couldn’t help but notice how distracted it gets with the abundance of erotic machoism on display here. What would serve as dramatic dialogue in another film is presented in a steam room area allowing opportunity to see the male cast wrapped in towels around their waists with wet spiky blond and black hair. It truly doesn’t matter what they are talking about in this scene. When you are watching it, all that you are hearing is the sound of Charlie Brown’s unseen and indecipherable school teacher. “Waa waa. Waa waa waa waa!”
That’s not enough though. The infamous volleyball scene keeps you awake. I don’t care if you are hetero or homo or bi or pan or plus, the beach volleyball scene keeps you alert as one of Kenny Loggins’ many movie songs plays in accordance. Tony Scott doesn’t just go for tossing the ball around. Slow mo captions are offered of each guy just posing with their chiseled arms and chests. You may not take your eyes off of it, but oh my…what does this have to do with the discipline of attending Navy fighter pilot school training?????
The romance is second to none. Truly! These days, people talk about Jack and Rose in Titanic or Ross and Rachel on Friends. For me, it’s Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis). Cruise and McGillis really light up their scenes together. It’s an absolute perfect pairing of sex appeal and it is really when Top Gun performs at its smartest level. The dialogue is strongest during their scenes. The romance isn’t rushed but nicely flirted with, and when tragedy strikes within the thin storyline of the overall film, the relationship goes in another supportive and appreciated direction. When I was a kid, with hormones being discovered for the first time, my buddies and I would elbow each other during the midnight blue sex scene between McGillis and Cruise with the Oscar winning song “Take My Breath Away” from Berlin playing. I look at this scene now and it is modern romance at a beautiful best. A fantastic scene from Tony Scott.
Charlie is the unexpected, well-versed contractor for the Navy giving counsel to the pilot students on how best to operate the jets. In the 1980s, action blockbusters normally held the women as the barely dressed damsels to be rescued, and nothing more. The female characters didn’t have brains and the only brawn to go around was saved for Princess Leia or Marion Ravenwood (Raiders). Charlie is an exception though. McGillis plays the character as someone who is aware that these testosterone-filled guys will regard her as a piece of meat, until they realize otherwise. The irony of Top Gun is that the nearly all male cast, Cruise included, are the pieces of meat. The one main female role is actually the brains of the whole operation. McGillis was a marvelous actress back in the day. Go look at Witness and The Accused to see what I mean. With her help, Cruise elevates above the hokey dialogue of the Top Gun script. Kelly McGillis really could act well in almost anything. I wish her career went further, honestly.
Top Gun remains a mainstay in 1980s pop culture. If the VH1 channel is doing a documentary on the decade of Madonna, Michael Jackson, parachute pants and neon pastels, Top Gun is also brought up in the mix with a close up of Tom Cruise’s toothy grin and his aviator sunglasses. We were never watching Oscar winning material here, but somehow the film that introduced all of us to Tom Cruise still feels like a day at the beach with the twenty something boy toy in his tight jeans and leather bomber jacket riding his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle at top speed or breaking the sound barrier in his fighter jet with his shiny navy-blue helmet on his head. Top Gun and Tom Cruise demonstrated that it’s a party to serve in the Navy. Why not? Vietnam was behind us and the decade was not embroiled in war. Join the Navy!!!! It’s fun and you get to shower with the best-looking guys in the world. You’ll even get to play volleyball with them and date your sexy flight instructor.
A lot of the dialogue and the storyline may sound like an adult, military interpretation of Saved By The Bell, but you can’t break away from the sexy allure of what Tony Scott with Cruise, Kilmer, McGillis and Edwards put on the screen. It’s always been there and somehow a sequel was never made.
Wait a second! WHAT??????