A Look Back at Top Gun – Part 1: The Movie

I love when my daily perusal of the Stuck in the ‘80s blog features ‘80s movies that have been added to Netflix. March has seen the addition of several classics including the subject of this post, Top Gun.  I am going to dedicate two posting to this film – both the movie and the soundtrack.  First up: the movie.

On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of it’s pilots.  It’s purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to ensure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. 

They succeeded.

Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School.

The flyers call it:  Top Gun

Shortly after Ehud Yonay’s article “Top Gunsappeared in California magazine, the idea for the movie was born.  The movie, like the article, featured pilots at the Miramar Naval Air Station who were trained to become the best pilots that the United States had to offer.  Jim Cash and Jack Epps wrote the screenplay for this film that became the highest grossing film of 1986, making over $176,000,000 in American box offices alone.  In 1986 I was a junior attending Frankfurt American High School on a military base in Germany, so this film was considered required viewing – not that we minded.

The cast of Top Gun was loaded.  It was full of young box office stars who were quickly becoming household names. The starring role featured Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a typical Byronic hero. This type of hero is a rebel who goes against traditional heroic conventions and is psychologically complex.  The hero is intelligent and courageous, but rejects traditional heroic values.  This type of hero is a staple in American film – the characters that James Dean played, Marlon Brando’s Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo are all excellent examples of this archetypal hero.  Maverick was an excellent pilot – one of the best – but he was a bit of a hotdog and did not like to follow the conventional rules of being a Navy pilot.  He had spent his military career trying to be the best and overcome the death of his father who was also a pilot; he was shot down over Vietnam under suspect conditions that he may have been responsible for.  Speaking of overcoming psychological struggles, in the film, Maverick’s partner was killed during a training exercise, and even though Maverick was cleared of any responsibility, he blamed himself.  He must overcome this guilt and restore his self-confidence as a pilot.  Naturally he did and, in the climactic scenes,  fulfilled his role of hero fighting against and defeating some Russian MIGs.

Maverick’s partner, Goose, was played by Anthony Edwards who would go on to star in the hit television series E.R. Before playing Goose,  Edwards played one of Jeff Spicoli’s stoner friends in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and had the lead in the spy comedy Gotcha (which deserves it’s own post) and Revenge of the Nerds.  Goose was the awkward, reliable, and funny sidekick to Maverick’s brash, confident hero.  He tried his best to keep Maverick grounded and, for the most part succeeded.  Goose’s death was the clear tear-jerker part of this film.  The scene when Maverick said goodbye to Goose’s wife (played by a young Meg Ryan) and son was emotionally difficult to watch and remain dry-eyed.

There were plenty of other recognizable names that appeared in Top Gun.  There was Tom Skerritt as the veteran flying instructor who help Maverick weather the death of his best friend.  The movie also starred a pre Batman Val Kilmer who played the mega cocky Iceman who became Maverick’s rival.  Kelly McGillis played the intelligent scientist and would later go on to star in Witness with Harrison Ford.  There was clearly no shortage of recognizable actors in this film, many who would go on to feature in other movies and television shows for the next three decades.

The plot of Top Gun was not complex and it fit a very clear formula, but  it worked. There were no big surprises in the story line.  Maverick was cocky, the other pilots simultaneously respected his talent and feared his lack of discipline.  He met a woman, an astrophysicist, Charlie, who helped him overcome both his rebellious attitude and the death of his friend.  And yes, despite a bit of a breakup, she was able to see her way to staying with him.

The predictability did not get in the what the movie was most noted for – the aerial camera work.  The flying sequences, in both the training and combat scenes, were breath-taking.  Justifiably, these scenes were numerous and dominated the action in the film.  They truly helped overcome the apparent weaknesses in the plot.  Because of these impressive aerial sequences, Top Gun won multiple academy awards for sound, effects, and editing.

As I revisited Top Gun this week an old and familiar idea resurrected itself.  In American movies, if you pay attention to who the heroes were fighting, you could always tell who we, as a society, were mad at.  All of the enemies (and talk of enemies) was centered on the Russians.  The Top Gun pilots were training to shoot down Russian planes and both the opening sequence and the climatic aerial dogfight were battles with the Russian MIGs.  When the camera focused on the Russian pilots, they were all dressed in black flight suits with dark, menacing helmets.  This all makes perfect sense when you consider the year of the film – 1986.  The Cold War was still playing a major part in the American conscious.  The threat of  a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was very real.  Films like The Day After and War Games, along with Top Gun served to fuel our anxiety and dislike of anything Russian.  Living on an American base in Germany made this threat very real for me and my friends.  Our fathers were stationed in Germany due to that very threat, so we gladly and enthusiastically cheered for Maverick and against the distrustful Russians.

Top Gun was not the best movie of the ‘80s, but it was one of the biggest.  It had the iconic bar scene where Tom Cruise sings You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling to woo Kelly McGillis.  It had some good one liners:

“It’s time to buzz the tower.”- Maverick

“That’s right – I’m dangerous.”- Maverick

“Maybe I could learn to be a truck driver.” -Goose

“This is going to be complicated.”- Charlie

“I feel the need – the need for speed.”- Maverick

It contained a scene which I can figure out no purpose – the volleyball scene.  This scene developed no character, it added nothing to the plot, and, other than featuring a good song, it had no clear reason to be in the film – other than to show off some very ripped male torsos.  One could argue that it served to display the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman- maybe, but that is a bit of a reach.  Despite all of this, Top Gun was a big time movie that deserves it’s place in the 1980s Hollywood canon.

On a side note, the aircraft carrier used in Top Gun will soon be deactivated from service.  It is presently on its final journey.  Read the full story here.

Some other great ‘80s additions to Netflix can be found here on The Stuck in the 80s blog.

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One thought on “A Look Back at Top Gun – Part 1: The Movie

  1. TheSixMillionDollarJedi says:

    The ending sequence with the Russians always felt tacked on to me. After all the story going through Top Gun school the filmmakers had to have the flight students take on an actual threat to justify it all. It seemed too short and out of nowhere.

    Prior to that, the movie really is just a chick flick with planes. Sure it’s slickly produced and has a great soundtrack (I owned it back then), but it’s too much of a romantic drama marketed as an action movie.

    I do hope they make a sequel more as a military action-adventure. I wouldn’t mind seeing Tom Cruise as a seasoned fighter pilot taking on some threat.

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