The “Cruel Summer” series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), and PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985).
The 1980s saw Hollywood going to war. America’s defeat in Vietnam instilled a sense of hopelessness that ran throughout the 1970s. The Vietnam movies of the late ‘70s (The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now) were all about mourning and the tentative first steps necessary for the country to move on. Then, with the election of a former Hollywood star as President, Hollywood decided to re-up with the military and make movies that were the equivalent of Reagan’s military intervention policies. The distrust of the government and the military during the ‘70s was now giving way to a cinematic flexing of American might. All that was needed to build up morale was a few easy wins, and after that, the Vietnam disaster would hopefully seem like a bad dream.
From the softening of basic training in movies like Private Benjamin, Stripes, and An Officer and a Gentleman to re-staging Vietnam in men-on-a-mission action dramas like Missing in Action and Uncommon Valor,Hollywood saw it was better for business if America came out on the winning side. (The first Rambo movie, First Blood, would be the rare movie during this time that tapped into the rage and marginalization of returning Vietnam veterans. Its sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, would turn that rage into comic-book fury, complete with the crowd-baiting question, “Do we get to win this time?”) Vietnam cast a shadow over movies that weren’t even explicitly about the war. Vietnam became a shortcut to character development. Sylvester Stallone’s character in Nighthawks was a pacifist because of his experiences in Nam, while Roy Scheider’s pilot in Blue Thunder suffered from “stress” due to his tours of duty. Movies as varied as The Exterminator to Commando to the first Lethal Weapon all used Vietnam to heighten the audience’s identification with the lead character. All of this cinematic stockpiling of goodwill came to a head in 1986 with the release of a movie that turned Hollywood’s restaging of Vietnam as a winnable war into an advertisement for America’s outsized belief in its own exceptionalism.
Tony Scott’s Top Gun is a visual and aural assault, a full-throttle “ride” that doesn’t stop for pesky things like story. The story goes that the pitch for Miami Vice was “MTV cops.” The pitch for Top Gun could have easily been “MTV pilots.” Scott, along with his older brother Ridley, Adrian Lyne, and Alan Parker, was at the forefront of a group of British TV commercial directors. These directors made advertisements cinematic. When they got their shot at making movies, they infused their movies with a powerful visual sense. Ridley Scott made rust and dirt and grime look authentic and cool in movies like The Duelists and Alien. Parker gave everything an artificial beauty, even a Turkish prison in Midnight Express. Lyne’s use of backlighting throughout Flashdance would become a mainstay on MTV. But Tony Scott was the bad boy of the bunch. He could do everything they could do but he didn’t have any pretensions about subject matter or critical response. Pauline Kael described Top Gun as a “…recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” As it turned out that’s exactly what audiences liked about it. Advertising was now a legitimate form of storytelling.
The story of Top Gun is so simplistic that it’s almost child-like. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer helped shape mainstream American movies by specializing in movies that anyone could follow. Movies like Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Days of Thunder gave viewers such a cocaine-adrenaline rush that you came out of the theater ready to take on the world. They made movies about winning, and in the 1980s that’s what audiences wanted to see. The screenplay (more like a scenario) by Jack Epps, Jr. and Jim Cash may have centered on hotshot Navy pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his training at the Top Gun school but, really, the movie was about you and your dream to be the best at whatever you did. Simpson and Bruckheimer’s movies played like a cross between a rock concert and a motivational seminar.
The movies’ pop psychology trappings didn’t lessen their entertainment value (who doesn’t like a rush of adrenaline?) The opening credit sequence remains one of the best of the decade. From Harold Faltemeyer’s iconic synth-guitar theme to Jeffrey Kimble’s vivid filtered cinematography to the eroticized, slo-mo pans of fighter jets getting ready for a dawn run, the sequence seduces you into wanting to go to war. Even Kenny Loggins’ anthemic “Danger Zone” is part of the quickening of your senses and making you not question the sheer manipulativeness of what you are seeing. (“Revvin’ up your engine/Listen to her howl and roar”…) There aren’t really any scenes in Top Gun, just set-pieces. There aren’t really characters, either. Any nuance or shading in the characters is due to the characters’ personalities, not the writing. The characters’ names do most of the work of characterization. When a character named Viper is described as the finest fighter pilot in the world (and he’s played by the sturdy Tom Skerritt), more than half the job is done.
The movie gives us a comic-book version of masculinity. Vulnerability is kept to a minimum. This leads to a good dose of (unintended?) homoeroticism. The verbal showdowns between Maverick and his chief rival Iceman (Val Kilmer) are kind of wonderful in the way the actors play the scenes totally straight. (They’re like the scenes between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur, except the actors in Top Gun don’t know their secret.) The locker room scenes have a PG level of jocular aggression, while the famous volleyball sequence is meant to appeal to the girls in the audience, but it’s clear Scott knew it would also appeal to men. (The use of Loggins’ awkwardly titled “Playing with the Boys” pretty much seals the deal.)
The aerial photography is still some of the best of its decade, if not in film history. The five major flight sequences help distinguish Top Gun as a superior action movie. Most flyboy fighter pilot movies relied heavily on “realistic” footage but rarely bothered to inform the viewer to what exactly was happening. Scott’s insistence on pre-planning the maneuvers and choreographing the flight sequences allowed him to display a sense of scale that recalls the Death Star run in Star Wars. (Lucas uses CGI the way Scott uses practical and model effects.) We genuinely feel like we’re in the cockpit of one these fighter jets. There’s a palpable feeling of exhilaration during takeoff or when one of the jets has to spin in order to avoid being shot down. There’s also genuine terror, especially when Maverick’s jet goes into a flat spin and he and his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards) are forced to eject.
When Top Gun is in the air, it’s terrific popcorn entertainment. It’s the scenes on the ground that are more problematic. Unlike the non-musical sequences in Purple Rain, where the characters’ interactions were kept direct and intense, the scenes in-between flight sequences have a workman-like pacing that exposes just how thin the story really is. The best performance is by Edwards, who uses humor and sincerity to get us to love him. His death in the movie genuinely hurts. Kelly McGillis is the movie’s biggest weakness. SHE displays none of the confidence that made her so memorable in Witness, her previous movie. She has zero chemistry with Cruise, or more accurately she has just enough to get by. Compared with Cruise’s erotic connection with Rebecca DeMornay in Risky Business or McGillis’ passionate embrace of Harrison Ford in Witness, their scenes together are pretty tame. The one scene between them that works is when they’re sitting on her porch and listening to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” The movie constantly tells us that they’re in love. (The gorgeous Berlin theme “Take My Breath Away” goes a long way in convincing us they’re a couple.)
Cruise’s chemistry with McGillis doesn’t really matter anyway. What matters is his chemistry with the audience. Cruise’s all-American image is so integral to the success of Top Gun that audiences and critics didn’t fully grasp that it takes a rare kind of acting skill to make what he does look effortless. In Risky Business, he used his baby-faced wholesomeness to get us on his side, even if he was playing a junior pimp. From his somewhat slight frame to his little-boy voice, Cruise, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to have the makings of one of the biggest movies stars in the world. But Cruise’s fabled work ethic is transmuted into his characters’ winning cockiness and we can’t help but be on his side, be it in The Color of Money or A Few Good Men or Magnolia or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In Top Gun, Tom Cruise became a star by embodying America’s belief in overcoming adversity in order to come out on top.
(NOTE: Oliver Stone would commit a courageous act of star vandalism by casting Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Cruise’s Ron Kovic is Maverick, humbled by the ugly reality of war, only to come out a winner on his own terms.)
Is Top Gun a good movie? That’s a tricky question. It’s certainly a watchable one that has managed to stick around long after other, more respectable movies have faded from memory. However, of all the movies surveyed in this series of articles it’s the one that has very little resonance today. The release of Stone’s Platoon at the end of ’86 effectively killed Hollywood’s un-ironic love affair with war. (The release of Robocop the following summer would usher in Hollywood’s long-standing romance with technology and machinery.) Top Gun’s influence can been seen in movies like The Rock, a mostly humorless “ride” that forgot to add the rock ‘n’ roll. (The Rock director Michael Bay is like Tony Scott’s ugly stepson. He’s the father of Chaos Cinema.) Top Gun is an artifact, like bellbottoms or the bob hairdo, from a seemingly more innocent time. It represents a coarsening of summer entertainment, a moment when advertising became a part of the storytelling. Who knew what was once considered crass marketing would now look restrained and old-fashioned?
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.