Scott: Though both Tony Scott and the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made some extremely slick movies before Top Gun, the film codified the “Miller Time” look that defined the Simpson/Bruckheimer (and often Scott) productions to come, and heavily influenced the blockbuster palette in general. It’s not like they were the first to shoot during “magic hour,” that photogenic window when the sun is descending, but those yellow-and-orange-streaked skies are so dominant, they raise the question of how the cast and crew spent the remainder of the shoot. As the Simpson/Bruckheimer school produced more star graduates—and became just the Bruckheimer school, after Simpson’s death—the cutting also became much more aggressive/incoherent, to the point where Michael Bay, who routinely conjures gorgeously sleek imagery, tosses his movies into the Cuisinart. By that standard, Top Gun now seems like an old-fashioned piece of craftsmanship, when at the time it was pilloried as another example of music-video style taking over the medium. Whatever the film’s problems—and there are plenty we’ll get to here, I’m sure—it looks fantastic, and the aerial sequences inspire all the high-fiving, fist-pumping excitement now that they did then.
Noel: Top Gun has an unlikely incandescence, attributable primarily to that Simpson/Bruckheimer/Scott collaboration. When I think back to how American war movies looked in the decades immediately prior to Top Gun, I mostly recall a general heaviness, sometimes balanced by exciting stock footage, and sometimes made heavier by explicit violence. But with Top Gun, Scott turns a hacky screenplay with a sub-Howard Hawks plot into a shiny, well-oiled machine. Whether that was appropriate or appalling is something we’ll get to later. (I’ll say this: It’s no coincidence that in the years after Top Gun, military-recruitment commercials all looked like Tony Scott directed them.) But just as a piece of blockbuster action cinema, the movie is a rush.
Keith: I’ll echo Scott in admiring how classic the style and craftsmanship looks compared to the movies it inspired—including a lot of Tony Scott’s own. By the time of, say, Domino, Scott still had the eye he displays here, but he’d grown restless with the camera and with his editing. Top Gun is just a beautiful-looking film that, placed next to what followed, moves at an almost stately pace. Even the dull stretches—i.e. anything involving the love story—maintain a mood and a sense of pace, both helped along by Harold Faltermeyer’s score and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” which makes mid-’80s synths sound like the most romantic instruments ever created.
Nathan: In an interview with Tasha many years ago, Shia LaBeouf, everyone’s favorite actor, said something that stuck with me. He described Michael Bay as being more like a general overseeing a costly and complicated military operation than like a filmmaker telling a story. Scott is definitely a general more than a storyteller in Top Gun, in no small part because the film is actually about the military (or a 10-year-old boy’s fantasy of the military, at least) and feels like a recruitment film (which it also sort of is). Those shots of planes dogfighting in the clear blue sky in the beginning are a marvel of technology and brawny craftsmanship, but it’s worth noting that the money shots are of pilots doing dumb shit like giving people the bird in mid-air, or making some dude spill his coffee. That’s Top Gun in a nutshell: vast resources dedicated to mindless, sophomoric humor and pre-adolescent hero worship. But damned if those planes don’t look pretty all up in the sky and whatnot.
Noel: Keith, you mention the score, which Scott and his editors use well by tailoring the images to the tunes, treating every major song on the soundtrack as an excuse to make a music video. Berlin and Kenny Loggins don’t seem like the heroes’ actual favorites, though. Instead, they either sing or cite The Righteous Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Otis Redding. This was a common bit of character-building in the 1980s, in movies and on television. Think of Bruce Willis crooning R&B on Moonlighting (or on wine-cooler commercials). Here, Maverick sings “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” as a way of showing that he’s old-school—even if he looks better set to synthesizers.
Keith: Noel, you already brought up how Top Gun influenced military-recruitment ads for years after its release, and the military is on record as noting that naval recruitment went up significantly after the film became a hit. It’s a strangely selective portrayal of military life, though, isn’t it? Though clearly a product of the Cold War, Top Gun never names the enemy bogeys’ country of origin. The closest it comes is calling them “the other side.” What we’re fighting against isn’t detailed. Neither is what we’re fighting for. For all the flag-waving and American iconography, there’s little talk of American ideals. Mostly, life as a naval pilot seems to be about proving you’re the best naval pilot, over and over. It’s all weirdly abstract and accidentally chilling: Maverick’s ultimate proof of being the best comes from shooting down enemy combatants in an event that could easily have triggered World War III. But all that is secondary to his self-actualization and his climb to the top.
Nathan: I agree that, for a film that worships the military, and is in turn worshipped by the military, Top Gun seems perversely uninterested in the military—or foreign policy, or warfare—as anything other than a crucible that sweaty, shirtless, constantly showering men must endure on the route to über-awesomeness. The enemy is deliberately shadowy because the real enemy is self-doubt and moral weakness. One thing I noted this time around: Cruise’s mentor is played by Tom Skerritt, who in an earlier era was one of the leads in M*A*S*H, a film with a slightly different take on war, from a slightly different era and a slightly different filmmaker.
Another thought I had watching the film: Top Gun makes a lot more sense if you look at Iceman as the hero. I found him so much more likable and even-keeled than Maverick. I would so rather hang out with him than Jerky McAsshole, and it’s not as if there’s a charisma deficit between the two actors. (If anything, Kilmer is better-looking and more charismatic than Cruise.) But it says much about how Scott and the filmmakers saw the world that the smirky, cocky asshole who puts people’s lives in danger is depicted as the awesome, kickass hero, and the reasonable, responsible, even-keeled guy who’s way nicer and more sympathetic than Maverick is the arbitrary antagonist.
Scott: I wouldn’t call Top Gun “perversely uninterested” or “strangely selective” when it comes to depicting military life; it’s deliberately uninterested and deliberately selective. One of the many reasons the film doubles so effectively as a military-recruitment ad is that it’s disconnected from every aspect of military life except the ones that feed into the notion of an individual (perhaps you, the viewer) performing bravely and brilliantly for patriotic love of country. That’s why the Marines have commercials like the one where a young man slays a fire-breathing dragon: It abstracts the experience by turning the hardships and realities of service into bloodless, awesome trial by fire. American audiences then and now certainly know Maverick is fighting the Russians, but how does it serve Top Gun’s purposes to say as much? Unlike real war propaganda, Top Gun has no war to propagandize, which makes the prospect of service even more enticing to potential recruits. The one fun irony here: The real military will set the Mavericks straight on day one. It wants all Icemen instead.
Noel: It’s a weird kind of hero’s journey that Maverick takes, isn’t it? He starts out as a dangerously selfish jerk, and then a friend dies, which temporarily teaches him some humility. Except it turns out that the military doesn’t need him to be humble; it needs him to be, well, a maverick. So what’s our takeaway here? The movie seems to be saying that Maverick was exactly who he was meant to be at the start of the movie, and that the arc of his story is about getting back to square one.
Noel: Maverick has a romance with civilian Top Gun instructor Charlotte Blackwood (nicknamed “Charlie,” tellingly), but their love scenes seem almost like a teenager’s idea of what sex is: soft lighting and a lot of tongue. Really, the most erotic material in the movie happens in the scenes where the men cavort with their buddies, or with their own loud, strong machines. Top Gun peppers in scenes of shirtless men, men in underpants, men playing volleyball, and men getting into each other’s faces, the same way some 1980s movies would cut to gratuitous women’s-locker-room scenes. Has there ever been a “movie for guys” where the male gaze was so consistently turned toward other men?
Keith: Quentin Tarantino has a semi-famous riff on this in the movie Sleep With Me. (In fact, it’s pretty much the only thing most people remember about that movie):
I’m not sure screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. set out to commit “subversion on a massive level,” and I don’t think the film really supports Tarantino’s analysis as far as he takes it, but this is definitely a film about men having intense relationships with men, first and foremost. The female characters almost seem to be there as a buffer between the charge the men give off. We see Iceman in the bar with a woman hanging off his arm, but she’s never seen again. Only Charlie and Meg Ryan’s Carole have any significant amount of screen time. (A relevant side note: Unlike McGillis, who’s pretty dull here, Ryan gives a big performance, as if she knew she had to holler to be heard over the men and machines in this movie.) The camera doesn’t love her the way it loves Kilmer, though. But then, the camera didn’t love anyone, man or woman, the way it loved young Val Kilmer.
Scott: It’s impossible to watch Top Gun now without seeing it through Tarantino’s eyes to some extent, even though he misquotes Iceman’s last line to Maverick. (Tarantino has it as, “You can ride my tail anytime” when it’s actually, “You can be my wingman anytime.” Both lines imply intimacy, but the former is obviously more homoerotic.) I’m generally skeptical of macho enterprises being called out as homoerotic; this happens all the time in reference to sports like football, and it often seems like another volley in the great nerd/jock war. But Tarantino is dead on about one detail: After Maverick succeeds in scoring a dinner date with Charlie at her home, he then mysteriously throws on the brakes when she tries to seduce him. It’s only when she appears in the elevator, dressed like a man, that she finally gets romantic attention from him. Nevertheless, if you don’t buy Top Gun as a subversive gay narrative, surely we can agree that the heat in this movie is entirely of the guy-on-guy variety. Every time it’s just Cruise and McGillis, I told Nathan, “And America takes a bathroom break.”
Nathan: If I remember correctly, Charlie was originally supposed to be a fitness instructor (this was the 1980s, after all, and the whole world was enthralled with Jane Fonda), but that was changed to make the character more formidable. Yet, as has been suggested, the change makes the film even more homoerotic, because now Maverick is sexually pursuing someone a cocky jock like him undoubtedly sees as inhabiting a man’s role in a man’s world, and being more of a man than the other dudes he’s training with.
Nathan: Top Gun didn’t invent the formula that powered many of Tom Cruise’s biggest hits—in that respect, it followed in the footsteps of Cruise’s earlier football drama, All The Right Moves—but it codified and popularized its well-worn fixtures, from the cocky protagonist who’s just too damn good and knows it, to the gruff but loving mentor (in this case, Skerritt) who teaches him to be a man. This formula made a mint in movies as seemingly dissimilar as Cocktail and The Color Of Money, but Top Gun was also a watershed moment for Bruckheimer, Simpson, and Scott, whose flash-heavy/substance-light, music-video-and-commercial-derived aesthetic continues to dominate blockbuster filmmaking, much of which is still produced by the vastly powerful, successful Bruckheimer, the only surviving member of the trio. The film also inspired a brief flurry of airborne adventure movies—some successful, like the Iron Eagle franchise—but that trend was short-lived, because it’s expensive and difficult to make an action movie built around something as costly, dangerous, and complicated as fighter planes. What do you say, gang, have I overstated the film’s influence, or does it go even further?
Scott: It goes even further, I think. You’ve already mentioned the Simpson/Bruckheimer empire, and we certainly know Cruise remained a big star for a long time, but Top Gun also deserves credit (if that’s the right word) for advancing bloodless destruction in big-time action movies. That’s a big reason it works so effectively as a recruitment tool: Maverick and company get to play war games, then go do it for real in the climactic dogfight, but other than the satisfying kablammo of MiG-28s blowing up, there’s not much of a difference between actual combat and pretend combat. And because the film states no enemy and provides no context to why they’re fighting or what the global implications might be, it’s all fun and consequence-free. These are war games we continue to play.
Noel: We’ve already mentioned the soundtrack in passing, but Top Gun pretty much perfected the trend toward using soundtracks to sell movies and vice-versa, by making the musical montages in film indistinguishable from the MTV videos of the movie’s big songs. I also feel like Top Gun popularized a certain glib style of dialogue for big 1980s/1990s action movies, with characters communicating via catchphrases and clichés. This became such an entrenched part of the genre that it was ripe for parody by the 1990s, and fairly easily subverted by clever writers like Shane Black.
Keith: On the other hand… Jeez, I’m not sure I even have an “on the other hand” here, except this: I hated this movie when I saw it as a junior-high kid with zero aspirations of being part of its macho, overachieving world when I grew up. But I don’t hate it now. Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with nostalgia. It’s such a product of its time, it can’t help but be transporting. Some of it has to do with an increased appreciation for craftsmanship and for what Cruise brings to a movie, both of which look more impressive to me now. I’ve just lived with it as part of pop culture for so long, I’ve developed a grudging respect for it. Maybe that’s its legacy, as proof that movies can join politicians and whores in that old saying: They grow respectable with time.
Scott: We haven’t gotten into that notorious volleyball scene, have we? What is its purpose in the narrative? It supports the rivalry between Maverick/Goose and Iceman/Slider, and it accounts for why Maverick shows up to Charlie’s house all sweaty and in need of a shower. Beyond that, you could remove the scene from the film entirely, and no one would feel like anything was missing. (Other than perhaps wondering why Maverick shows up to a first date as a sweaty mess.) But I’m happy it exists, if only because it eroticizes men in the way movies more traditionally eroticize women—and, in so doing, brings some sexual confusion to the relationships between Maverick and Iceman, and Maverick and Charlie. One quibble: No way a guy as short as Tom Cruise spikes the ball over the net like that. He can only set up shots for Goose.
Nathan: One favorite detail of the notorious volleyball scene: Maverick is wearing jeans while he sweats up a storm alongside his shorts-and-T-shirt clad colleagues. Who plays beach volleyball in jeans? Who plays any sports in jeans? The jeans make sense in that Maverick has to get back on his motorcycle for his big date with the woman he totally wants to have sex with, on account of his raging heterosexuality, and it would look pretty damn silly to ride a motorcycle wearing bermuda shorts—but not quite as silly as playing beach volleyball wearing jeans.
Noel: Well, there’s a huge fantasy element to Top Gun’s depiction of military life and the camaraderie of men, and I think the volleyball scene is part of that, making the life of a fighter pilot look like one big beach party.
Here’s something else we haven’t talked about: Tom Cruise’s performance. I like Cruise as an actor in general, and I’m going to get more into “the Tom Cruise persona” in tomorrow’s essay, but this seems like the best place to say that I don’t think Cruise is all that great in Top Gun. He only seems to have two modes here: blinding smile and brooding stare. (But then, maybe that has something to do with Maverick being more of a fashion model than a character.)
Keith: Let me just close with this: Gentlemen, you can be my wingmen anytime.
Scott: No, Keith. You can be ours.
Yesterday, Scott Tobias kicked off our Top Gun conversation with a Keynote on the film’s commitment to celebrating winning and winners. And tomorrow, Noel Murray looks at how, post-Top Gun, Tom Cruise kept remaking Top Gun.