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Top Gun revisited
Is the 1986 classic still flying high?
Revisiting the films that thrilled you as a youth can be a bittersweet experience. What horrifying things will they reveal about the teenager you once were, to the teenager on your sofa?
Can we show the kids?
Top Gun (1986)
Little Tommy Cruise - as inhuman and smooth as any fighter jet - is arrogant trainee pilot Maverick, who has to battle his demons, his bête noir co-trainee Iceman, some Russian MiGs and his burgeoning hard-on for Kelly McGillis, all while upside-down at Mach 4.
Whichever US Navy comms person made the decision to collaborate closely with the makers of Top Gun must have been absolutely delighted with the result: a blockbustingly popular feature-length recruitment ad, slavering over impossibly expensive equipment and the upstanding values of US military personnel, beautifully rendered in creamy shades of burnt orange, peach and caramel. Released as the Cold War was coming to an end, it’s a piece of balls-to-the-wall Reagan-era braggadocio; walking sensitivity-barometer Matthew Modine turned down Cruise’s role because of the script’s celebration of militarism. There’s an interesting double bill to be had if you watch it alongside The Right Stuff, set in a similar environment but based on real stories, and with a greater journalistic sense of the sacrifice and horror attendant on pushing military jets to their limits.
Bechdel Test Fail. Nobody in the entire film has a conversation about anybody or anything other than Maverick.
Terrible soundtrack Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ is upsettingly literal. Harold Faltermeyer (there’s a name we’d all forgotten) gives more value with his Euro-synth backing to the flight scenes. Berlin’s woozy hit ‘Take My Breath Away’ sold millions, but Maverick and Goose singing ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ was the real musical takeaway, prompting a revival in Righteous Brothers sales and a million sketch show rip-offs.
Violence Mostly dodged, because these are almost all training exercises. A live-fire dogfight at the end has some Russian jets exploding in fireballs.
Disappointing afterlife of the stars Cruise is Cruise, you’ll already know what you think about that. On an unrelated point, we can’t afford lawyers.
Racism The Black cast members who have speaking roles can be counted on the fingers of one finger (it’s a good finger though; Clarence Gilyard, who was given a lot more to do as the excitable nerd terrorist in Die Hard).
Sex Kelly McGillis was presumably a big enough star to insist on a no-nudity clause, because the one sex scene is extremely (and thankfully) prim.
Homophobia Oddly, for a film set in a military all-male environment, nobody casts any slurs anywhere. There is deeply homoerotic volleyball scene in which Cruise and some of his co-stars are shown fisting and pumping in slow, oiled, topless motion. If you like that sort of thing.
ER cast pre-union Anthony Edwards (who went on to play Dr Greene) adds value as Goose, a warm and characterful foil to Maverick’s pumped-up egotism; the few scenes he has with Meg Ryan as his perky wife are genuinely involving. Rick Rossovich (Carol Hathaway’s fiance for a few episodes) is boring as Iceman’s bully-boy sidekick Slider. He was kinda boring in ER too, come to think of it.
Quotable bits: ‘Goose, you big stud, take me to bed or lose me forever.’ ‘I feel the need… the need… for SPEED!’ ‘Your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash’
Can we show it to the kids?
This question was handily answered by a piece in the Times last weekend, in which a Millennial journalist recounted all the ways Top Gun is deeply sexist and celebrates a version of machismo that many whippersnappers will find hilarious or alienating. There’s nothing truly shocking (or frightening) to worry about, though.
Is it still worth it?
Yeah, why not. Its function as propaganda means the script cannot create any real tension. Nobody (other than the Russians, who are mostly off-stage) is allowed to be truly corrupt or nasty or dangerous, so all the plot points detumesce on contact: Iceman is a good guy underneath, and the strand about the possibly scandalous death of Maverick’s father is built up relentlessly before being gently patted down in an extremely cursory way. But Cruise is perfectly cast as a self-satisfied hotshot, and the emotional aspects actually work pretty well, largely because McGillis, Edwards and Ryan bring their best game.
This movie marked the zenith of a period in which British ad directors were whisked off to Hollywood to make blockbusters. Tony Scott was drafted in to direct after the producers saw a European TV advertisement he had directed for Saab cars, and Top Gun is further evidence that he definitely knows how to sell a proposition while making things look absolutely lovely. His older brother Ridley trod the same path to make two of the most significant and lasting contributions to science fiction in Alien and Blade Runner. Top Gun has none of their deep intelligence and vision; it’s all aerodynamic surface, speeding forwards and engineered to within an inch of its life.
But, like the jets, it also has a honed beauty and impelling forward motion. Scott doesn’t only know how to sell things; he also knows how to tell a story. The irresistibly beautiful title sequence explains a lot about the film’s appeal, and the opening scene - a training dogfight that goes wrong - is a masterfully tense piece of showing rather than telling. If you find yourself reaching for the ‘off’ button after that, your brow is definitely higher than ours.