Top Gun: Up there with the best of the best.
The early morning sun paints the sky a brilliant hue of orange and gold. Warm colours shower onto the aluminum and steel of F14 Tomcats. Staffers clear the tarmac. Engines rev up. Radio control signals clearance for takeoff to the pilot and their Radio Intercept Officer (RIO). Thunderous fire roars from the rear exhaust. Both the pilot and the RIO are feeling that need. The need for speed. This is the world of Top Gun program, the popularized name for the United States’ most highly regarded fighter pilot training school. It is also an aptly colourful description of a lot of what viewers see in the 1986 Tony Scott-directed film Top Gun.
Scott’s adrenaline juiced, romantic depiction of hotshot US fighter pilots and their adventures is fondly remembered for its attitude, music, and iconic imagery. Whether the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, lives up to the billing remains to be seen at the time of this writing.
Discounting the game of musical release date chairs the sequel has played due to the pandemic, it would have come out 34 years after the original (originally scheduled for summer 2020). Why would star Tom Cruise and Paramount come back to it so long after its release? What’s its engine composed of, and what keeps it going after all these years?
Built For Speed
Legendary Hollywood producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were the instigators to get Top Gun made. A May 1983 issue of California Magazine featured an evocative article titled “Top Guns” about the school. The text and especially the vivid aerial photography struck a chord with both men, prompting them to get financing from Paramount. The writing process proved to be a challenge, as evidenced in the documentary Danger Zone: The Making of “Top Gun.” Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. took a few tries to hone the story’s focus, ultimately determining that it should play out like a sports movie, complete with a trophy prize to win at the end.
Hiring of Tony Scott was a minor controversy considering he had only directed The Hunger. The latter was not considered a financial success, but when Scott’s vision coalesced enough with that of the screenwriters, the game plan was set. The cast was filled with relatively young, hot actors for the student roles (“hot” being the operative word). Tom Cruise as Maverick, Kelly McGillis as his love interest, Val Kilmer as Iceman and Maverick’s rival, Anthony Edwards as Goose, and Rick Rossovich as Slider, Iceman’s RIO. Tom Skerritt and Michael Ironside were cast as the instructors.
The filmmakers had to find a lot of common ground with the US Navy in order to make their dream a reality. For one, simply getting clearance to film on locations like the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was an ordeal unto itself. The cast and crew did not even know exactly where they were at sea…because they were not allowed to know! There was also the figurative crash course about what fighter jets could and could not do. Former pilot Pete Pettigrew was Scott’s main contact in the Navy, serving technical advisor. He helped make the movie as realistic as possible all the while giving in to some necessary Hollywood flourishes.
Archetypes Taking Flight
The story is simple. Maverick and Goose are overly confident pilots who enroll in Top Gun through the back door, much to the concern of Ironside’s Rick Heatherly, as well as Kilmer’s Iceman. Maverick flies like his namesake, often throwing caution and the rules to the wind. As long as he and his wingmen come back alive, nothing else matters. The truth is Maverick is fighting against his father’s ghost. The old man was also a fighter pilot but died mysteriously many years ago, tarnishing the family name in the process. His presence annoys classmates, but civilian instructor Charlie takes a liking to the young buck. Love, loyalties, and a glorious trophy for the student with the highest marks are on the line.
One of the key components of Top Gun’s success is its reliance on archetypical characters. Those that inhabit this world heighten the experience rather than hinder it. What do we really know about Goose, other than he is a happy-go-lucky guy and married to the delightful Meg Ryan? Who is Iceman? A quietly confident, no-nonsense rival. Who is Slider? A big, muscular dude who is Iceman’s friend. For that matter, who is Maverick? A confident rebel fighting to prove himself. The character with the most nuance is, debatably, Charlie. One can argue it is only because the viewer briefly sees her struggle with juggling professional obligation and personal desire.
A key reason why the broadly drawn characters produce an entertaining film is that the filmmakers throw the viewer into the deep end. Trying to understand this world is like ejecting out of a plane with a malfunctioning parachute. Not much is explained. There are a couple of classroom scenes during which technical flying terms are used without explaining them. The audience is on its own to piece some of it together as best it can.
It isn’t as if Top Gun is unforgivably complicated. Rather, the easily identifiable characters are not only well acted out by the cast, but their simplicity also serve as a comfy buffer against the technical gobbledygook. God knows what the teacher said, but Maverick and Iceman just eyed each other so you know it’s on! There isn’t even an obvious external threat posed to the protagonist, save an ill-defined “enemy” at the end. Maverick’s greatest obstacle is internal: his own steadfastness.
Sound of Thunder and Metal Sheen
Whether a viewer understands the physics about why a plane will tailspin after flying above another does not matter because Top Gun looks and sounds amazing. Cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball shoots like the project is the last one he will ever work on. Early morning sunbathed tarmacs, deep blue skies, cameras place inside fake and real cockpits, on the side F14s, and glorious shots of Maverick riding his motorbike at dusk. Lest it be overlooked, glistening hulky men playing beach volleyball.
In 1986 the camera and editing techniques really pushed what filmmakers could do when capturing aerial action. Although there are obviously some models used for explosions and certain closeup shots, most of the action up in the sky involves real planes performing real flight patterns and stunts.
As beautiful as the images are, many fans remember it more for its music. Harold Faltermeyer’s rock-inspired score is iconic (it plays over Top Gun: Maverick trailers), with the leitmotif rendered differently throughout the film depending on the emotional context. However, there is no question that from a musical perspective, the film’s soundtrack is the stuff of legend. “Take My Breath Away” performed by Berlin, “Playing With the Boys” by Kenny Loggins, and who can forget “Danger Zone”, also performed by Kenny Loggins. Honestly, “Danger Zone” is a terrific hype-up song, no F14s needed.
Always Sunny Skies
Even at 36, there are no signs that Top Gun will ever fully retire from the pop culture conversation. It simply has too many memorable qualities that stand the test of time. It solidified Tom Cruise as a star, it is one of Tony Scott’s most fondly remembered movies, is replete with delicious dialogue only Hollywood can scribble and is blessed with a soundtrack virtually anyone remotely familiar with American pop music will recognize. That’s true even if they have not seen the movie!
It feels like it will never fail to satisfy the need for speed. Action movie junkies can have it as their wingman anytime.
-Edgar ChaputWatch Top Gun