Top Gun

2 out of 5

Directed by: Tony Scott

This movie was never going to be for me. It just wasn’t my bag as a kid. My bag was escapist adventure and cartoons. Planes going zoom? Nah.

Some years later, when jaws went agape at the notion that I’d never seen Top Gun, I asked for a recap of the story, and was pretty much told it was about Tom Cruise flying planes, which I could intuit from the cover, and matches my initial assumptions. We watched some pieces of it at a get-together; I couldn’t discern if there were any actual characters.

This is being overly snippy, of course; I’m sure if you’re watching Top Gun for it to be a particular type of flick – a very masculine, vanilla, big-machines-are-cool affair – it totally works, and I was pointed to such modern incarnations as the Fast and Furious franchise as examples of how this continues on and is still enjoyed. Plus, I’m not in denial of the visual language this film (and other Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer productions) helped to establish at the time, for better or worse. So the rating here is more personal than it might otherwise be; at the same time, I don’t think fans of the film would deny me that it’s not – popcorn value aside – a very good movie?

Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is a “breaks all the rules” pilot with the Navy. He and his Radio Intercept Office, “Goose” (Anthony Edwards), get the opportunity to step up to the big leagues of piloting via the Top Gun program, which we spend about 4/5ths of the movie in, meaning the vast bulk of aerial stuff is now all training. Drama / tension is milked from Maverick’s rivalry with rule-abider “Iceman” (Val Kilmer), and a romance that smooth Mav has forced on Top Gun instructor “Charlie” ( Kelly McGillis). Later, after a volleyball game and a tragedy, Maverick repeats all of his rule-breaking, ensuring his character has not evolved whatsoever.

Okay, obviously I had trouble not getting snippy again, but I guess that was my main struggle here: setting aside the 80s-ness of the bravado and encouragement of following women into the bathroom and demanding they go on dates with you, Top Gun hardly exists except to stage its air-bound stunts, and I’m not even sure I’m convinced of their solidity; it’s all suggestive, but you don’t really have to know who’s flying what, meaning there’s not even a story when we’re flying planes. Otherwise, as suggested above, hardly anyone changes over the course of the movie, to the extent that I didn’t buy any romance between Cruise and McGillis, or exactly what the dynamic was between Iceman and Maverick. Edwards was, at least, a good comedic foil to Cruise’s leading man bit.

On the flipside, there’s a backhanded compliment here: in an attempt to, I assume, shave off all of the edges of the movie and make it PG-palatable while also giving the ladies and the men some eye candy, the flick has this very odd niceness to it that actually requires it to make some interesting choices. Iceman, for example, is ostensibly the villain, but the rivalry between him and Maverick never turns truly shallow – it’s mostly just, like, let’s see who’s the best pilot. And while Mav does get Charlie into bed, leading to a blue-lit, all-orgasms sex scene, there’s not a lot of nonsense push-pull between the two. And definingly, there’s no named aggressor here, in terms of with whom America is at war. One way to read this is that it’s rah-rah patriotism, and you should join up no matter what, but it also helps to not turn it into a 100% nationalistic puff piece. I mean, it celebrates American values of humping military weapons, but it does so without using a generic Russian or whatnot for a baddie.

So I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for enjoying this, and it’s possible that, had I seen it at the right time, I would too. Its empty-headedness is purposeful, which is appreciated; but it’s applied in a way that really bores me, and doesn’t distract from its emptiness during those non-jet zooming times.