Top Gun is cheap beer and cashews, apple pie and a tall glass of iced tea. It’s easy and fun. It doesn’t ask you to reevaluate anything you thought you knew. It’s refreshingly free of cynicism, and it doesn’t attempt to inspire guilt. For that matter, I’m not really sure it even attempts to inspire. But the fact that it presents a segment of the armed forces as a group of hard working, eager, heroic men (instead of jaded, angry, violent killers) sets it apart almost as much as its 80s soundtrack and clichés.
Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) lives his life according to his call sign—Maverick. He doesn’t hate the rules, but he doesn’t seem happy unless he’s flying through life at supersonic speeds. When you’re going that fast, the rules tend to blur, you know? So when we first meet him, he’s the number two fighter jock on the USS Enterprise. Number one is a hot shot named Cougar, and one fateful night somewhere over the Indian Ocean, Cougar and Maverick encounter a pair of enemy MiG-28s, and Cougar loses his cool. He’s so shaken up that he turns in his wings, paving the way for Maverick and his RIO, Goose (Anthony Edwards), to head to Fighter Weapons School, AKA: Top Gun.
Once there, everything seems to work against poor Maverick—his peers think he’s dangerous, the hot civilian flight instructor (Kelly McGillis) seems immune to his advances, and he just can’t seem to escape the shadow of his father’s tainted legacy. It’s hard not to be sarcastic, but the movie hits every tired beat right on cue. A tragic turn about halfway through, however, still manages to shock, and the repercussions of that one event save the story from nose diving into the deep end of the cheddar pool. Instead, the movie just wades in the shallows.
When he takes his bow at the end of the film, Maverick is an unquestionable hero. He’s overcome his demons, but he got there by a somewhat unorthodox road. He doesn’t morph into another incarnation of Rocky Balboa. Maverick doesn’t win the Top Gun trophy. He is still dangerous in the air. When Ice Man says those words, it’s not an indictment, but it might as well be. It’s clear that Maverick is a talented pilot, maybe even the best, but he cannot overcome his name. The reckless audacity that made him the number two guy at the start of the film is still there when the film is over.
Solid character arcs are supposed to allow the character to shed his former identity for a new one; one refined by the fires and trials of the story. Maverick is a type more than he is a flesh and blood human. He’s a comic book hero. His obstacles affect him only so far as to service the plot. Not to change him. Not to make him better.
Does that weaken the picture? Maybe. As an 80s action/adventure film, it does a serviceable job, but fails to reach the timeless quality of something like Die Hard, released only a few summers later in 1988. The soundtrack isn’t the only thing holding Top Gun back from real greatness. It’s a classic, sure, but only because it captures the zeitgeist of its era. Everything that establishes the world of the film—from the music to the impromptu volleyball duel (something that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot except to showcase the glistening bodies of hot shirtless men)—places it into a well-entrenched form and style that was typical of the time.
The film actually manages a fair amount of subtlety, which is saying something for a movie that tells its story on the tip of its nose and on the seat of its pants. Maverick doesn’t sulk through the film under the weight of his father’s sins, but his father is a clear motivator. The film doesn’t wear its patriotism on its sleeve; it’s hardwired in. There are no flag waving speeches, nor are there any nihilistic comparisons between friend and foe. If the same film, beat for beat, were released today, it’d be a joke—it lacks the sophistication audiences have come to expect after a steady diet of television’s recent renaissance. That and it refuses to treat its heroes as anything other than heroes. That might be troubling for some cynical viewers, but it still works, and it works for a reason.
More troubling to me is the surrender of Goose’s dog tags as the film starts to wrap up. I get what the film is trying to say, but I can’t help thinking of Goose’s widow. I’m sure she would have liked to have those tags to show to their son. It’s an overlooked detail, one that detracts from the greatness Top Gun may have achieved in another place and time.