At The Movies: Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun

★★★½☆

1986 • 110 minutes • Paramount Pictures

“This is my first time seeing it!” I told the girls behind the counter at the Alamo as they handed me my American flag aviator sunglasses (included in my ticket price) and ticket to a holiday screening of Top Gun.

What?”

“I was raised by French wolves,” I said, by way of explanation. It’s my main excuse for everything (films I’ve never seen, my inability to say “macaron” in English, why I’m eating all of your brie), but it leaves out another key factor of my upbringing: I’m an Air Force brat. My father retired when I was about seven, so I didn’t get the full experience the way my brother did, but I still have fond, blurry memories of running about on an airbase back when I was under five feet tall.

It seems very logical that I would have seen Top Gun by now, since it combines so many of my interests: military aviation (albeit Naval, not the Air Force itself), the eighties, and unintended homoeroticism in mainstream film. And yet, I have somehow attained legal adulthood without completing the film. I have attempted, in the past, but alas, thirteen year old Clare laughed so hard at the soundtrack that she just could not continue.

But Top Gun looms large in pop culture. On the most recent episode of the Dissolve podcast, the editors discuss spoof films like Airplane! and wonder if the decline of the monoculture can be linked to the decline of quality spoofs. Spoofs require context, after all, which is the reason Epic Movie exists—if you’re spoofing what you can reasonably assume people know these days, you’re left with trailers, viral videos, and memes. (This is not a good thing or a bad thing. This is just a thing.) Top Gun saturated pop culture to the degree that it earned its own spoof, 1991’s Hot Shots. (Which, incidentally, I saw long before knowing Top Gun existed. The same with Spaceballs and Star Wars and Robin Hood: Men in Tights and anything other than Disney’s Robin Hood.) It turns up in film and television. It’s an American cultural touchstone, which makes it perfect for both the Fourth of July and for my inaugural At The Movies review, since film is the medium in which I feel my lack of cultural context the most.

Top Gun managed to exceed and fail my bizarre expectations, which is both hardly surprising and quite a feat. It’s as eighties as they come, managing to both be stupidly earnest (on film) and cynical (on the set) at the same time. All the high notes—Cruise’s slightly alien charisma, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, the second act death, and the volleyball scene—are hit and hit well. But the film’s connective tissue is weak.

Part of this is because Top Gun doesn’t have a particularly urgent plot until the climax, wherein Maverick and company fight suspiciously unnamed enemy aircraft. It’s the kind of material that would be rewarded by a character study: a hotshot pilot finally gets into TOPGUN, only to get his butt kicked. As Yen Nguyen points out at Deadshirt, this would require the film to commit to one emotional arc for Maverick and not cherry pick from three, but the bones are there. The other part is the impact of the music video.

MTV’s debut in 1981, obviously, plays a role in this, but I think Miami Vice, which borrowed so heavily from the visual language of music videos that it ended up codifying a large part of what’s considered the eighties aesthetic, is the better link to make. It really hit me when I realized that what was passing for score in a dramatic scene between Maverick and his love interest, Charlotte, was looping. The film is gorgeous, with its generously oiled cast of young Hollywood hunks glistening and staring intensely in the California sun, but when it’s not in the air or pretending to be the music video for “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away,” it just kind of dithers along.

But when it is in the air or pretending to be a music video, it’s one hell of a rush. Having grown up in a post-Jurassic Park world of action, I was a little worried that Top Gun’s action sequences might not work. But they did—come the climax, I was flinching in my seat. It takes a few moments to adjust to how jerkily they’re shot, but that’s part of putting you bodily into the cockpit. It boggles the mind to think of how the shots were actually achieved, making their seemingly dated tangibility a fantastic asset. And as for the music… well, if the transition from the fairly staid opening credits to planes taking off to “Danger Zone” doesn’t pump you up, I’m not sure what to tell you.

I saw this film in theaters.

4 thoughts on “At The Movies: Top Gun (1986)

  1. I’ve never seen this either, due to my VERY committed dislike of Tom Cruise. He’s just too Tom-Cruise-y in this — I saw the first twenty minutes a while ago, on HBO Go or something, and I hated him so much I had to turn it off. It remains ridiculous that I’ve never seen it, but I just do not want to. And it sounds like it’s not that great anyway.

    • Oh, he is 120% Tom Cruise in this, so if you don’t like him… and it’s also part of that weird cynical rush of action films in the late eighties and early nineties, where the protagonist is an asshole and we are supposed to like him for fighting against the system (that inherently privileges and exalts him). ???

  2. I’ve never seen Top Gun, either! I think I’ve seen the music video, and I’ve definitely seen the various parodies, but never the actual movie.

    (Like Jenny, I also don’t like Tom Cruise. The only franchise I can stand watching him in is Mission Impossible for some reason.)

    • Tom Cruise has a very strange and very specific charisma. In the twenty-first century, where Tom Hiddleston is king (of tumblr), it hasn’t aged particularly well. However, he is magic in Interview with the Vampire as Lestat, and I will defend that statement to the grave.

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