The Last Years of America

Top Gun was a a staple movie of my household growing up. It was one of the first VHS tapes I remember my father buying and he used to play it over and over again — but I don’t remember ever getting sick of it. Our copy was quite literally watched to death. He also had the soundtrack on CD which was also destroyed through repeated use on our component CD player when people still had those. Everything about the film and my memories of it ooze with 80s charm. A time when America’s long decline was masked by masculine machismo, rock, finance and a pageantry of excess.

Like many films you watch when you’re young, there’s a lot that flies over your head and Top Gun is certainly one of those movies. What follows is some thoughts on the movie that I have been intending to write for quite a while. With the long anticipated and probably unnecessary sequel landing last this next year, it is probably best to get it out now as it might never come out.

Something that has helped inform me in writing this post was the documentary that came with most recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the film. It was made well after the movie as can be scene in the grey hairs of the cast and crew but it was very interesting and informative. Like many great films, it seems to be one of made out of a perfect storm of creative talent at every level and could very easily have been a disaster. It wasn’t due to a combination of excellent casting, direction, cinematography along with some brilliant editing to bring it all together. The amazing photography using actual aircraft and a still popular soundtrack and awesome sound effects played no small part. It also captured the zeitgeist of the 80s described above.

One cannot neglect to mention the context of the time of its release. Coming out during a resurgent confidence in the cultural landscape of America after disasters most notably in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan was president the Cold War was in its twilight and this film was a celebration of American power, technological achievement as well as the energy and competitive spirit of the best of its men. As I write now, it is hard to believe how much of this has been lost in such a short time. This confidence did briefly rise again in the early years after 9/11 but didn’t last long.

The film follows the formula of a sports drama which was common at the time. Films such as Rocky, The Karate Kid and The Mighty Ducks come to mind. Films where you have underdogs to a sport that overcome more experienced rivals (who also happen to be jerks) but win despite the odds. Top Gun is more sophisticated than your average teenage sports movie though. As explained in its brilliant beginning, the films title refers to a real fighter pilot training program but without the competitive nature shown in the film. As pointed out in the aforementioned documentary, the pilots would have killed themselves trying to win if it was competitive in the same way but this can be overlooked because it adds needed drama to the film.

The antagonist then is usually played up as a jerk as parodied wonderfully by Ben Stiller in the film Dodgeball. However, Val Kilmer’s Tom “Iceman” Kazansky is still likable and what’s more, clearly better than his rival Pete “Maverick” Mitchell played by Tom Cruise. Despite being formulaic it does invert a common trope and a major part of Maverick’s growth as a character is him learning to be less hot-headed and impulsive in his flying — like Iceman. I understand in the real world, a pilot that behaved anything like Maverick wouldn’t make it outside a flight simulator and several things he does in the film would see him permanently grounded had he somehow made it into a real cockpit.

Maverick’s world is changed dramatically with the death of his wingman and friend, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw after he hits the canopy of their aircraft in an emergency ejection. This leaves the overconfident Maverick shaken to the point where he almost gives up. Naturally the climax has him coming back when it matters most. It certainly follows the formula in this way but it is all done so well that it is hard to care. The formula wasn’t as overdone then as it is now either.

One scene in particular towards the end when he visits the head instructor and Vietnam combat veteran known as Viper and played by Tom Skerritt is most instructive. Viper knew Maverick’s father and reveals to him the heroic circumstances of his death. This renews his confidence and sees him graduate and return to active duty. Here the background of Vietnam is hard to ignore and we can see in Maverick the United States being unsure of itself and overcoming this to fight again. I should note here that I am not blind to the propaganda of the film as a recruitment tool.

I will briefly mention the romance with Kelly McGillis’ “Charlie” who is one of his instructors and unimpressed with the bravado of the pilots. I think that while almost obligatory to include a romance, this is the weakest part of the film and I’m not surprised McGillis is absent from the sequel. Charlie is another element of the 80s zeitgeist with her over-confidence and giant shoulder pads. She is also obviously Cruise’s senior (when he really was young) and the romance never feels genuine. The poster image above has become something of an icon of the 80s but the dialogue of the film betrays the fleeting nature of their relationship. They are certainly attracted to each other but Charlie is motivated by Maverick’s playful skirmish with a fictional Soviet MiG-28 fighter. Maverick is an alpha male in determined pursuit of a woman who put up a fight and got away.

This brings me to what endears the film so much outside the stunning aerial photography done for the film. That is how unashamedly masculine it is. In recent decades, this has been played up as homoerotic but this is more indicative of the moral descent of society since the film’s release. The argument seems to be that because the men are assertive, use shared public bathrooms and are seen shirtless, that they are sodomites who repress their urges. One wonders what this could mean for most professional athletes across the world if true. In reality, they are simply men in the elite of their profession who have earned the right to all the bravado they display. They are competitors at the highest level and their interactions motivate them to do even better. Even the instructors played by Tom Skerritt and Michael Ironside have it though in them it is muted with the wisdom that comes from age.

The film has in more recent years become the example of the alpha/beta dynamic in males. This was popularised two decades later with the pick-up artist trend. It is not hard to see why as each Tomcat has two crew, one being the pilot and the other the RIO (Radar Intercept Officer). This naturally follows the dynamic of the main man having support but also that of mutually supporting each other. All the pilots/RIOs are shown to be close including Maverick and Goose, Iceman and Slider, Viper and Jester (yes I know he is a pilot) and others. Despite this being simply a function of the aircraft chosen to the film it genuinely fits well with observed male social dynamics. The term got a bit messy because “beta” came to imply weakness though Slider clearly isn’t weak and Goose was married to a youthful (peak attractive) Meg Ryan. Vox Day’s reappraisal of the “beta” fit much better with reality.

Goose should also be mentioned because everybody liked him. I noticed in my most recent viewing that he had what looked like rosary beads in his room when Maverick went to clear it for his family. He also has a cross around his neck and explicitly expressed concern for his family during the film. This is all in contrast to the fornicating Maverick with no concern for such things. It is poetic (as often in life), that Goose rather than Maverick should be the one to die in an aircraft accident. Had Goose been more like Maverick one wonders whether it would have cut into him as much as it did.

Goose is also something of a moral compass for the film in general. The same could also be said of the Viper as an aged mentor with his beautiful home and large family. Hollywood had long been turning out moral trash by the time of this film’s release. I wouldn’t be willing to show this to my children at the age I saw it either. However, unlike most films and media today, it still needed something to anchor the degeneracy and Goose was it. This is what redeems the film in the clearer lens through which I view it today.

I am interested in the sequel though the trailers seem to indicate that Maverick will be at the same point he was at the beginning of the original and not the wisened pilot at the end. I am sure the photography will be spectacular but I’ll not be surprised to see yet another unimaginative film leeching on the good ideas of the past.

Top Gun is in many ways a product of its time but this is not to the detriment of its enjoyment today.  When you consider the budget is was made with (even adjusting for inflation) one can’t help wondering where the money goes in modern action films. It also gives a visual picture of just how beautiful California was in living memory. But overall, it is just a good, entertaining film with a generally positive message.

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