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All the Tiny Moments That Add Up to Make ‘Top Gun’ Perfect

It’s the soundtrack, the way you feel the speed of the fighter jets; it’s the call names and the clichés; it’s the way that Maverick and Iceman constantly chomp at each other …

Alycea Tinoyan

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

It’s two minutes and 39 seconds into the movie. That’s when it happens. That’s when Top Gun, a movie about jets and men and machismo, lets you know it’s going to be about something else entirely. The way it happens is:

The movie starts. We hear music playing before we see anything, which makes sense because Top Gun’s soundtrack is secretly its most important weapon. There’s some soft skittering; mood setting, really. Then we see the Paramount logo bleed onto the screen. Then we get that first undertaker bell as the logo changes. Then that bell and the skittering continue, leading you toward an intertitle that lays out the parameters for the movie that you’re about to watch:

On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world.

They succeeded.

Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it:

And then there’s a pause as that bell and the skittering build momentum, gain strength, gain prestige, gain confidence. Then, finally and with great aplomb, the title bursts onto the screen:

From there, we get another minute and a half of shots of jets and jet handlers setting up the launch and land stations. The music grows and grows, and we see men waving their hands and jets following their directions. It’s beautiful, honestly. There’s a pageantry to it, really. It feels expensive, and measured, like this particular routine is less of a routine and more of a ritual, a ceremony, a liturgy.

We see dual jet engines flame their way into power as the music builds to a crescendo, and then a couple of the handlers signal that the jet is clear for takeoff, and then, right as the credits are finishing, the jet does exactly that. The engines scream and the jet jumps forward and that’s the moment. That’s the 2:39 mark. Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” howls to life as the jets and the handlers and everything else becomes more kinetic and more powerful. We are taken, if you’ll excuse me, right into the danger zone.

I love Top Gun.

I love all of its parts and all of its implications and all of its insinuations, be they real or otherwise. It has Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer and the military and “the best of the best” and fighter jets that jet-fight with one another—except they don’t call it “jet fighting,” they call it “dogfighting,” which is somehow even cooler.

I love that all of the fighter pilots have call names. (It wasn’t until I watched Top Gun again to write about it that I bothered to learn what every character’s real name was in the movie.)

(I can’t believe Maverick’s real name is Pete Mitchell.)

(And that Goose’s real name is Nick Bradshaw.)

(And that Iceman’s real name Tom Kazansky.)

(At first I thought they should’ve all been swapped, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how perfectly placed they all are.)

(“Tom Kazansky” is especially great.)

I love that you can see when Tom Cruise is smiling even when he’s wearing his full fighter pilot face mask.

I love Tom Cruise’s eyebrows. This is the best his eyebrows have ever looked in a movie. (Second place is the first Mission: Impossible movie. Third place is The Outsiders. Fourth place is Minority Report. Fifth place is The Color of Money. Sixth place is Days of Thunder. Seventh place is Jerry Maguire. But it’s a close finish for all of them. It’s like how race cars cross finish lines. That’s how close it is.)

I love all of the lines that were clichés, or have become clichés, like the one about Maverick’s ego writing checks his body can’t cash, or the one about how Maverick could tell Charlotte some classified information but then he’d have to kill her, or the one where Maverick asks Iceman what his problem is and Iceman says, “You’re everyone’s problem.” There are a bunch.

I love that so much of the movie requires everyone to be dressed in military uniforms. (The best uniform is the white one that they wear to the bar. The second best is the dark-green jumpsuit they wear when they fly. The third best is the tan one they wear during that first class at Fighter Weapons School.)

I love the impromptu karaoke scene where Maverick sings “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” to gain Charlotte’s attention.

I love that all of the best new fighter pilots in the Navy have to compete against one another to see who out of that group is the most alpha.

I love the volleyball game that they play, but most specifically I love the top-to-bottom reverse high five, and also this pose here that Slider does:

(Slider is played by Rick Rossovich, a fantastic ’80s lughead who has roles in some of my favorite action movies, including this one, Terminator, and Navy SEALs. Also, and this is maybe even more important: Rossovich starred in one of the very best episodes of Tales From the Crypt as a fit younger man named Hans who sells his body parts to a rich old man who is trying to impress a younger woman. The episode was actually directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And to get back to the pose: The way you know it’s wonderful is it appears again during the end credits.)

I love the way Tom Cruise answers consecutive questions during his first class day at Fighter Weapons School with “Yes, sir,” and both times they sound like completely different sentences. (Did you know that Tom Cruise has never won an Oscar? That seems illegitimate to me. Cruise is a fantastic actor—you have to appreciate someone who can toggle back and forth between playing a wildly chauvinistic peacock in Magnolia and playing someone who gets in a helicopter fight with Superman in Mission: Impossible—Fallout.)

(If we can do some Oscar swaps here, let’s go ahead and pull that Best Actor trophy away from Geoffrey Rush at the 1997 Oscars and give it to Cruise for his portrayal of Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire.)

I love that in Top Gun we get the three best variants of The Tom Cruise Smile. There’s the one where he utilizes all of his teeth:

And there’s the one where he leaves the garage door halfway open so you can get just a peek at the cars inside:

And there’s the Pre–Matt Damon Closed Mouth smile, which is truly splendid:

I love how aggressively Maverick and Iceman chew things at each other.

I love when Charlotte walks into the class being held in the hangar and Maverick and Goose realize she’s the same woman that Maverick was hitting on at the bar the night before. (The reason I love this one so much is because it seems like he puts his glasses on as a way to disguise himself so that she doesn’t notice him, but then as soon as he starts talking to her he takes them off. And then later as soon as he’s done talking to her, he smiles and puts them back on. That’s when I figured out that he wasn’t using his sunglasses as a way to disguise himself. He was using them the way a samurai uses a sword against someone he’s trying to defeat.)

(Separate from everything else, Tom Cruise looks great in aviators. Aviators are the number one draft pick accessory for when hot guys want to look their absolute hottest. Remember that one scene from Community when Jeff put on the aviators and then the dean saw him in them?)

I love the way that, after Iceman calls bullshit on Maverick’s retelling of how he flew upside down a few feet away from a MiG, Goose very sincerely defends Maverick. (Anthony Edwards is perfect as Goose. He’s so funny and so sweet and so earnest. I can’t believe they killed him off. I’ve seen Top Gun probably a solid 20 times front to back, and Goose’s death scene never gets easier. Usually I just skip right past it, but I made sure to watch it before writing this. I hate it. It sucks a lot. The worst part is right before he ejects, when the plane is spinning and the force from the spin is mushing his body, and you hear him moan in this way that lets you know he’s in pain and also terrified. I’m terrified that something bad is going to happen to Miles Teller’s character in the new Top Gun movie.)

I love that Maverick’s feelings get so hurt when Charlotte says he flies dangerously in front of everyone. (The stretch that starts here that’s soundtracked by the underpinnings of “Take My Breath Away” is a great example of how masterfully Top Gun uses music as a way to make you feel exactly what it wants you to feel.)

I love how high Tom Cruise wears his underwear.

I love Iceman. (I’d always assumed that Iceman was the antagonist in Top Gun. He’s not, though. He’s just a guy who wants everyone to be as safe as possible. When I was younger, I was most drawn to Maverick’s spirit and attitude. And, truthfully, if someone were to ask me about it today, I’d likely lie and say I still feel that same way. But I don’t. When I watch Top Gun now, as a dad and as an adult, I always say to myself, “He’s the one. That’s the guy I’d most want to work with. That’s the guy I’d trust to do what needs to get done.” Maverick might’ve had a higher ceiling than Iceman, but Iceman was more consistently great.)

I love the way it feels like the planes are slicing through the atmosphere as they fly. (In a technical sense, I suppose that’s exactly what they’re doing. That’s probably why I like it so much—I always love when movies figure out how to use sound to emphasize the force and speed of something that’s moving fast. That’s part of the reason that I liked the first The Fast and the Furious so much, and also why I liked Ford v Ferrari so much.)

I like that early in the movie we see Maverick and Goose getting chewed out by Stinger before he angrily sends them to Fighter Weapons School. Then, late in the movie, after Maverick has redeemed himself by successfully shooting down several MiGs, we see Stinger tell Maverick he can choose whatever posting he wants next, to which Maverick replies that he was thinking about being an instructor at Fighter Weapons School.

That scene is soundtracked by the same bell and skittering from the start of the movie, by the way.

And the scene immediately after that is when Charlotte surprises Maverick in the bar.

And, of course, this time she’s the one who plays “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” for him.

I love that part.

I love all the parts.

I love Top Gun.