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The Subversive Sameness of ‘Top Gun’

One of the most overtly imperialist, overtly patriarchal movies of the 1980s also gave its viewers a more spectacular hit of camp than most of them had ever experienced—but accidentally, and with almost nobody picking up on it

Harrison Freeman

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.

If you tried to make Blue Velvet without the severed ear, you might end up with a movie like Top Gun. In Blue Velvet, you’ll recall, the ear, which Kyle MacLachlan finds in a field at the beginning of the film, serves as a kind of portal to the strange, dark world beneath the placid surface of 1980s America. MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, a naive college student who finds the ear and begins to make contact with the weird realm of madness and desire hidden in his familiar milieu of suburban conformity. Aided by a local policeman’s daughter, Laura Dern’s Sandy Williams, Jeffrey encounters the psychotic, gas-huffing drug dealer Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper. He falls for the lounge singer whom Frank abuses and terrorizes, Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini. Blue Velvet’s director, David Lynch, has said that the body part that starts Jeffrey’s journey had to be an ear because an ear resembles the mouth of a cave: “It’s an opening. An ear is wide and, as it narrows, you can go down into it. And it goes somewhere vast.” You start in one place and come out somewhere else. In Blue Velvet, the ear is the highway to the danger zone.

Top Gun, which came out four months before Lynch’s film, in May 1986, also features the human ear in its opening sequence, although it would be hard to imagine two more incongruous treatments of a piece of the human anatomy. Top Gun begins on an aircraft carrier. Wicked-looking fighter jets roll across the flight deck through dense clouds of orange smoke. Dwarfed by the machinery around them, tiny human figures—crewmen—trot through the smoke, dressed head-to-toe in protective suits that make them look vaguely like machines themselves. We watch these figures go about their work. They haul hoses. They flash hand signals to the pilots in the planes. As the camera moves in closer, we catch glimpses of their gear through wisps of smoke. Among other things, we see the huge headsets they’re wearing to protect their hearing from the jet engines’ roar. And there it is: Unlike the naked, damaged, wide-open ear in Blue Velvet, the ears in Top Gun are healthy, closed off, and muffled in the Reagan era’s most cutting-edge military armor.

It’s a telling difference. Blue Velvet and Top Gun are wildly different movies in all the obvious ways—one is an experimental art-house film, one is a testosterone-drenched mainstream action flick—but they deal with many of the same themes, even mirror each other to a surprising degree. You could say they draw power from the same energy source (the conservative social order of the mid-1980s) and ask some of the same questions about how it’s constructed and maintained (through violence, competition, submission, and conformity, essentially—though one of them treats these forces as terrifying and the other as profoundly rad). They’re both stories about young, clean-cut American men confronting the mortality of their fathers through struggles with generational surrogates (Hopper in Blue Velvet, Tom Skerritt’s Viper in Top Gun). They’re both obsessed with the iconography of the 1950s (Tom Cruise’s white T-shirt and jeans, Isabella Rossellini’s torch-singer nightclub act) and with rock ’n’ roll oldies (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” and “Great Balls of Fire” in Top Gun; “In Dreams” and “Blue Velvet” in Blue Velvet). They both put their young male leads into romances with older and more experienced women who double as mother figures (Rossellini’s Dorothy is a weary veteran of the dreamworld Jeffrey stumbles into in Blue Velvet; Kelly McGillis’s Charlie is literally Maverick’s teacher in Top Gun).

More than that, the two films share an unexpected quality of atmosphere. That sounds like a bizarre claim to make, maybe, about a film directed by Tony Scott and a film directed by David Lynch, two directors not exactly known for their stylistic similarities. But watch them again: There’s a similar feeling of cultural strain in both films, the feeling of all-American normalcy being pushed past the limits of its fault tolerance. “We’re going to teach you to fly the F-14 right to the edge of the envelope,” the instructor says in Top Gun, and that’s what both movies do with the culture of the morning-in-America ’80s. The difference is that one of them wants to ask what happens when the plane explodes, and the other wants to do a kick-ass barrel roll and then land you safely.

And that’s what I mean about the ear. Because while Blue Velvet follows its grisly tunnel into the surreal American dreamworld and looks at it directly, Top Gun, though constantly gesturing toward equally strange depths, never openly acknowledges their existence. It’s one of the weirdest movies of the 1980s because it insists on exploring its own weirdness without ever crossing over, exploring it exclusively from the side of rectitude, sanity, and health. And because it refuses to so much as consider the possibility that its vibe might not be in perfect accord with the Reaganite social context it wants to appeal to, it has a crazy self-certainty that enables it to go farther, say more, and be more totally off the wall than many movies of its era that were actually trying to do these things.

I’m not really saying anything new here; many American stories about defending the status quo are weird as hell when you really look at them (as is the American status quo itself, of course, but that’s another column). It might not be obvious to a Martian anthropologist why early Superman comics were less avant-garde than the poems of Wallace Stevens, and Top Gun’s more outre qualities become more obvious with every year that passes. As its original context recedes in time, the signals it uses to reassure us that no, actually, it’s just a normal movie about former high school jocks duking it out for the right to win the Cold War grow less persuasive. The aspects of the film that ’80s theatergoers looked right past grow more so.

The film’s queer subtext, for instance—invisible to most of its audience at the time, is now obvious to nearly anyone who sees it. Certainly to anyone under 40, or anyone who’s grown up in a world where, say, shipping Harry and Draco was a viable way to participate in Harry Potter fandom. It reads as a kind of cheerful joke. I mean: the volleyball scene! “Playin’ with the boys”!

All those chiseled jaws flexing mere inches away from each other! All those intense-staredown-having, towel-wrapped-bodies-on-high-alert-featuring scenes in the post-flight locker room! If the makers of Top Gun had ever bothered to think outside the rigidly straight-cis-white-guy box they were working inside, if Jerry Bruckheimer had ever turned to Don Simpson and said, “Shit, you know, technically Maverick and Iceman could kiss each other,” they would have had to dial this stuff back for fear of inciting a moral panic. But they didn’t, and so one of the most overtly imperialist, overtly patriarchal movies of the ’80s also gave its viewers a more spectacular hit of camp than most of them had ever experienced—but accidentally, and with almost nobody picking up on it.

There’s more to the strangeness of Top Gun than the unacknowledged chemistry of its main characters. Scott’s film portrays every aspect of normalcy under the American imperium as stylistically exaggerated and dangerous to an almost intolerable degree. Once you start to watch it from this perspective, it seems wild that a movie that never tries to make its target audience even a tiny bit uncomfortable, a movie that wants to do nothing at all but be awesome and flatter the egos of boys—arenas in which it succeeds as brilliantly as anything ever has—could also be this much of a fever dream. The real adventure for Maverick, the real test of character, isn’t piloting a fighter jet. It’s navigating this all-or-nothing world of palm trees and mirrorshades and Bud tallboys and yearning synth ballads and motorbikes, a world where all the men are hyperbolically masculine (the only one who shows any empathy or wit, Goose, is of course the one who dies), and all the women are somewhere else.

In Blue Velvet, Kyle MacLachlan is allowed to look lost, to look uncertain, to look afraid. Tom Cruise is capable of playing at least two of those qualities—I can’t think of a scene where he’s looked credibly frightened, though I might be forgetting one—but he’s built his career as a movie star on playing their opposites. That is, he’s built his career playing characters whose lives are high-wire acts of confident improvisation, and there’s no more essential Cruise high-wire act than the one in Top Gun, where “if you think, you’re dead,” as Maverick tells Charlie. Before he learns to accept the wisdom of his elders and fit into the group in order to defend America from the Russians, Maverick’s life involves dogfighting with his male instructors over the desert during the day and sleeping with his female instructor at night. The tension between individualism (“Maverick”) and group loyalty (“you can be my wingman anytime”) is often acute in American military movies, but this is something else. Maverick not only has to act out an Oedipus complex with the fate of Western democracy at stake, he has to get graded while doing it.

From the Martian anthropologist’s perspective, in other words, it’s not necessarily clear that Blue Velvet, where the villain huffs from a gas mask while speeding in his car, would read as much darker or stranger than Top Gun, where the heroes huff from gas masks while speeding in their F-14s at 20,000 feet. (There’s even something kind of Lynchian about Top Gun’s jones for faces in close-up distress, faces often masked and known by codenames, communicating through staticky radio signals. All the actors are too handsome for a Lynch production, of course, but there’s at least a faint echo—it’s as if Lynch had shot a movie on Mount Olympus.) We, of course, are not aliens, at least not all of us, and we can perceive the ways in which Top Gun is trying to shore up the edifice Blue Velvet already imagines in ruins. It has a conventional plot; its characters get what they want. It has a happy ending and a clear resolution. But it’s often the case in American popular culture that the entertainments that seem most determined to preserve the edifice of normalcy are also the ones that let you peek through its cracks.

There’s a particular kind of American icon—Marilyn Monroe is like this; so’s Elvis Presley—whose real strangeness is only revealed over time. Figures like this manage to fuse issues their cultural moment can’t or won’t think about directly (sex, gender, race; the terrifying, culture-warping reality of American nuclear power; whatever) with an apparently accessible surface. They draw energy from the secret tension of this arrangement without sacrificing their popular appeal. They let you process one set of ideas unconsciously while remaining consciously focused on another, less threatening set. As decades pass, assumptions change, and taboos shift, the range of meanings they represent grows clearer. They become windows onto one of the strangest phenomena of human life, the remoteness of even the fairly recent past.

I think Top Gun belongs to this line of icons, and not only because Tom Cruise belongs there by himself. A generation from now it will probably seem more challenging than Blue Velvet. To my mind, both films are masterpieces, even if only one of them is a masterpiece on purpose. There’s a famous story that back in ’86, before either movie had been released, a test audience that thought it had come to see Top Gun was instead shown a screening of Lynch’s movie. “David Lynch should be shot,” one affronted viewer said afterward. But time is the weirdest ear-portal, because consider: What’s the most mainstream move a filmmaker can execute? A big-budget sequel, right? But Top Gun 2 isn’t due out until December. We’re on the other side of that particular reality. David Lynch, Laura Dern, and Kyle MacLachlan got there first.