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The Stupid Brilliance of ‘Top Gun’

Before the release of ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ it’s worth looking back on the inane glory of the quintessential ’80s movie that started it all

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In this year of movie multiverses, join me for a moment in the mouth of madness. Imagine a world where the lead role in Top Gun was actually given to Matthew Modine instead of Tom Cruise, and the movie was directed by David Cronenberg. (Who, for the record, has no regrets.) Both of these possibilities were on the table in 1985, when the film was still just a gleam in producer Don Simpson’s bleary, red-rimmed eyes. The potential butterfly effects boggle the mind: What if, instead of crooning “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” with Goose, Cruise ended up in Modine’s role in Full Metal Jacket, narrating Private Joker’s descent into a world of shit? What if, instead of guiding Top Gun off the launch pad, Tony Scott had made Cronenberg’s The Fly with his stars from The Hunger, David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve? Would we even have Top Gun: Maverick in this timeline? Or Crimes of the Future? What becomes of Kenny Loggins? Speculative fiction is a danger zone.

The what-ifs around Top Gun are particularly enticing because they feel so impossible: The movie can exist only in its official form. In addition to being perhaps the quintessential movie of the Reagan era—a snapshot of a Morning in America so bright that everyone has to wear shades—Top Gun was also the most perfectly packaged movie of that time, a masterpiece of ancillary thinking and a landmark in the history of cinematic advertising. In March 1987—almost a year after it opened atop the box office charts and stayed there—it became the first VHS cassette priced to own at under $26.95, effectively rewriting the rules of the then-developing sell-through market while also staking out new terrain in the field of product placement. When Steven Spielberg scattered those Reese’s Pieces in E.T.’s path four years earlier, it was a canny act of verisimilitude; the Diet Pepsi ad attached to the home video version of Top Gun, meanwhile, was a crass exercise in blending commercial and cinematic aesthetics, effectively inserting the soft drink into a simulacrum of the film’s quick-cut, high-flying imagery.

Besides being a time of “high concept” plots simple enough to be pitched in a single, excitable sentence, the early ’80s marked the moment when movies ceased to be “just” movies. In his superlative Star Wars spoof Spaceballs, Mel Brooks mocked this tendency by proposing that “merchandising” was the greatest power in the universe, above even the Force (or the Schwartz). The fact that a film like Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance played like an extended MTV clip wasn’t a bug but a feature, and Scott—who followed his brother Ridley to Hollywood—was part of a cohort of British-bred ad men who instinctively fused storytelling and salesmanship on a molecular level. The commercial that got Scott hired on Top Gun was a Saab spot featuring a car and a jet fighter photographed side by side—a juxtaposition that made it into the movie in the sequence when Cruise rides his motorcycle parallel to a runway strip and pumps his fist as a fighter jet takes off in the background.

One way to describe Top Gun would be to call it the cinematic equivalent of a fist pump, or maybe a chest bump—shirtless, of course, and covered in bronzer. “A brazenly eroticized recruiting poster,” was the verdict of New York magazine critic David Denby—a dig that the shameless brain trust of Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Scott would probably have taken as a compliment on their way to the bank. Much has been written about the deal that Top Gun’s producers struck with the United States Navy—an ideological quid pro quo in which the script, characters, and geopolitical dynamics were subject to institutional revision. Originally, the movie opened with a skirmish in the skies above Cuba; the location was changed to somewhere less contentious. In return for this creative carte blanche, the Navy would make available its aircraft as well as a team of advisers to guarantee authentic depictions of base life and combat protocols. The result was a movie that on one level gleamed with a certain kind of realism—the gearhead minutiae of engine makes, call signs, and guidance systems—while playing like a delirious, jingoistic fantasy. As such, Top Gun was also a potent antidote to the self-lacerating pessimism of Vietnam-themed films by New Hollywood auteurs like Michael Cimino and Hal Ashby, who were determined to question the ethics and consequences of American foreign policy and take the kinetic excitement out of onscreen combat in the process. Circa 1987, Top Gun could be slotted dialectically against Oliver Stone’s Platoon—the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, and from a certain angle its more sober multiplex twin. Both films are about a young man being indoctrinated into military rituals and facing down ethical dilemmas, but where Platoon’s thesis is that young men drafted into service end up physically and spiritually broken, Top Gun is a cozy, crowd-pleasing fable of self-actualization.

With the lone, tragic exception of Anthony Edwards’s doomed Goose—a contender for the best literal and figurative wingman of the ’80s—Top Gun is a completely bloodless movie. Maverick and his pals never actually get their hands dirty. The same disembodied, push-of-a-button bombardment skewered by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove was reconfigured by Scott as a video-game-style kick, while the earlier film’s snarky eroticism—that indelible opening vision of two bombers symbolically copulating to the strains of “Try a Little Tenderness”—was made both more humorless and explicit. Even leaving aside the homoerotic deconstruction of Top Gun made famous by Quentin Tarantino’s cameo in 1994’s Sleep With Me, there’s something profoundly discombobulating about how much effort its characters put into their macho posturing and one-upsmanship, as if looking cool were a matter of life or death. As British critic Tom Shone writes in his excellent book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Top Gun is set “beneath cloudless, Cold War skies, in which no combat takes place. … The only enemy in the movie, really, [is] any comment that might scratch or dent the immaculate confidence of its pilots, creating holes in the fragile ego-sphere.” The same strutting, alpha bravado that made Top Gun a hit is also what makes it such a ripe target for critique and satire; that it was Platoon’s star, Charlie Sheen, who impersonated Cruise so adroitly in 1991’s Hot Shots! is simply the cherry on top.

The question of whether it’s even possible to make fun of Tom Cruise—at once the most tunnel-visioned and self-aware of actors, still scrutinizing and burnishing his legend in real time—is worth asking. Last week, while accepting an honorary Palme at Cannes, he responded to a question about why he insists on doing his own stunts by turning the tables on the interviewer: “Would you ask Gene Kelly why he does his own dancing?” There are surely worse comparisons for Cruise than Kelly, a monomaniacal perfectionist who performed the title song for Singin’ in the Rain soaked to the bone with a 103-degree fever. But either way, Top Gun marks the moment when its star went from another young male ingenue—defined by his charmingly sub–Gene Kelly dancing in Risky Business—to a grinning icon of Hollywood power and fantasy; the face that launched a thousand F-14s.

In a 2021 interview with Variety, Bruckheimer denied the rumors that Modine had been the first choice to play Maverick, insisting that “Tom was the only actor we talked to.” Watching the movie again, what’s most remarkable about Cruise’s performance—which was routinely slammed by critics as part of their overall campaign against the film’s style-as-substance—is how it renders his character’s armored, chrome-plated cockiness as endearing rather than off-putting. The same year, as a talented young pool hustler in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, Cruise played with the ratio of charisma and callowness and ended up with a thorny characterization; his narcissistic vamp to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is colored by the way we see it through Paul Newman’s wary, judgmental eyes. (Eddie can’t deny that the kid’s hair is perfect, though). What Cruise represents in Scorsese’s dramatic scheme is the shock of the new—an up-and-comer turning tradition on its ear. The Color of Money is layered and sophisticated enough to treat the character with ambivalence, but Top Gun unfolds from his point of view: It’s about the triumph of flashy nonconformity, with Cruise selling the idea that exuberance is not only a virtue, but also a sign of humanity in a depersonalized military environment.

As Maverick’s foil (and mirror image) Iceman, Val Kilmer doubles down on his own GQ-level handsomeness, except as an alienation effect. A couple of years earlier in Top Secret!, the actor had perfectly burlesqued Elvis Presley and commanded the camera with an authority comparable to Cruise, but he was also eccentric and adventurous enough to experiment with weirdo villain energy. Over and over again, Iceman states his problems with Maverick, but the almost self-parodic intensity of Kilmer’s acting—his sneering, lascivious contempt for Cruise—seems to come from somewhere deep inside, and may be a response to his irritation with the movie itself. In Kilmer’s 2020 memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry, he recalls being “tortured” into meeting with Scott and purposefully bombing his audition before the director cornered him and admitted that the film’s script sucked, but it didn’t matter because the jets would “take his breath away.” Top Gun is a film whose component parts were so carefully synced that the director used a lyric from the soundtrack to sell Kilmer on participating.

The common denominator between Top Gun’s two hit singles was composer Giorgio Moroder, an emblem of populist electronica who’d previously made perhaps the apex example of movie-montage music with Scarface’s “Push It to the Limit.” Moroder wrote “Danger Zone” first; the cult web series Yacht Rock posited that the song was created to give Loggins a hip new edge … and help repel an alien invasion. That’s not exactly true, but the story behind “Take My Breath Away” is genuinely stranger than fiction: Moroder told The Guardian in 2012 that the lyrics were written by a guy (Tom Whitlock) who’d stopped by to fix his Ferrari. “I was never good at lyrics,” said Moroder, “so I gave him my demos. … The imagery was perfect.” “Take My Breath Away” is perfect: It’s maybe the prototypical ’80s synth-power ballad, and it’ll still be playing during high school slow dances long after Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” for Top Gun: Maverick has been consigned to the dustbin of history. If the great appeal of Top Gun lies in its assembly as a bright, vibrating pleasure-delivery machine, “Take My Breath Away” is the pièce de résistance of high-end, consumer-friendly passivity, making even the love scenes between Cruise and Kelly McGillis halfway convincing.

It’s no surprise that a movie so injected with testosterone suffers most notably in the romance department, but the problem isn’t McGillis—a good actress who’d plausibly seduced Harrison Ford the year before in Witness—or even the much-kidded choreography that saw her constantly bend, slouch, and otherwise contort herself so as not to draw attention to her costar’s short king status. The problem is that Top Gun is so suffused with passion for its own crisp, weightless sense of cool that it can’t work up any other intimate feelings. Or maybe screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. just hadn’t met a human female before: If the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally is the most triumphant moment of Meg Ryan’s career, successfully delivering the sub-porno come-on “take me to bed or lose me forever” as Goose’s wife Carole surely takes the silver.

There’s a nice irony in the fact that a movie as narratively rickety and cliché-ridden as Top Gun is also an all-time quote machine—a premature meme generator waiting for social media to come along as a delivery device. The thundering, transcendent dumbness of the dialogue—all of those insults, put-downs, and faux-zen koans about flying, whether it’s by the seat of your pants, or with a ghost—reaches an apex with Maverick’s deathless assessment of his own cockpit existentialism. “You don’t have time to think up there,” he explains, the faintest glimpse of a furrow working its way across Cruise’s perfectly airbrushed brow. “If you think, you’re dead.” Even more than Maverick’s claim of feeling the need for speed, the line sums up the genius of the movie. It’s so stupid, it’s brilliant. It’s so dated that it stands the test of time. It’s so flawed, yet impossible to imagine any other way.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.