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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #455: Top Gun

Top Gun (1986) is pure 1980s American gun-ho patriotism as well as an unofficial recruitment ad for that country’s air force. It features Tom Cruise in the nascent stages of his career as the world’s biggest movie star, U.S pilots flipping off those pesky Russians in the air, and the chart-topping single by Kenny Loggins, Danger Zone. Many aspects of this movie are now dated, but on first viewing it is hard not to be pulled in by the adrenaline-pumping ride.

For many people this movie was a defining moment in pop culture, leading viewers to either adopt the nickname “Goose” or “Maverick,” or go a step further and actually join the air force. That was not the case for me since I was born the same year Top Gun came out, and I don’t think I was ever its specific target audience anyway. When I think of Anthony Edwards I don’t think of him flying fighter jets, I think of him operating on patients as Doctor Greene on E.R. However over the years I kept seeing the cultural influence of Top Gun, whether it was by hearing that Kenny Loggins song, seeing the parody Hot Shots!, or hearing people quote “I feel the need, the need for speed.”

About two years ago I got to it through my Netflix queue, and although I couldn’t quite follow all of the aviation terminology it was fun seeing Tom Cruise be the best at what he does. This was before all of the weirdness with Scientology, the messy divorces, and whatever happened with this year’s The Mummy. Here we have a young Tom Cruise, back when it was normal for him to look this young, taking on the role of cocky U.S air force pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Just how cocky is he? Cocky enough to fly his plane upside down over a Soviet plane to flip off the pilot and take a picture.

Despite the obviously huge ego, Maverick and his partner Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are accepted into Top Gun school, which I guess trains them to be “the best of the best” or something along those lines. There is a tremendous amount of testosterone in those classrooms with every hot-shot pilot having adopted a cool nickname and each wanting to prove they are the best pilot there is. You have among others Val Kilmer as “Iceman,” Tim Robbins as “Merlin,” and John Stockwell as “Cougar.” Even Maverick’s superior has the nickname “Stinger.” (Another 80s fun fact: the actor who plays Stinger, James Tolkan, also plays Principal Strickland in Back to the Future.)

During the Top Gun classes Maverick catches the eye of civilian instructor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) with both his reckless attitude and his actually impressive piloting skills. While they start a tentative romance, Goose has feet firmly on the ground so to speak with his wife (Meg Ryan) and daughter. Eventually Maverick’s cockiness catches up to him during a deadly training accident, which makes him question his career as a pilot. Will Maverick regain his confidence and get back in the air? That’s a bit like wondering whether or not there will be a happy ending in a romantic comedy.

The story is of course not the key attraction of Top Gun, but rather the spectacular aerial action sequences directed by the late, great Tony Scott. Most people will never fly in fighter jets like the ones shown in the movie, and if you are prone to air sickness you definitely wouldn’t want to anyway. The cameras capture footage of these aircrafts flying at high speed and high altitude, pilots frantically ejecting out of the cockpit when things go wrong, and in one harrowing scene a plane going into a stomach-churning flat spin. It does indeed take a special kind of person to want to do this job.

Looking back on the movie 31 years after its release, it is pretty staggering to see how many things have changed in the world of Top Gun. Russians are not fighting Americans with aircrafts, but with fake news articles on Facebook. There are now many American pilots who don’t fly actual aircraft over enemy territories, but instead pilot drones from the safety of their home country.

Even the movie’s machismo can now be put into question. In 2009 Kelly McGillis came out as a lesbian, there have been plenty of rumours about Tom Cruise in that regard, and the movie Sleep with Me (1994) features a monologue by none other than Quentin Tarantino about the homoerotic subtext in Top Gun. Make of that what you will.

Since 1980s pop culture is all the rage right now, there is apparently a Top Gun sequel on the way. Given everything that has changed over the years it should be very interesting to see what the story will look like and if Maverick will be training pilots to fly drones instead of planes. The original Top Gun meanwhile seems destined to become a relic of a time gone by.


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