Tribute #8: Top Gun (1986)


A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

The recent backlash against Top Gun, suspiciously coincides with the backlash against Tom Cruise in general. What used to be Cruise’s most popular and most quoted film, has now been labeled as a overrated, empty B-movie schlock that should not be taken seriously. But the truth is that Top Gun may be the best movie of its kind, and considering the competition, that is saying a lot. An important thing to remember about Top Gun is its authenticity – the depiction of life in a naval school is accurate (this is proven if you do your research), and while the film may go over-the-top with the fighting scenes, who’s to say what is on screen doesn’t correspond to reality? Also Top Gun has real drama. The film could have done away with any and all character development (like 2005’s Stealth did) and become video game-like, but director Tony Scott knows that close ties between pilots in an academy are an essential part of life. He illustrates the relationships between them as skilfully as the action scenes. These are only a few reasons why this film should not be labeled as a B-movie. In fact, it might be one of the most easily enjoyable movies of the 80’s.

Director Tony Scott, hadn’t yet reached the stardom of his brother Ridley in the mid-80s. What he needed was a hit and he really though that Top Gun would be the script to get him that hit. Unfortunately, he was Paramount’s third choice to direct. John Carpenter turned it down to direct Big Trouble in Little China, and David Cronenberg turned it down to direct The Fly. So there was beginner Tony Scott who had two below average features behind him, but had a brother in Ridley that had some say in Hollywood. Tony eventually got the job and a good cast of up-and-comers like Cruise, Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, and Anthony Edwards. The production was highly controlled by the studio and Scott was fired three times off the project, but they kept asking him back, until he finally finished it in 1986.

The result is a high-flying action film that tells the story of Maverick (Tom Cruise), a natural at piloting fighter jets that quickly makes it to the Top Gun Naval Flying School where he is all the rage – to the dismay of Iceman (Val Kilmer) – the previous top dog on the block. Maverick and his partner Goose (Anthony Edwards) are constantly bullied in the locker rooms by Iceman and Co., but when time comes for practice flying they are the very best. Maverick quickly falls for his instructor at the Academy – Charlie (Kelly McGillis) who helps him through the trials and tribulations of warfare. The film culminates in a tragedy that leads to an Academy finally united under one banner and fighting for one cause.

A negative of the film is that it shies away from the complexity that the final minutes of the film can offer up. Why does it take a tragedy to bring this Academy together? That is a question that screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. gloss over in order to create a film-going experience that is more viewer friendly. One wonders if the film would have been a success if they did explore that theme, and something in the back of my mind tells me it might have been an even bigger hit and the critics would have embraced it more. Still the film’s missed opportunities go unnoticed because it is high in excitement and some very powerful drama. One can see why this film put Tony Scott on the map as a director – it shows his skill in mixing action and dramatics – this is no Man on Fire mind you, but it is a great showing of that skill nonetheless.

Another good thing about the film is its attempt to be epic. The film feels bigger than it should. Its themes, as simplistic as they seem, are highlighted greatly by Scott. In many ways, I don’t see one good reason why Scott wasn’t perfect for the job. Here is a filmmaker who not only has skill, but strives to show that skill off so he can have a career later on. One sees Scott as a perfectionist, not in the sense that he wants to tell the perfect story, but he desperately wants this film to be please its audience. The film may be manipulative in the way it portrays its sad moments in the saddest way possible, with the music swelling at its most heart-wrenching cues. Also the love scenes are almost theatrical in their earnestness and their exquisiteness. Scott wants to immerse the audience in this film by making it totally watchable from end to end, and his workmanlike effort is what makes the film worth recommending by itself.

But also there is the great acting by everyone involved. Tom cruise is perfect as maverick. He is the ultimate and coolest pilot ever put on the big screen, and that is not because that is how the character was written either – it is because of Cruise. He plays Maverick in such a matter-of-fact way that one thinks that this may be how Cruise is in real life. It is a performance that immediately captures the audience’s attention – and no other actor in the film can steal that away from him. Kelly McGillis is good too and also scorchingly hot. Cruise is lucky to just simulate the sex scene he has with her. It is a shame she never became a big star. Anthony Edwards is endearing and likable as Goose, and he plays a great straight man to Maverick. Val Kilmer does well as the ‘bad guy’ in the film, and his acting is strong enough that his character easily comes-off as a potent competitor of Maverick. Everyone else, from Michael Ironside’s badass Jester, to John Stockwell’s cool Cougar, do a good job. Look out for an elongated cameo by Meg Ryan too.

The technical aspects of the film are famous for being top notch for the time the film was made. The special effects are the most important aspect of the film, and while if you look too hard for mistakes you will undoubtedly find them, it is impossible not to acknowledge the unprecedented precision of the fight scenes, coupled with their exciting realization on screen. But good special effects, do not a movie make. The editing by Chris lebenzon and Billy Webber is one of the main reasons the film works. One feels that they put their heads together and wanted to make a film that flowed well and was of good length. There aren’t too many continuity errors in this film. The score by Harold Faltermeyer is not too symphonic, containing a little more percussion than necessary, but overall it is entirely listenable – complementing the movie with good effect.

Overall, there is no reason why one shouldn’t see Top Gun at some point in his or her life. It includes all the themes that one needs from a film and more. The emotion is strong, and the action is breathtaking and never boring. It is both a beautiful film and one that exposes how ugly life can be at times. At the end, we feel like we’ve been entertained, but we also feel as if we have learned a lesson from these characters and that is rare in an action film. But the reason that the film will not go down in history as one of the greats, is because of the refusal to dig deeper into character complexity caused by fear of audience alienation. Still, what is already there is more than good enough, and is worth watching whenever one has the chance.

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