When I heard the other day that Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) had been forced to resign from the House of Representatives because he’d accepted huge bribes from a defense contractor, one of my first thoughts was what a terrible legacy for one of the men who created TOP GUN.
TOP GUN, in case the 1986 film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson didn’t explain very well, is the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, where F-14 and F/A-18 pilots are trained in the fine arts of Air Combat Maneuvers (ACM), or what we call “dogfighting.” It came to be because the now-disgraced “Duke” Cunningham, one of the Navy’s Vietnam War aces, and other naval aviators noticed that the dependence of F-4 Phantom II pilots on long-range missiles and the absence of guns in 1960s fighter jets made them vulnerable to Soviet-trained North Vietnamese MIG-17s, MIG-19s, and MIG-21s, which were less advanced but more agileÃ¢Â?Â¦and had cannon as secondary armament. And since 1972, the NFWS (which is now based in Fallon, Nevada) has been training the men and women who fly off the decks of America’s super-carriers to be, as the film’s tagline puts it, “the best of the best.”
Top Gun is one of those movies which leaves me with mixed emotions as both movie watcher and military aviation aficionado. It does have many impressive visual sequences that anyone interested in the U.S. Navy (particularly the naval aviation branch) would drool over, starting with the main title sequence in which we see the carefully choreographed process of a carrier launching F-14 fighters for a routine patrol over the Persian Gulf. Set to music by Harold Faltermeyer (whose score is supplemented by a host of other artists, including Giorgio Moroder and Michael Jay), it’s a stunning sequence, with flight deck crew bustling about as pilots such as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) sit in their cockpits and wait to be catapulted off the carrier and up into the unfriendly skies.
Also to its credit, Top Gun (which was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. based on a magazine article by reporter Ehud Yonay) was one of the first Hollywood movies to depict the military in a positive light after the Vietnam fiasco. Of course, it also was released during President Ronald Reagan’s second term and the waning years of the Cold War, so it has, in addition to its depiction of male bonding and intense rivalry within the band of naval aviators, a certain amount of simple-minded jingoism. It also served as a Navy recruiting tool for a time as many young men became enthused about joining the service in part because of the movie’s exciting depiction of life aboard carriers and whatnot.
But even though it is visually stunning – especially as far as aerial sequences go – Top Gun isn’t one of those movies I really like to watch often. It’s viscerally exciting, especially in the ACM training/aerial combat sequences, but it also has several major flaws, which, frankly, don’t appeal to me much.
First of all, there’s the Tom Cruise factor. True, I do like him in some of his later movies (Minority Report, War of the Worlds) and he does have charisma, presence, and charm, but in Top Gun his “Maverick” persona is indistinguishable from the brash, cocky, and oh-so-charming fellow he played in Risky Business, Cocktail and the yet-to-be-released Days of Thunder and A Few Good Men. Here he just happens to be wearing a naval aviator’s uniform and set of gold wings, but other than that, he is basically Tom Cruise, the 1980s version.
“Maverick” (his Navy pilot call sign) has to carry much of the picture on his shoulders, since his story arc has three or four major subplots to deal with. First, he and his Radar Intercept Officer Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) encounter and photograph a “MIG-28” from an unnamed but obviously Communist country (the plane, a disguised Northrop F-5 fighter, is painted jet-black and had red stars on the wings and fuselage). Then Maverick has to help out a fellow pilot who has panicked and needs to be talked down for a safe landing on board their “bird farm.” These two exploits somehow earn Maverick and Goose slots to the Navy Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, CA, where they will be trained by Cmdr. “Viper” Metcalf (Tom Skerritt) and Lt. Cmdr. “Jester” Heatherly in the fine art of aerial dogfighting.
Now, if you’ve watched other films that deal with military aviators and their competitive macho attitudes, you’ll know that several things are likely to happen:
1. Maverick will be pitted against another squadron mate in a fierce rivalry to see who the better pilot is. In this case, the rival pilot is the somewhat aloof, even arrogant Tom “Iceman” Kazanski (Val Kilmer), who is very, very unlikable throughout much of the picture.
2. Maverick will have a crisis of conscience that will make him question his flying abilities when he has a mishap with very fatal consequences.
3. Maverick will have a hot romance with a sexy civilian aeronautical engineer (Kelly McGillis), who is not just interested in him as a hunk of burning love – as it were – but also because she wants to know more about that “MIG-28.”
4. Maverick and his fellow Top Gun students will find themselves in a short but violent Major Regional Contingency (Pentagon-speak for “crisis” or “war”) as those “MIG-28” planes start making threatening moves against American carriers on the high seas.
5. Finally, Maverick will deal with his “father” issues. It seems that his dad had been a pilot during the Vietnam War and vanished in action. Wouldn’t you know it? His senior instructor at Top Gun, “Viper,” is the very guy who can tell Lt. Mitchell what happened to his father.
While some of these subplots work well because the actors (particularly Edwards, Skerritt, and Kilmer) perform well, the two big ones – the love story and the climactic battle – are badly written and fall rather flat. The chemistry between Cruise and McGillis is nil, which is surprising considering how good the actress was in 1985’s Witness. Whatever heat or love there could have been between Maverick and Charlotte Blackwood is practically non-existent due to the inanity of the screenplay. Writers Cash and Epps do well in the action sequences, for the most part, but it seems that they expended much of their energies on the video game-like conflict and treated the love story as a somewhat annoying afterthought.
The final battle, too, is somewhat weird. Not only are we not told where these black “MIGs” are coming from or why, but it is somewhat ridiculous to think that those F-5s disguised to look like “commies” pose much of a threat to a carrier battle group. They seem to be armed only with air-to-air missiles and cannon, which are effective against, say, other aircraft but not a 90,000-ton warship. Also, real F-14s could have disposed of the so-called “MIG-28s” (which is not the designation for air-intercept fighters; Soviet bombers often had even-numbered designators) rather easily with Phoenix missiles at very long ranges. Of course, this would have robbed the film of the need for dogfightsÃ¢Â?Â¦.
A pet peeve of mine – and this was also done in Independence Day and on the NBC/CBS series JAG – is seeing Tom Cruise and other cast members flying in combat with their oxygen masks unhooked. All right, so it’s hard to look macho, cute, or hot while wearing a mask that obscures most of your face, but if you’re flying a combat jet at high speeds and in the heat of battle, you’d better have that mask firmly attached, otherwise you die because you aren’t breathing any oxygen.
Top Gun is made bearable, I suppose, by its strong MTV-styled and fast paced visuals, and also by some good performances by its supporting cast. The usually-villainous Michael Ironside is cast against type as a Top Gun instructor, while a young Meg Ryan shines briefly as the young wife of “Goose” Bradshaw. Look also for scenes with Rick Rossovich (The Terminator, Roxanne) and a still relatively unknown Tim Robbins (Bull Durham, Dead Man Walking), who would later be reunited with Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds.
Tom Cruise …. Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell
Kelly McGillis …. Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood
Val Kilmer …. Lt. Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazanski
Anthony Edwards …. Lt. (j.g.) Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw
Tom Skerritt …. Cmdr. Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf
Michael Ironside …. Lt. Cmdr. Rick ‘Jester’ Heatherly
John Stockwell …. Cougar
Barry Tubb …. Wolfman
Rick Rossovich …. Lt. (j.g.) Ron ‘Slider’ Kerner
Tim Robbins …. Lt. (j.g.) Sam ‘Merlin’ Wells
Clarence Gilyard Jr. …. Sundown
Whip Hubley …. Lt. Rick ‘Hollywood’ Neven
James Tolkan …. Stinger
Meg Ryan …. Carole Bradshaw
Adrian Pasdar …. Chipper