Top Gun
Director: Tony Scott. Cast: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Tom Skerritt, Anthony Edwards, Rick Rossovich, Michael Ironside, Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins, Whip Hubley, John Stockwell. Screenplay: Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. (inspired by the article "Top Guns" by Ehud Yonay).

Top Gun, that definitive mid-80s ode to U.S. Navy jet piloting, is precisely the movie that its cocksure, petulant protagonists would have made about their own exploits. Never have I seen a movie with such outrageously polished sheen—imagine a sports car with a layer of Armor wax three inches thick. The whole film throws at us a gallery of The Beautiful People, or rather The Beautiful White People, of whom only two exist with any real distinction from the others. One is Kelly McGillis's Charlie, a brilliant aerophysicist and military strategist who gains access to all these jet-set reindeer games by adopting a masculine nickname and wearing the bulkiest, least comfortable-looking bomber jacket you ever saw.

I do not mean to suggest that there is a plotline by which McGillis struggles to be allowed onto the premises of the pilots' training ground; I certainly do not mean to suggest there is any plotline at all. What I mean is that only by creating a completely awkward and implausible creature—a physicist and aerial engineer who seems supremely bored by both science and planes, a chameleon who dresses strangely like all the post-adolescents in her midst—can the filmmakers finnagle a little romantic heat and female skin into their boys-only FantasyLand. Charlie, and even more so McGillis, is completely incongruous to this world and this film. But she's there, stuck right in the middle, and there's nothing to be done about her.

The other main figure in Top Gun is, of course, Tom Cruise's Maverick, his teeth as lustrous as the wings of his plane. It is unfortunate that an actor who gave such a precise, self-aware performance as the hero of Jerry Maguire will always be primarily associated with this role. The full extent and meaning of Cruise's character, as in a medieval morality play, is tidily delivered in his name. Maverick knows no rule, but when he glancingly spies one, he wastes no time in breaking it. His impetuousity outrages his flight-school instructors, such as Tom Skerritt's Viper, but they can do little more than wring their hands in the face of his often-alleged instincts and natural ability. Anthony Edwards's Goose, Cruise's copilot and thus the character who stands to lose the most from his perpetual recklessness, accepts his partner's disposition and makes no move to calm him down. Woe is Goose, in what qualifies as the film's big emotional epiphany, but even this scene has a preternatural aura of gloss, of mishmash patriotic bravado. When Meg Ryan appears as Goose's grieving widow, she mourns with Maverick in exactly the extravagantly tearful but utterly uncritical fashion that these arrested adolescents would want of their wives. She glosses over the fact that Maverick's idiotic abandon killed her husband; she instead uses the occasion to valorize the importance of moving on, of taking those jets into the sky and doing proud by Goose's memory—maybe with a few fancy 180 spins?

With all that is slick, impersonal, arrogant, and absurd about Top Gun, why doesn't it rankle us more? Why does it command such energetic allegiance even now, more than a decade after its release, when the Me-Decade/Cold War glorification of might and flash for their own sake have, at least to some extent, subsided? I think what pleases us about Top Gun—and I confess to enjoying the film lavishly, in perfect proportion to my deep ridicule for its form and content—is that the picture is such a perfect example of what it is. Jet pilots never had it so good, even in the Navy's own advertisements. American jingoism never went so unquestioned, military capability so celebrated, superficiality so embraced. Films like Armageddon, though unimaginable without Top Gun as a predecessor, nevertheless spend the lion's share of their time showcasing their flashy effects and clanging their loud clangs. Top Gun, by contrast, is less concerned with formal virtuosity than with the giddy rush of its own pumped-up inanity. It exists with insane, gleeful pride as variations on a theme of buff, WASPish can-do. Cruise's liaison with McGillis, the many locker-room confrontations, and the extended beach volleyball sequence at the film's middle serve no plot point but to showcase hormonal urges, refined pectorals, and groundless self-confidence as some sort of moral good. Jet piloting is the ultimate gesture not of national defense but of personal style, as if the planes were the ultimate, unfeminizing fashion accessory. If any doubt remains as to how useless all this showmanship is, take a look at the climactic battle sequence. To jerry-rig a scenario by which the Top Gun fighters would play the crucial offensive role, the screenwriters had to invent an utterly spontaneous conflict between the superpower USA and an unspecified Middle Eastern menace: a major international tiff waged entirely over the waters of the Indian Ocean. Huh?

Top Gun, a film that at every moment is an ode to surface dazzlery, is able to entertain because of its insane sense of conviction and the very constancy of its vision. Though ironic readings of this movie are all but impossible not to make, the slightest hint of irony in the film itself would have sunk it. The movie constantly allows you to feel smarter than its characters but does not shame you for admiring their gratuitous displays or for getting off on their own rampaging egos. Top Gun, in its own way, is a priceless cultural artifact, particularly of the era in which it was produced. It's like the most perfect velvet painting ever made—sure, it's trash, but it smiles so winningly at its own vapidity that you're likely to smile, too. Is this just a big ad for aftershave and hair gel? Well, kind of, but wouldn't we sorta miss aftershave and hair gel if they weren't around? C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Film Editing: Billy Weber & Chris Lebenzon
Best Original Song: "Take My Breath Away"
Best Sound: Donald O. Mitchell, Kevin O'Connell, Rick Kline, and William B. Kaplan
Best Sound Effects: Cecelia Hall & George Watters II

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Original Score: Harold Faltermeyer
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Janet McTeer

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