Movies That Everyone Should See: “Top Gun”

With the passing of Tony Scott last week, I knew that I wanted to feature one of his films as this week’s MTESS.

There were a number of choices… as I studied his filmography, I was surprised at just how many really good movies he had left us.

But there really was only one choice to feature first. It’s the movie that the media deemed his biggest, often mentioning it in the headlines last week right alongside his name. It’s a quintessential “Tom Cruise movie”, and a shining example of the slick, entertaining action movies that were so in vogue in the 1980s. A movie that has earned a permanent name for itself in pop culture.

“Top Gun”

After the pilot of the flight team in line ahead of them loses his nerve during an encounter with a Russian MiG, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are sent to Top Gun, the elite combat training school for naval aviators. Each year, Top Gun takes the best of the best Navy fighter pilots and offers them elite combat training. They fly multiple missions daily, with intensive analysis following. They’re the top fighter pilots in the world, in intensive training to hone their skills. With each flight, they take multi-million dollar jets thousands of feet into the air, at hundreds of miles an hour.

Competition to be the best is intense. The “Top Gun Trophy” is awarded annually to the team that completes training with the highest marks. Maverick and Goose are strong contenders for the title, but Maverick’s hotheaded attitude gets in the way. He continually makes brash decisions and disregards protocols. He’s a thorn in the side of his instructors (Tom Skerritt and Michael Ironside). He even gets entangled romantically with a civilian consultant at the school (Kelly McGillis).

It turns out he is chasing the ghost of his father, who was also a fighter pilot… one whose performance was questioned. Maverick earns ghosts of his own as he suffers an “unrecoverable” accident during a training exercise, one with tragic consequences. In a field where instincts, certainty and courage are central to success, he has to learn to master his emotions in time to eventually answer the call of duty.

Top Gun is an actual naval flight training school; the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI), based in Miramar, California. It was established in 1969 to help offset aerial combat shortcomings experienced in Vietnam (made mention of in the film). Its mission was to “develop, refine and teach aerial dogfight tactics and techniques to selected fleet air crews, using the concept of Dissimilar Air Combat Training”. Dissimilar Air Combat Training meant using smaller fighters jets to fly against in order to simulate combat with Russian MiGs. In 1996 the program was merged into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nevada.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer got the idea for the film from a magazine article about the school (“Top Guns”, Ehud Yonay, California magazine, May 1983). As he recalls, he considered the idea as “Star Wars on Earth”. They purchased the article and hired writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps to come up with a script.

The cooperation of the Navy was essential to the making of the film. Everyone involved in the production agreed that the movie wouldn’t be effective without the actual fighter jets. Discussion began, and after signing off on some script changes (including the removal of an accidental mid-air collision and moving combat sequences to international waters) the military signed off and the project could move forward.

After stalling at Paramount for a brief period, the project picked up again when Paramount brass turned over in 1984 (Michael Eisner and Jeff Katzenberg left for Disney). John Carpenter and David Cronenberg turned down the chance to direct.

Director Tony Scott, at that point, had only directed “The Hunger”, but he had done a SAAB commercial that featured a jet racing a car. Based on that small experience, he was brought in. He says that his vision for the movie was a supercharged popcorn flick. It was rock-n-roll in fighter jets.

However, Scott’s working relationship with the producers was contentious. Reportedly he was officially fired three times during production.

The movie kept moving forward, though. The Navy made a number of F-14s available. Shooting took place at the actual school in Miramar and at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. Carrier scenes were shot aboard the  USS Enterprise and USS Ranger. Paramount commissioned the makers of the F-14 to develop and install special camera mounts on the planes. This allowed them to capture aerial point-of-view footage of the Tomcats in flight. They reportedly paid $7,800 an hour anytime flights were made outside the normal course of duty. Legend holds that at one point, Tony Scott wrote a $25,000 check to turn the carrier they were shooting on, in order to cover the costs, just so that they could get ten more minutes of shooting with the sunset in frame.

This was the movie that catapulted Tom Cruise into superstardom. Today, he’s one of the most accomplished actors in screen history… the very definition of an A-List star. But at the time, Cruise had only “Losin’ It”, “Risky Business”, “All the Right Moves” and “Legend” as leading roles on his résumé. Not all of them were hits, in fact, he was coming directly off “Legend”, which was a flop. Though he was a star, he was not a household name by any means.

“Top Gun” would change that in a big way.

Cruise had the cocksure attitude that the role demanded. Young, good-looking and arrogant, Cruise had everything needed to play a “hotshot” fighter pilot. The cocky grin, the bravado. It’s a persona that he would become associated with, especially since he followed this movie with “The Color of Money”, and “Cocktail”.

America ate it up. He quickly became as big a movie star as there could be.

“Top Gun” certainly comes with a seasoning of cheese. Why is there a civilian consultant so intrinsically involved in their training (Answer: to appease the Navy, who didn’t want it to appear that sexual conduct occurred between staff and student) and how is she so hot? Does the school practice singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin”? How do they have time for beach volleyball? Where’d Maverick get the motorcycle? The movie opens with Maverick and Goose in inverted flight atop a MIG, and barely lets up from there. The combat incident against the Soviets in the Cold War 80s that serves as the film’s climax is given next to zero explanation and apparently has absolutely no repercussions, even though it would have amounted to a major international incident.

But the film overcomes it with a steady stream of aerial acrobatics, expertly edited, and set to hard-driving music. The pacing of the movie is fantastic. You’re never given much time before you’re watching barrel rolls and missile locks and roaring jet engines. And while off duty on the ground, the movie serves up enough romance and drama to keep things moving. The tragedy in the middle of the film was surprising, to say the least, and gave the audience a strong degree of emotional involvement.

The soundtrack to the film was enormously successful as well, going platinum nine times and holding the top spot on the Billboard chart for five different weeks. Harold Faltermeyer scored the film with his trademark ’80s synthpop, while Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock wrote original songs. Judas Priest was asked to contribute a song (“Reckless”) but declined because they thought the movie would flop. Bryan Adams was asked permission to use his song “Only the Strong Survive”, but he refused because he felt that the film glorified war. Similarly, attempts to secure the use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” failed as well. The songs that were used in the film, however, became hugely successful.

“Take My Breath Away”, the love song, was performed by the band Berlin. It slow bass line and smoldering vocals conveyed a  sensuality that carried it all the way to number one on the charts that year. It won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song in 1986.

But the most famous song from the film was “Danger Zone”, performed by Kenny Loggins. Loggins was the king of the movie soundtrack in the 1980s, but “Danger Zone” is easily his most famous movie theme. Ironically, he wasn’t the first choice to record the song. Toto and REO Speedwagon were both given the opportunity. Thankfully, they didn’t pan out (REO wanted to write their own song, and Toto fell out contractually), as the Loggins song has become synonymous with the movie in pop culture, and has earned a legacy of its own.

“Top Gun” is a thrill ride of a film. It takes you up into the cockpit of an F-14 and shakes you around. The time on the ground between flights is filled with romance and bromance, and carried by the charisma of a cast of young stars to be: Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan.

It was the top grossing movie of 1986, and was instrumental in giving momentum to the home video market. It was the movie that supercharged Tom Cruise’s career. It became the high water mark of director Tony Scott’s career, so much so it was mentioned in the same breath with him at when he passed away, with many headlines reading “Top Gun director Tony Scott”, in spite of the many excellent movies to his name on his filmography.

It’s a movie that has earned a name for itself in the collective consciousness, and rightfully so.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

73 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Top Gun”

  1. Pingback: Top Gun re-release looking good | Your Movie Madness

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