At this point in our culture, it’s nearly impossible to discuss Top Gun with any amount of clear-eyed objectivity. The film is a milestone for all of its key contributors, a pop culture touchstone for multiple generations of people, and an often imitated and parodied relic from a very specific time and place in cinematic history. For director Tony Scott, it was his early-career masterpiece, the film that announced an exciting new voice in commercial cinema while showcasing his slippery-slick yet still gritty visual aesthetic, which would come to dominate the action genre for decades. It’s also the film that got him out of director’s jail after the critical and box office failure of his artsy debut, The Hunger, which is now of course a premiere cult classic. For producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, it was the movie that truly solidified them as the uber-showmen of the 1980’s, with Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop arriving before and Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Days of Thunder immediately following.
As legend has it, Simpson and Bruckheimer were in their office, and an issue of California magazine was sitting on their desk, featuring a clean cut fighter pilot standing next to a jet. And with that evocative and elaborate “Nothing On Earth Comes Close” Saab commercial that Scott had made in the early 80’s continually turning heads (the one that showed a Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet going neck and neck with the Saab 900), it was clear that it would be a match made in heaven between the producers and their ace in the hole. And for star Tom Cruise, it was his first runaway blockbuster sensation, his first taste of global superstardom, and the film that made him a house-hold name. Top Gun is a product of its time in a way that so few films can claim to be, and over the years, has come to mean so many different things to so many different people, which is why it remains imminently watchable 30 years later.
Released in the summer of 1986, Top Gun played on the still lingering fears of war with the Soviets, and carried a rah-rah, jingoistic spirit that seems laughable to some nowadays, but probably felt very honest at the time of release. It feels pointless to rehash the plot of Top Gun – anybody with a pulse has seen it and knows all about Maverick (Cruise, in all his perfect-grinning excellence) and Goose (Anthony Edwards, everyone’s best buddy) and Iceman and Jester and Charlie and the rest of the crew. The scenes on the ground carry an earnestness to them, playing off of melodrama (the mysterious death of Maverick’s father, himself a legendary pilot; workplace romance; the death of a best friend), but the film truly comes alive when it’s up in the sky, as Jeffrey Kimball’s gorgeous, smoky, 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen cinematography is still a lesson in mid-80’s perfection. Every single shot in this film is spectacular, whether the moment is big or small, with cool blues and sunset reds dominating the horizon. It can’t be understated how influential the look and feel of Top Gun would become for so many films and filmmakers to follow in the years, and whether or not this style is your favorite or not, it’s undeniably exciting on a visceral and stylistic level, with an emphasis on the balance of light, visual minutiae, and overall atmospheric texture. It’s commercial cinema without a shred of pretension, smartly focusing on the drama and action inherent to the story’s scope, and all balanced out by Harold Faltermeyer’s propulsive, oh-so-80’s musical score and the lightning quick editing patterns of Billy Weber and Chris Lebenzon. And when you add in the ridiculously quotable one-liners conjured up by co-screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. (who knew that rubber dog shit originates from Hong Kong?) and the high-flying airborne camerawork which is still unmatched to this day, then it’s no wonder that the film plays every Sunday on TNT and has become one of the most influential and iconic movies ever made, with so many other movies attempting, and failing, to ape its success.
On a thematic level, the film is all about machismo (a major theme in all of Scott’s work), and how men deal with expectations, loss, tragedy, acceptance, and success. Those classic scenes in the shower (or during a particular game of beach volleyball…) seem homoerotic in hindsight (and maybe they did upon first glance…), but what they’re really about is men trying to one up each other, trying to figure out how to best your opponent, and always remembering that there are no points for second place. To say that Top Gun is one of the most macho movies ever made would be understatement; you can practically smell the testosterone on the set. I’ve often wondered if PA’s were kept solely for the purpose of spraying down the actors with water in order to simulate excessive sweat, because everyone is glistening in this film. Top Gun also expertly understands male camaraderie and friendship, and how people are willing to go the extra step for those that they care about, both professionally and personally. Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan were the objects of affection for Cruise and Edwards respectively, while the absurdly masculine supporting cast included Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, John Stockwell, Clarence Gilyard, Jr., Whip Hubley, James Tolkan(!), Barry Tubb, Rick Rossovich, Duke Stroud, Tim Robbins, and Adrian Pasdar.
Shot for a now hard to believe $15 million, Top Gun opened on roughly 1100 screens nationwide, grossing $8,193,052 on its opening weekend. The film would eventually gross $176 million in the U.S. and another $177 million overseas, truly cementing the Simpson-Bruckheimer brand after the similar worldwide gross two years previous from Beverly Hills Cop. Top Gun would also break every single VHS sales record, as it was one of the first movies made available to the public at the $20 price point. Scott would continue his legendary streak with the two producers in the following years with the equally huge Beverly Hills Cop 2, and then in 1990 with the summer hit Days of Thunder, which while not becoming the blockbuster some might have thought, is still a splendid piece of action moviemaking that was all accomplished with zero CGI and some of the greatest racing footage ever put on film. But Top Gun would be the film that all of the creative parties would become remembered for, what with its sleek visual design, tough guy banter, love story for the ladies, and the dynamic aerial combat footage that still pops off the screen to this day, especially when viewed in the Blu-ray format. In 2015, the United States Library of Congress added the film to their preservation vaults, deeming it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And if you’re not a fan of Top Gun, then just remember, the plaque for the alternates is in the ladies’ room.