Top Gun has two reputations, one positive and one negative. Some regard it as a harmless—if guilty—pleasure, a cheesy artifact of 1980s blockbusterism. Others see it as ugly American propaganda, a militaristic exercise in rah-rah nationalism. How much pleasure you derive from it may depend on how much you enjoy Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” (it’s pretty good). As for the propaganda charge, a close watch of the film reveals that the patriotism is underplayed and the notion of the lone American hero is actually undermined.
That hero, of course, is Tom Cruise’s Maverick, a Navy pilot trying to out-race his pilot father’s reputation by earning top honors at an elite military flight school. There he encounters the tough love of a stern commander (Tom Skerritt), the carnal love of a civilian advisor (Kelly McGillis), and the unspoken love of a statuesque rival (Val Kilmer). (Cruise and McGillis get a steamy sequence in silhouette, but it’s the shirtless locker-room staredowns that generate the most heat.)
Cruise/Maverick believes in himself so completely, we can only assent, and shield ourselves from the wattage of his smile.
Director Tony Scott imbues all of this with a florid romanticism, which certainly worked on the countless recruits who signed up to be military pilots in the wake of the movie’s release. An opening sequence of jets taking off from an aircraft carrier is framed in mythical silhouette, with an umber sun in the background and smoke drifting along the tarmac. It’s like something out of a classic Western, or Star Wars. And an opening dogfight with a Soviet fighter plane is expertly staged, framed against an ocean backdrop that glistens like a California sunset.
For most of the movie, the hero worship of Maverick is almost nauseating. It’s as if everyone but Kilmer’s Iceman melts around him. Cruise adopts a smirk that not only fits the character, but is also the look of an actor who knows he’s about to become a huge star. The performance would be insufferable if it wasn’t so convincing. Cruise/Maverick believes in himself so completely, we can only assent, and shield ourselves from the wattage of his smile.
That is, until the movie pulls the rug out from under him. Amidst all the high fives and motorcycle rides, it’s easy to forget that Maverick doesn’t win “top gun.” That honor goes to Iceman, who all movie long has been criticizing Maverick for taking unnecessary risks and always thinking of himself first. And in fact, after Maverick’s nerves are shaken in a crash, he doesn’t regain his confidence until he learns to fly as part of a team. Could Top Gun actually be a portrait of the dark side of American individualism, maybe even an argument for the value of community, if not exactly communism? It may be hard to see that in the glare of Cruise’s toothy grin, but the argument could be made.