“I gotta send somebody from this squadron to Miramar. I gotta do something here. I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot. I’m gonna send you up against the best. You two characters are going to Top Gun. For five weeks, you’re gonna fly against the best fighter pilots in the world. You were number two, Cougar was number one. Cougar lost it, turned in his wings. You guys are number one. But you remember one thing. You screw up just this much, you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong.”
May 16, 1986: the United States Navy is gifted with what might still rank as its best-ever recruiting film. That’s right, elipsing such classics as McHale’s Navy, The Hunt for Red October, and even Down Periscope.
Released 35 years(?!?) ago today, Top Gun stars a baby-faced Tom Cruise as U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. As a pilot – excuse me, “naval aviator” – Maverick and his radio intercept officer (RIO), Lieutenant Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards, later of the TV series ER), are serving aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise when they along with another flying team, “Cougar” and “Merlin,” encounter a pair of Soviet MiG-2 combat aircraft while flying their own F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. Though no weapons fire is exchanged, one of the MiGs gets a missile lock on Cougar’s plane, rattling him to the point he’s unable to land on the Enterprise‘s deck. Defying orders and running low on fuel, Maverick maneuvers to fly alongside Cougar and assist his fellow aviator to a safe landing.
This leads to what still ranks as one of the best cinematic ass chewings inflicted by a military senior onto a subordinate, in the form of Commander Jardian as played to utter perfection by wonderful character actor James Tolkan. Then Jardian flips the script when he tells Maverick and Goose that instead of their being keel hauled, he’s sending them to the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, California, known colloquially to the naval aviator community as TOPGUN. It’s here that Maverick and Goose will hone their fighter combat skills to the absolute limit, competing against the Navy’s best pilots for the coveted “TOPGUN trophy” and bragging rights for being crowned “the best of the best.”
Of course, Maverick starts dating one of his instructors – Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, played by Kelly McGillis – and there’s an extended scene of shirtless, oiled-up dudes playing volleyball, just like it happens in the real Navy. Oh, and some fighter combat training here and there before things really get intense.
Directed by the late, great Tony Scott and produced by legendary collaborators Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Top Gun is pure 1980s action goodness, with a decent helping of the sort of rah-rah slow-motion jingoistic cheese that Michael Bay would one day turn into a whole mood. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.’s screenplay is filled with lots of fighter action, sweating military guys (Really. They’re always sweating. Even in the shower. What is with that?) and the sort of quotable dialogue that can’t help but worm its way into popular culture. Admit it: you’ve at least heard if not said some of these, for reasons I won’t make you quantify:
“Talk to me, Goose.”
“Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.”
“This is what I call a target-rich environment.”
“Let’s turn and burn!”
“Negative, Ghost Rider.”
“We’re going ballistic!”
“I feel the need…the need…for speed.”
And so on.
As the production went to the U.S. Navy for technical assistance and permission to film aboard the actual Fighter Weapons School at Miramar as well as the U.S.S. Enterprise, Pentagon officials reviewed and approved Top Gun‘s script after requiring several changes. These included revising the nature of Goose’s demise, toning down the language, and changing Maverick’s love interest from an enlisted Navy woman to a civilian contractor. It was while hunting up quotes, pictures, and trivia for this piece that I learned “Charlie” was actually inspired by a woman working at TOPGUN in a very similar capacity. In 1985, Christine Fox was a civilian contractor and a specialist in maritime air superiority, helping the Navy train pilots to achieve better combat effectiveness, which had seen decline during the Vietnam War. While Ms. Fox’s role might not have been as “glamorous” as that depicted in the film, her contributions to naval aviation are as numerous as they are impressive and enduring.
Top Gun features an impressive cast supporting Cruise, McGillis, and Edwards. Tom Skerritt (callsign “Viper”) is the commander of the school and its lead instructor, with Michael Ironside as his second-in-command, “Jester.” Meg Ryan has a few brief scenes as Carole Bradshaw, Goose’s wife. Val Kilmer’s career got a huge boost from this film and his portrayal of Maverick’s nemesis, “Iceman.” Clarence Gilyard (“Sundown”), Whip Hubley (“Hollywood”), Rick Rossovich (“Slider”), and Barry Tubb (“Wolfman”) round out the other TOPGUN students, and Tim Robbins has a couple of appearances as “Merlin,” Cougar’s RIO in the film’s opening scenes, and later serving in the same role for Maverick during the climactic final engagement with still more Russian MiGs.
Harold Faltermeyer provides the movie’s musical score, which is also infused with a number of songs either written or drafted into service for the film’s soundtrack. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is the one everybody knows, but Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” gained new notoriety thanks to the movie. Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” earned both an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, though I’d argue its brief reappearance in 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven ranks up there.
I said what I said.
Despite mixed reviews, Top Gun was a box office hit and the biggest earner in 1986. Most reviews loved the flight sequences but took their shots at much of the actual – um – acting. Make no mistake, a lot of the dialogue in this flick is pretty cheesy, with everybody doing their best to chew more scenery than the last person on camera. It was enough for the film to spawn its own parody, 1991’s Hot Shots! starring Charlie Sheen. Doesn’t mean I won’t watch it whenever I happen across it. I regret nothing.
Tossed into a blender along with 1992’s A Few Good Men, Top Gun inspired JAG, the long-running TV series about a Navy pilot turned lawyer, which in turn begat the family of NCIS series. Particularly in its early seasons, JAG relied heavily on footage repurposed from Top Gun and other movies in Paramount’s vault – the aforementioned The Hunt for Red October being one other prominent example.
Already doing well thanks to strong performances in films like Risky Business and All the Right Moves, Tom Cruise saw his status as an A-lister cemented with Top Gun‘s box office performance. It’s a perch he’s occupied pretty much since then. Seemingly ageless, of course it was a foregone conclusion he’d eventually get around to a Top Gun sequel, and lo and behold: Top Gun: Maverick is set to hit theater screens in November of this, the original film’s 35th anniversary year. It’s not really a surprise, is it? Cruise is the same guy who’s currently working on not one but two Mission: Impossible movies, the seventh and eighth in a series that’s 25 years old in 2021. He doesn’t seem like he’s slowing down anytime soon, either.
So, yeah. After a 35-year wait, we’re going to be seeing Maverick doing some more of that pilot shit.
Meanwhile, you feel the need to watch the original again, don’t you?