Empty Balcony: Top Gun

Beware films made with the full cooperation of the United States’ military. Without fail, such films are heavy on the heroics and jingoism, and do little to portray the full costs of war, and life in the military. Oftentimes, they are little more than recruiting films, pieces of propaganda aimed at high school-aged males full of testosterone and lacking direction in their lives. Also, these movies tend to be weighted heavily against showing the day-to-day drudgery that typifies the life of the average enlisted man or woman, reducing them to background automatons. Rather, such films are usually focused on glorified versions of officers and non-coms, their duties also scrubbed clean of anything resembling work. Even that most foul bane of soldiers and sailors everywhere — chickenshit — is almost nonexistent. But, who wants to see any of that, anyway? The American military has the coolest toys in the world, and it’s nice to see where our tax dollars are being spent once in a while, even if the resulting film has all the depth of a puddle.

From way back in 1986, Top Gun might be director Tony Scott’s best film. It’s hard to tell because most of his films are only slightly distinguishable from each other. And that’s okay. This reviewer feels no need to slam the career of a very successful Hollywood director. What Scott’s films lack is a sense of artistry, but workaday directors are more likely to helm box office successes, anyway.

This might also be Tom Cruise’s most recognizable starring role. His career is still going strong, despite the occasional pillorying in the tabloid press, and he has starred in other blockbusters that bury this film. But, in Top Gun, with his portrayal of Maverick, we see young Top Gun 1986 movie posterCruise at his Cruisiest. That smile and those puffed-up cheekbones of his are at their most photogenic. Lest we think this movie is about the US Navy and their aviators, Cruise’s performance makes it clear this flick is about sex.

That’s right. Sex.

Lots of folks know about the homoerotic volleyball scene, but there’s also the tighty whities bathroom grieving scene, the shower room towel chat, the ‘you’re dangerous’ tooth chomp (which I can only assume was a pantomime of Val Kilmer’s Iceman biting off Maverick’s dick), and Kelly McGillis’s Charlie wearing sexy back seam hose to a briefing with a bunch of horny fighter jocks. I guess the message of this flick is two-fold. If you join the navy, you get to fly planes and get laid. Now that’s how you recruit some teenagers. Hopefully any prospective enlistees wouldn’t notice the gay stuff. After all, this was 1986, and funny business was still a huge no-no in the US military back then.

There is a story in this flick. Maverick is a naturally gifted fighter pilot with a bit of a hot head and a large chip on his shoulder (the type of person who wouldn’t last long in the real military). After an incident involving another pilot early in the film, Maverick and his radar intercept officer, Goose (Anthony Edwards), are chosen to attend the Navy’s elite fighter pilot school in Miramar, California. While there, Maverick and Goose are pitted against pilots from other squadrons, all competing for the honor of winning Top Gun. After all is said and done at the school, it’s time to head back to sea in a final act where we viewers finally get to see the money shot: actual dogfighting.

Honestly, it’s fricking sweet. Tony Scott and screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. knew what they were doing. They handled the first act and subsequent acts leading up to the end with such deftness that a viewer shouldn’t even notice that there isn’t a single gunshot until late in the film. How in the hell does that happen in an American action flick?

As for the Navy’s part in all this, they supplied Scott and company with an aircraft carrier and a bunch of planes to play around with. That means that this film has some of the best airborne cinematography a viewer will encounter in a film featuring fighter planes. All the propaganda was worth it to get shots of real planes tearing around the sky. As long as a viewer knows the true motivations behind the Navy allowing such access to the filmmakers, it’s okay to enjoy the spectacle of it all.

Top Gun is the seminal film in Tom Cruise’s career. He had starred in films before this one, but this was the film that catapulted him into superstardom, and he hasn’t come down since.

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