Top Gun Is a Really Good Sports Melodrama

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 7 2013 3:18 PM

Top Gun Is a Really Good Sports Melodrama

topgun2
Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise in Top Gun

© 1986 Paramount Pictures.

Top Gun is returning to theaters this weekend—IMAX theaters, anyway, the better to show off its 3D retrofitting. Having seen the new souped-up version earlier this week, I can tell you that the third dimension—although well applied, at least to my inexpert eyes—was unnecessary. Occasionally you feel like you’re in the cockpit with Maverick and Goose or Ice Man and Slider, but those scenes were plenty exciting in two dimensions. And the 3D also leads to mundane details oddly leaping out at you: Charlotte Blackwood’s porch, for instance, and Tom Cruise’s impressive eyebrows.

But I recommend seeing it anyway, if only to remind yourself of what Top Gun actually is. There’s a decent chance it is not the film you now remember, given how much baggage it has acquired in the nearly three decades since it became a box office smash and made Tom Cruise a worldwide star. Its heaviest saddle probably comes courtesy of Mark Harris’s 2011 GQ piece titled “The Day the Movies Died.” Though Harris granted that there’s “no readily identifiable villain” in his murder mystery, he decided to “pick one anyway: Top Gun.”

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How did Top Gun kill the movies? Well, its producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, made movies that “weren’t movies.” Instead,

they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.

Harris’s take was echoed by Stephen Metcalf in Slate last year: “Simpson and Bruckheimer conceived of their movies in radically non-narrative terms,” Metcalf wrote, “jangly necklaces of MTV-like rock video sequences interspersed with feats of, well, fill-in-the-blank: dancing, fighter-piloting, stock car derring-do.” A writer for Entertainment Weekly, reviewing a 25th-anniversary DVD of the film a few months after Harris’s piece was published, said that watching Top Gun gave him a “sinking feeling that all of the movie's superficial glitz signaled the beginning of the end—the precise moment when so many of our summer movies became slick, soulless confections.”

Simpson and Bruckheimer may very well have conceived of their films in those terms, and Hollywood may have taken some unfortunate lessons from Top Gun’s mega-success. And if, like many people, you have watched snippets of the movie here and there on cable over the years, this idea of the movie may sound convincing. But if you sit down and watch the whole thing, Top Gun has more in common with Rocky than it does with The Fast and the Furious. It’s not even really an action movie. It’s a sports melodrama.

Most of the flight sequences, you’ll recall, do not portray combat. They’re training contests, in which the best American aviators go head-to-head and score points to decide who is “the best of the best.” It’s no accident, surely, that Simpson and Bruckheimer (and director Tony Scott) followed up Top Gun with what is explicitly a sports movie, Days of Thunder. (Metcalf says that where the former is “pleasantly goofy,” the latter is “aggressively incoherent.” Perhaps the producers finally achieved their “non-narrative” goals in the follow-up; I’ve never seen it.)

What was even more striking when I revisited the movie was how much of it takes place on the ground. A huge percentage of its 110 minutes feature Pete Mitchell, “call sign” Maverick (Cruise), brooding about his dead father, bonding with his doomed Radar Intercept Officer (Goose, charmingly played by Anthony Edwards), or chasing his civilian instructor, Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). The real climax of the movie—and the only scene that elicited audible cheers in the sparsely populated press screening I attended—comes when Blackwood, called Charlie, zips maniacally through traffic in her convertible so she can catch up to Maverick and declare that she’s falling for him. The music I noticed most often on the score was not “Danger Zone” or even the main Top Gun theme, but the romantic strains that accompany the Charlie/Maverick affair and the sad chords that go with storylines about Maverick’s dad and Goose’s death.

Contrary to its reputation as somehow devoid of story, the film is an emotionally charged and easy-to-follow tale of a young, talented man haunted by his dad’s mysterious demise, traumatized by his friend’s accidental death, and humanized by his love for an independent woman. You may find all this ridiculous; the movie approaches something like macho camp, with its homoerotic volleyball sequence, its many locker-room scenes, and the extravagantly loving attention it gives to everything masculine and vehicular. The dark blue sex scene between McGillis and Cruise is decidedly unsexy, all lizard-like tongues and back muscles, and those two actors don’t have much in the way of chemistry. (There’s also the movie’s queasy intimacy with the U.S. military to consider—but that is, I think, an entirely separate matter.)

Top Gun works anyway, and very well, in large part because of its over-the-top story, conveyed with broad strokes and a stark palette. It isn’t “non-narrative” or “post-narrative.” It isn’t even an action movie. It certainly didn’t kill the movies. Of course, that’s mostly because the movies aren’t dead—but that’s an argument for another day.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.