Tom Cruise has been around for a long time, making movies across a handful of genres in his early days before settling firmly into as an action star. As the eighth film he ever made, Tom Cruise had only been the lead in four other projects ahead of Top Gun (marking this as his fifth lead film role), but you’d never know it from his performance. Despite his character’s constant impulsivity, there’s a kind of subtlety to his role as Maverick in Top Gun, which makes it easy to understand why this film has had such a lasting impact on his career in Hollywood. It’s also no wonder why a sequel was commissioned so many years (decades, really) later.
Top Gun is a product of its time, but that does not make it any less of an interesting film. The action sequences are still intense to this day – in an era where bigger and better is the norm, seeing something that is comparatively tame was refreshing. By watching it mere hours before sitting down to watch Top Gun: Maverick, I was better able to appreciate the story, its beats, and its grounded take on the military action fare. There are many ways we can “improve” a story, but sometimes the classic is enough. For what it was and for what it always will be.
Starring a handful of actors in one of their earliest roles, alongside the aforementioned Cruise, who bring the story to life in a truly appreciated way. Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards play large supporting roles in the film as the chief antagonist, Iceman, and the hero’s best friend, Goose. In her third film role, Meg Ryan has a minor supporting role (only a handful of scenes, actually) as Carole Bradshaw (Goose’s wife) before becoming a superstar. As the nominal female lead is Kelly McGillis as Charlie Blackwood. I say nominal because the film is so obviously homoerotic that additional material had to be filmed after production had officially wrapped in order to make the relationship between Maverick and Charlie more central next to a certain pair of relationships between the male characters.
Tom Skerrit plays Viper, the chief instructor of TOPGUN, alongside Jester (played by Michael Ironside), who are the no-nonsense ballbusters of the film (though their goal is to train them, not coddle them to handle dangerous missions). Other members of TOPGUN include Slider (Rick Rossovich) as Iceman’s radar intercept officer and Clarence Gilyard as Sundown, in what I can only assume was a misunderstanding for a name as he is the only black character in the entire film, and that name is… troubling.
TOPGUN, as the film’s opening statement explains, is the zenith of the Navy’s fighter pilot program, they are the elite, and they have been told as such throughout their careers. How can one not expect them to be arrogant? Top Gun is dripping with so much ego it’s practically a tsunami of pride. And why not? Throughout the story, the group proves time and again that they are precisely what they have been told. But, as this is a military action film, there is invariably something that reminds us that war is horrifying and that the preparation for it comes with its own high costs.
The film begins with a training exercise that goes off the rails when an enemy aircraft intercept Maverick, his radar intercept officer Goose, and their wingmen, Cougar, and his intercept officer Merlin (played by Tom Robbins). As a result of the unexpected enemy aircraft, Cougar loses his cool and, as their craft are running dangerously low on fuel, cannot bring himself to return to the aircraft carrier. Disobeying direct orders, as he will do throughout the film, Maverick returns to Cougar and guides him back to the carrier, wherein Cougar turns in his wings. As he was the best the Navy had produced, Cougar’s slot in TOPGUN opens up to Maverick and Goose, propelling them into the plot of the film.
Maverick attempts to serenade a woman at a bar the night before, only to find out that she is a civilian astrophysicist tied to TOPGUN the very next day. I can acknowledge that there was some tension between Charlie and Maverick, but it pales in comparison to the natural chemistry between Maverick and Goose, or even Maverick and Iceman. Another pair of TOPGUN trainees are briefly introduced, stating that the conversation is giving him a hard-on, while the other one replies with “don’t tease me.” If that weren’t a clear enough indication of where the film could have gone, the volleyball scene certainly plays into that hand later on in the film. It’s clear why the studio panicked and had additional material filmed.
Around the halfway mark of the film, after the relationships between the characters have been formed and the training is nearing its end, tragedy strikes when Iceman causes Maverick and Goose’s aircraft to be damaged and turn into an unrecoverable fall. During their ejection, Goose’s head is slammed into the steering controls, and his neck snaps before his parachute is ever deployed, giving Maverick reason to doubt himself. I point out Iceman specifically because, while Maverick is the one hauled before a hearing, the fault so obviously lies with Iceman that it’s honestly shocking that he wasn’t ever questioned for how his recklessness caused Goose’s death. Therein lies the subtlety, though, as Iceman can clearly be seen in how he acts as feeling responsible; though his apology barely covers any ground, the sequel makes it clear that that guilt has compelled him to protect Maverick throughout their careers in the Navy.
Maverick, suffering from guilt and depression, decides to quit TOPGUN but ultimately returns to graduate and act as the reserve on a mission that Iceman leads. Despite not being number one in his TOPGUN class, Maverick proves to be the superior fighter pilot, taking down two enemy aircraft and saving Iceman in the end, once again highlighting Maverick’s ego, arrogance, and impulsivity as the keys to his success – but only on his terms. He has a kind of ingenuity that cannot be taught, but when properly guided, it can be used to move mountains.
This film has many things that make it clear why it was such a success in the eighties and why it has endured the test of time to the new 20s. The characters don’t feel like caricatures or even stereotypes (even Sundown, though this is probably because he has so little to do in the film that simply existing worked to his benefit). Even though the relationship between Charlie and Maverick doesn’t have the chemistry that others in the film evoked, they managed to make it work in an understated way that I could appreciate it for what it was trying to be. Most importantly, it showed that despite his flaws, Maverick was exactly what the program and the Navy needed at that time.
Also, let’s be clear that the volleyball scene is all kinds of hilarious – why are they wearing long pants?