Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” (1986)

Academy Award Wins: Best Music (Original Song)

Tony Scott’s second major feature film, 1986’s TOP GUN, tends to be a watershed moment for people my age.  It’s endlessly quoted, parodied, and adored by guys at my reading level (almost exclusively of a certain frathouse persuasion).  Even a class retreat at my high school had a TOP GUN theme, so it’s surprising to most people that I had never seen the film until only a few weeks ago.

Seeing it for the first time as a grown man, almost thirty years after it’s release, I was hard pressed to get as jazzed about it my contemporaries have been.  Basically, it’s goofy as shit.  It’s undeniably cheesy and dated, but it manages to capture a certain zeitgeist of 1980’s pop culture.  It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience– the aerial photography is still pretty thrilling after all these years, but I was rolling my eyes during a majority of the running time.

In the context of Scott’s career, TOP GUN is the film that made him a mainstream and sought-after director.  It catapulted him into the level of success that his brother Ridley was enjoying, and firmly established a style that he would utilize throughout the rest of his career.  It was also his first collaboration with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two powerhouse producers whose films would come to define an era of high concept blockbusters.

Maverick.  Goose.  Iceman.  We all know the players, and we all know the story, so I’m not going to waste time recapping the plot.  Tom Cruise delivers a breakout performance as Maverick, utilizing his boyish charm and cocksure swagger to great effect.  A slim Val Kilmer is the primary antagonist of the film, but ultimately is forced to swallow his pride when a larger threat to national security looms.  Tom Skerritt and Kelly McGillis are memorable in their respective roles, and even Meg Ryan shows up as Goose’s wife-turned-widow.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but everyone gives their best with what they got.

Visually, TOP GUN is a striking departure from Scott’s previous feature THE HUNGER.  For one, it’s shot on the Anamorphic aspect ratio, creating wider vistas and more cinematic compositions.  Contrast is high and colors are super-saturated, favoring the warm orange hues of southern California.  Acting as the director of photography, Jeffrey Kimball imbues the film with a glossy, epic feel while keeping the camera steady and locked-off, favoring composition and music-video edits rather than actual camera movement.  The aerial dogfight photography is admittedly where TOP GUN excels– it’s gorgeous to behold, even now in our post-IMAX world.  Since the cameras are mounted to the actual fighter jets, you get the feeling of being there in the action and soaring across the clouds.

Another stylistic element that became Scott’s trademark is firmly established here, having previously been explored in THE HUNGER.  Much of the interior action takes place in rooms that are backlit by intense, washed-out daylight screaming through the windows.  There’s almost always a framing device, like a billowing curtain or more consistently, venetian blinds.  In that sense, Scott seems to be borrowing a page from the production and lighting design of his brother Ridley’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).  It’s actually pretty distracting when you notice how often it shows up in his films.

A second visual motif is Scott’s use of dramatic, magic-hour skies.  He adds a lens filter to the camera to make the heavens a deep red while maintaining the normal daylight colors in the bottom half of the frame.  It’s become a visual cliche by now– slow motion shots featuring men of action doing their work while backlit by a setting sun– but Scott truly owns it.

Other parts of the movie don’t age so sell.  Specifically, the music.  Scored by Harold Faltermeyer, it certainly exudes an unmistakable mid-80’s feel, but I just can’t get over how goofy it is.  It’s just inherently silly.  Kenny Loggins’ “Highway To The Danger Zone” shows up three times, and the cheesy, crunchy guitar riffing doesn’t help any aspirations to timelessness.  (Same goes with the recurring love theme, “Take My Breath Away”).  It’s fun to be sure, but it definitely didn’t make me want to go hop in a fighter jet and shoot me some commies.

More than enough has been said of the blatant homoerotic undertones of the film– it’s so prominent that I suspect that it was Scott’s intention all along to make the film really about the strange fetishization of masculinity the military fosters.  We all know about the beach volleyball sequence, the moments of rivalry between Maverick and Iceman where their faces are so close that they could kiss, etc.  What’s more interesting to me is how it’s almost a perfect crystallization of a bygone era, or of a very specific moment of time in American history.

TOP GUN was released at the height of Ronald Reagan’s administration, and it wears that influence on its jumpsuit sleeve.  The film illustrates the excess of a superpower who’s largely unequaled.  They have the biggest, baddest toys that money can buy, and they fly them with wild abandon because..why not?  There’s always another one waiting in the wings!  Hell, they even wear aviator sunglasses at night.  Everyone in this film in convinced of their awesomeness and supremacy over everyone else.  It’s an incredibly Reagan-era mindset, right down to the nameless communist country they end up fighting at the film’s climax.

Ultimately, TOP GUN is just a very, very silly film disguised as a serious blockbuster.  Despite my own opinion, I can’t discredit it’s influence on pop culture and, even, modern filmmaking.  It’s the film that put Tony Scott on the map and Tom Cruise in our hearts, so that has to count for something.  There was even talk of a sequel in recent years, but with Scott’s recent suicide, it’s uncertain how that will pan out.

TOP GUN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.