Pushing the Envelope With ‘Top Gun’ – Tom Cruise
With many of us now in coronavirus lockdown, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott thought it was time to revisit this absurd (great? misunderstood?) blockbuster with you, our dear readers. So we invited you to watch over the weekend and share your thoughts with us.
MANOHLA DARGIS So, Tony Scott — as friends and family know him — you had never seen “Top Gun,” unbelievably. What did you think?
A.O. SCOTT Even though some of our readers have questioned my credibility as a film critic, I’m not sorry I waited so long to see “Top Gun” for the first time. Back when I was a 20-year-old undergraduate film snob, I might not have been as susceptible to its charms or as tolerant of its limitations. Seen through middle-aged eyes, the movie takes on an extra glow of nostalgia, and also looks much stranger than it might have on a night out at the multiplex in 1986.
I’m intrigued by how divisive it still is, based on the comments we’ve received. They range from “What a bunch of hooey” to “landmark of cinematic excellence.” The glorification of the American military was inspiring to some, off-putting to others. One reader, Cheryl from Fullerton, Calif., remembered that “30 years ago this film blew me away” only to find it “trite, misogynistic and actually boring” when she rewatched it with her grandsons.
That a movie so well known can provoke such divergent responses after so many years is a sign that it’s still alive. I have no doubt that we’ll get into the sexual politics and the homoerotic … can we even call it a subtext? There are a lot of themes to unpack!
But what struck me — what I didn’t expect — was the extravagant beauty, the dreaminess, the foregrounding of poetry rather than plot. I expected something more like the action movies I’m used to reviewing: a violent, overblown spectacle of aggression. Not anything so deliciously campy and sincerely silly. Those wide-screen compositions! That sand and surf! Those flight sequences! The rippling torsos and smooth faces! It made me feel young again, and also ancient.
As a teen in the 1980s, I ate this up. It’s hard to tell whether it was the nostalgia propelling the smiles and cheers as I watched it with teens of my own. But they ate it up, too, so there must be something here. Yes, the romance is implausible, but at least Kelly McGillis’s character has a brain. — S. Trainor, Bethesda, MD
DARGIS Rippling, glistening muscles have rarely been so lovingly photographed. If nothing else, I hope that our viewing party inspires those skeptical about the director Tony Scott to revisit his work. For better or worse — and I’m a longtime partisan — Scott was a visual maximalist who embraced delirious excesses. He started out in advertising (like his brother, Ridley), a background that shaped his style and meant that he could, with economy and beauty, convey a movie’s meaning in images and often better than the boneheaded dialogue.
So, yes — as readers pointed out — “Top Gun” is stupid. (“Fun to watch if you don’t worry too much about plot,” as Dan from Atlanta wrote.) But it’s rarely boring, and it can be irresistible. Watching it yet again, I was struck by the pictorial elegance and dynamism of the aerial sequences. They’re hypnotic, and I would have happily watched more looping, zooming action. Part of what makes these scenes mesmerizing is that these are real planes flown by real people in the real sky, unlike the computer-generated worlds of most contemporary blockbusters. “No motion-controlled cameras swooping around scale models in front of green screens,” as another reader put it.
“Top Gun” is another reminder that one of the greatest pleasures of moving pictures is movement itself. I like and sometimes love slow movies where not even the breeze stirs, but so many of the most memorable and arresting sequences in movies involve some kind of kinetic motion. We have always loved to watch people and things just go go go and it’s been true for ages, whether we are talking about the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 “Workers Leaving the Factory” or William A. Wellman’s 1927 film “Wings,” the “Top Gun” prototype that won the first best picture Oscar.
Looking at all the motion and commotion in “Top Gun” while staying home made me a bit wistful.
My family watched it last night. I have three teenage sons; one has just been accepted into West Point (18 yo), one has joined the Navy’s nuclear submarine program as a mechanical engineer (21 yo), and the third is in junior high, but addicted to action movies. My husband and have seen this move 3 or 4 times and loved it for the nostalgia it evokes for us. What was fascinating to me was that all of my boys loved it too, despite the mediocre graphics and the love story. They ate up the machismo and fighter-pilot prowess as well as the “brotherhood” of military pilots. — Vonnie, SLC, UT
SCOTT Yes! Even though we didn’t choose this first viewing-party selection for present-day relevance, I’m starting to think it was a timely choice. The feeling of movement and open space it conveys, even on a small home screen, is intoxicating. You really feel the thrill and danger of flight, and also the more gravity-bound pleasure of zooming through the streets of Miramar on a motorcycle. And except for those stretches in the third act when he has to go off by himself and figure things out, Maverick is never alone. All the boisterous hugging and locker-room bantering, even the cringey “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” pickup scene in the crowded bar — there’s no social or physical distance in this world.
And at the heart of it is one of the tenderest, truest, most tragic love stories I’ve ever seen: Maverick and Goose. Holy Achilles and Patroclus, Batman! Great Gilgamesh and Enkidu! In Navy parlance, Goose is Maverick’s RIO (radio intercept officer), but Homer would recognize him as a classic Hetairos, a sacrificial friend whose death is a crucial moral and emotional test for the hero.
“The volleyball scene will forever remain immortalized as a centerpiece of jock gay iconography. Never before had gay bros received such direct service from a blockbuster film, and it changed gay history forever.” — Jonathan, Poughkeepsie
DARGIS “But Achilles kept on grieving for his friend,” as Tony Scott more or less filmed through billows of steam, “he longed for Patroclus’s manhood, his gallant heart.” That kind of trench camaraderie, no matter the time or place, is often irresistible, however crudely or cynically deployed. You can hate war and war movies, yet still get misty-eyed by stories about square-jawed lugs who, in between dogfights and gunfire, are reduced to puddles as they cradle fallen fellow soldiers in their arms.
Both “Wings” and “Top Gun” stage the beloved comrade’s death similarly, with one man holding the other in a modified Pietà, an image that evokes Mary cradling the dead Jesus. “Wings” is the better film, by far, and its dramatic death is heartbreakingly tender. Wellman, a fighter pilot in World War I, stages it so that it resembles a love sequence, one sealed with a kiss. Goose’s death isn’t as touching, because Scott and Cruise can’t sell it. But the film is trying to reach us emotionally, to make us feel this world’s anguish and not just its exhilaration. It’s a melodrama with screaming jets.
Maybe, to some, the flying is fabulous but the showboating of Tom Cruise’s character is a cringy salve for these anxious times. And the romance? Blech. Happily, I don’t know such people. — Eileen57, London
SCOTT And also with a perhaps less-than-stirring heterosexual romance. The big sex scene between Kelly McGillis (as Charlie) and Tom Cruise is shot in a weird (and very ’80s) blue light that is so much colder than the slanting orange sunshine of the beach volleyball scene or the warm yellow of the indelible moment later on when Maverick, grieving in front of a mirror in his tighty-whities, is comforted by Tom Skerritt. (The director of photography was Jeffrey Kimball.) Cruise and McGillis are both gorgeous, but there isn’t a lot of heat between them. Maverick and Charlie are both hardheaded careerists pursuing a workplace romance, and there’s something efficiently transactional about their connection.
I guess I was expecting something more like the smolder between McGillis and Harrison Ford in Peter Weir’s “Witness,” released the year before “Top Gun.” But though McGillis has one bombshell moment — when she addresses the assembled pilots and RIOs in a windblown hangar after an entrance that lingers over her high heels and seamed stockings — she often seems like one of the boys. Her name is Charlie, and she usually dresses in jeans and a bomber jacket. Several male readers found the character implausible (echoing the view of The Times’s original reviewer, Walter Goodman). Women liked that she had brains and ambition.
Charlie’s Rorschach qualities may be another camp element in a movie whose gender semiotics could keep a squadron of graduate students occupied until the end of time. But what surprised me at least as much as the weakness of the Cruise-McGillis romance was how little conflict there was in the movie overall. I was expecting Val Kilmer to be more of a villain, but the only things to hold against Iceman are that he’s a sensible pilot and has the audacity to be at least six inches taller than Maverick.
Not that I’m disappointed. I realized watching this movie with fresh eyes that I had weighed it down with a lot of genre and ideological assumptions, and that the actual movie is its own odd, ridiculous, peculiarly compelling thing. That’s a lesson worth remember when we line up for the next new would-be blockbuster.
It is a quintessential example of a movie that is objectively weak but subjectively wonderful. Thanks for this idea. — Jonathan, Poughkeepsie