On Top Gun

Directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State, Unstoppable), I remember seeing Top Gun at the house of my friend Marlyan with, then best friend, Jennifer back in South Lawrence ages and ages ago. It was a nice summer day when this happened, certainly, and fairly close to the O’Connell South Common.


Jennifer, my friend I had since 5th grade Bruce School, and Marylan since GLT, at Marylan’s wedding in New Hampshire. (I wasn’t invited to this wedding so our days as being friends are done for good.)

The film features Val Kilmer (Batman Forever), Anthony Edwards (Contact), Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, Smallville, X-Men: First Class, Desperate Housewives), Meg Ryan (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail), and Adrian Pasdar (Heroes). According to the moviefone article, “‘Top Gun’: 15 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Tom Cruise Classic“:

Could there be a more quintessentially 1980s movie than “Top Gun?”

All that lovingly-photographed military hardware, that synth-pop soundtrack featuring two Kenny Loggins tunes, and a grinning Tom Cruise at his cockiest. He felt the need for speed, and for 30 years (since the film’s release on May 16, 1986), you’ve been watching Cruise’s Maverick soar in his fighter jet and overcome his paternal-abandonment issues.

Still, as many times as you’ve re-watched “Top Gun,” there’s a lot you may not know about the this ’80s classic. Here are the Navy pilot saga’s secrets, declassified.

1. The film originated as “Top Guns,” a 1983 article by Ehud Yonay in California Magazine. It profiled the Navy pilot training center at Miramar, in San Diego, and featured aerial photography by a Top Gun pilot. Co-screenwriter Jack Epps Jr. researched the script by attending Top Gun classes and getting flown around in an F-14.

2. Tom Cruise wasn’t actually the first choice to play Maverick, but Matthew Modine turned down the role because he didn’t agree with the film’s militaristic politics. Instead, he went off to star as a Vietnam War Marine private in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war drama “Full Metal Jacket.”

3. To obtain access to naval aircraft and personnel, the producers had to grant script approval to the Navy. The biggest change demanded by the service branch was to make Maverick’s love interest a civilian, since the Navy officially frowns on fraternization within the ranks.

4. Kelly McGillis initially turned down the love-interest role, since the character was written as an aerobics instructor. Then the filmmakers met Christine “Legs” Fox, a civilian tactician at Miramar who earned her Top Gun nickname because of her 6’0″ height. She became the inspiration for Charlie Blackwood, the instructor role that McGillis ultimately accepted. Fox would go on to become the highest ranking woman at the Pentagon before she retired in 2014.

5. Like Fox, McGillis was tall; her 5’10” height made her a tricky match for Tom Cruise, who was 5’7″.

“I towered over him,” the actress recalled in 2010, noting that she had to slouch and crouch throughout the shoot in order to fit in the frame with her leading man. “I had really bad posture through the whole movie.” Indeed, test audiences initially found their romance unconvincing, and the filmmakers called them back for reshoots six months after principal photography had ended. McGillis had cut and dyed her hair darker for another role, which is why she wears a cap throughout the elevator love scene.

6. In real life, no one under 5’8″ is eligible to become a Navy pilot. Nonetheless, Cruise spent months taking classes at Top Gun and even learned how to land a plane on an aircraft carrier.

7. The F-14 planes and other naval aircraft — along with their fuel, their pilots, and support staff — cost the production $7,800 per hour in rental fees. Even more expensive was the aircraft carrier. During one sequence, the carrier captain had to change course, altering the angle of light for the shot. Told it would cost $25,000 to turn the ship around, director Tony Scott dashed off a check for that amount and got the captain to reverse course in order to get five more minutes of light to finish the sequence.

8. Much of the dizzying aerial photography was shot from a plane flown by pilot Art Scholl. During one sequence, however, Scholl’s plane failed to recover from a flat spin and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Neither the aircraft nor Scholl’s body was ever recovered. The film was dedicated to his memory.

9. “Top Gun” cost a reported $15 million to make and ultimately earned $180 million in North America, becoming the top-grossing movie of 1986. Its total global gross was $357 million.

10. “Top Gun” also became an early top-seller in the then-new videocassette market, as it was one of the first films priced to sell (at just $20), not just to rent.

11. The film was credited with a 500 percent boost in Naval recruitment; some theaters even had recruiting booths in the lobby. Bomber jackets and Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses also credited the film with a 40 percent jump in sales.

12. Bryan Adams turned down a chance to have a song included on the “Top Gun” soundtrack because he disapproved of the film’s militarism. Still, the resulting album became one of the most popular in movie soundtrack in history, selling seven million copies in the U.S. and another two million abroad. It made stars of the band Berlin, who performed the movie’s love ballad, “Take My Breath Away.”

13. Did all that male bonding, towel-snapping, and shirtless volleyball-playing make “Top Gun” a covertly homoerotic movie? Many critics (and comedians) have thought so. Most famously, Quentin Tarantino delivered a hilarious (and NSFW) monologue on the topic in the 1994 movie “Sleep With Me.”

14. At the Academy Awards in 1987, “Top Gun” was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing. It won for Best Original Song, for “Take My Breath Away.”

15. A “Top Gun” sequel has been in the works for nearly a decade, though it was nearly derailed by director Tony Scott’s suicide in 2012. The new film, which will reportedly focus on the transition from old-school aerial dogfight warfare to drone combat, has gone through several screenwriters. Cruise and Val Kilmer reportedly remain committed to return as Maverick and Iceman.

According to The New York Times review:

To take it from the top, ”Top Gun” fires off as spectacular a show of state-of-the-art jet battle as the movies have given us. The F-14 Tomcats soar, swoop and somersault at fantastic speed. They catch the enemy from behind in what seems touching distance, and then, in an instant’s reversal, are caught in the enemy’s sights. As directed by Tony Scott, with the technical assistance of a couple of former Navy pilots, the snappily edited sequences of battle and mock battle sweep us in and out of the cockpit. You can’t always be sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s exciting anyhow.

The excitement is switched off on landing. Once ”Top Gun,” which opens today at Loews Astor Plaza and other theaters, gets back to earth, the master of the skies is as clunky as a big land-bound bird. The maneuvers of the script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. come right out of the Hollywood book: A cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil superpilot known as ”Maverick” makes it to the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, known as Top Gun. There he engages with a tall, beautiful blond astrophysicist, a specialist in Maritime Air Superiority. He also has experiences that turn him into a better person.

Tom Cruise brings little but a good build to the role of Maverick, and the role of the astrophysicist brings little but impossible lines (”When I first met you, you were larger than life”) to attractive Kelly McGillis. The characters don’t pair up well; she’s much too classy for him. A touch of flavor is added by Anthony Edwards, as Maverick’s amiable partner, ”Goose” (everybody in the Navy evidently has to have a nickname), and the settings and repartee seem about right except when poor Miss McGillis is obliged to lecture on matters like ”negative G pushovers.” Incidentally, this movie seems determined to break the sound barrier; if it isn’t the roar of the jets, it’s the roar of Maverick’s motorcycle, and when that subsides, there’s always the clamor of the music.

Effectively executed though the air battles are, they come off as somehow unsatisfying. ”Although we’re not at war,” says a training officer, ”we have to act as though we’re at war.” But not having a real war to fight lowers the stakes, and the climactic dogfight with a batch of MIG’s over the Indian Ocean is too contrived, the enemy too vague to elicit the feelings that memorable air-war movies, from ”Wings” to ”Command Decision,” could take for granted.

And then, there’s something about the technical wizardry of today’s jets that, for dramatic purposes, diminishes the role of the men who fly them. Despite the movie’s emphasis on the importance of the pilots, given all the electronic wonders at their touch – such as being able to lock an enemy plane in their sights and dispatch a missile to chase and destroy it – they seem part of some cosmic technological enterprise.

The plot of ”Top Gun” is no weaker than the plot of ”Wings,” the World War I tale that received an Academy Award in 1927, but the old-style air acrobatics showed the human beings as more vulnerable and more at one with their rather fragile-looking machines. Up there on their own, they came closer to catching the ”lonely impulse of delight” that drove Yeats’s Irish airman ”to this tumult in the clouds.”


3 thoughts on “On Top Gun

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