Top Gun is one of those movies where I can't remember if I've seen it before or if it is referenced so much as part of the pop culture canon that it just feels like I’ve seen it before. But after watching it this week in celebration of its release 30 years ago today, it’s so much better than I remembered or imagined I remembered.
The flight suits, the aviator glasses, the sweet, soaring 80s music—which back then was just “music”—all of it is incredible. As music—“Top Gun Anthem,” by Harold Faltermeyer, who scored the film—plays softly over opening credits, there’s an explanation of what we’re about to watch: a story about a program for the top one percent of Navy fighter pilots called Fighter Weapons School but known to its students as “Top Gun.” As the credits fade, we see silhouettes working on an aircraft carrier against a reddish-brown sky. Then a jet engine fires and begins takeoff as the music cuts into “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins. As a viewer, you’re aroused in a non-sexual but very real way. You feel weird about this, but ten minutes later an extra in a classroom scene watches jet footage and whispers to his neighbor “this give me a hard-on” and you realize a jet-fueled horniness is exactly what you’re supposed to feel.
Tom Cruise playing Maverick might be the most charismatic display of personality ever put on film or to exist period. I’d guarantee a small business loan for that guy. Cruise was already in the hit Risky Business three years earlier, but in Top Gun he really reaches his final form: “MOVIE STAR.” Even though there aren’t a ton of flying scenes—and the ones that are there are often hard to follow and probably not even accurate—they really get across how good he is at flying. He’s so good. Maverick, true to his extremely on-the-nose callsign, is always getting into trouble for breaking the rules and acting recklessly, but we’re always promptly reminded that he’s incredible at flying that damn plane. Top Gun has no use for subtlety. Case in point: the music.
The music is essential to this movie. The plot points that don’t work at all seem to succeed solely on the strength and momentum of well selected tunes. Consider when Maverick and Goose walk into a bar, which might also be a high school, and Maverick describes the scene as a “target-rich environment.” Creepy in hindsight? Sure. But it’s an appropriate segway into the famous scene where Maverick serenades his love interest Charlie with “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” and the whole ordeal makes absolutely no sense. Sure, apparently this is a tack Maverick and Goose have used before (remember when tag-team PUA schemes were in every movie and TV show?) but why do all the other pilots join in? Is this part of the sailor’s handbook of sailor things? The scene did give the one black pilot a solo though! And we give the entire scene a pass because the Righteous Brothers are fantastic and who wouldn’t enjoy an impromptu sailor performance of what Wikipedia tells me is "one of the best records ever made” and what my heart tells me will be as beautiful a song in 2064 as it was in 1964?
Then there’s the iconic volleyball scene: It’s not as oiled up as the casual viewer may remember, but this was Magic Mike before Magic Mike and at the same time a great Guys Being Dudes moment in cinema. Very bro-gressive. The homoeroticism of the scene has been cheaply joked about countless times, but usually the focus of that commentary excludes the music, which, like the scene where a commanding officer screams that he “wants some butts,” betrays a certain 80s earnestness. The song that plays during the volleyball match is called “Playing with the Boys,” and it features gems like:
Bodies working overtime, it's man against man
And all that ever matters
Is baby who's ahead in the game
Funny but it's always the same
Playing, playing with the boys
Staying, playing with the boys
After chasing sunsets
One of life's simple joys
Is playing with the boys
It DO be like that though.
The plot point most dependent on the soundtrack, however, is the romance between Maverick and Charlie. There is nothing about these two people that speaks to any chemistry, and, if we revisit that bar/high school scene, it’s important to mention that he follows her into a ladies room. Not even in 1986 is this an acceptable thing to do. Don’t follow someone into a bathroom! And yet, of course Maverick and Charlie end up together, because every time they’re together a slightly different iteration of “Take My Breath Away” plays! What two people on earth can withstand a barrage of the most romantically horny song of the last 50 years? After several different instrumental versions they finally have sex while Berlin sings:
Watching every motion in my foolish lover's game
On this endless ocean finally lovers know no shame
Turning and returning to some secret place inside
Watching in slow motion as you turn around and say
Take my breath away
Take my breath away
Someone just read that and got pregnant. Congratulations.
So the musical part is well established, but music alone doesn’t carry this movie. It also has the hallmarks of a great high school movie. This is an action movie from the John Hughes era. There’s the aforementioned romance. There’s a competitive school environment and bitter rival, Iceman, who twirls his pen exactly like a kid I hated in college. There’s no way this is a coincidence. That kid saw Top Gun and decided that Iceman was his favorite character and taught himself how to twirl his pen just like him. What a dork. More importantly there’s the friendship between Maverick and Goose, which is one of the most important and referenced in pop culture. “You’re the only family I got” Maverick tells Goose, and when *30 year old spoiler alert* Goose dies, it’s way more visceral, violent, and disheartening than you probably remember. I want to mock it as an excessively macho and manly death, one that makes you cry steak sauce and Cool Water aftershave, but I bawled like I didn’t know it was gonna happen. I cried like someone told me my dog died right before punching me in the nose.
“You fly jets long enough, something like this happens” Commander Metcalf says, imparting a weird sense of mortality and resignation not about death but about aging and doing stupid things. It reminds me of every time I got too drunk and barely made it home, or every time I skated idiotically into those DMs (also while drunk). “You live long enough, something like this is happens.”
Later, Maverick talks to Commander Metcalf as he’s trying to figure out whether to graduate from Top Gun or quit. Metcalf gives Maverick a pep talk and also finally tells him about his father’s disappearance “Up there we gotta push it, that’s our job.” That feeling of resignation is gone. I’M CHARGED UP. I’m ready to make more foolish life mistakes baby! Push it! That’s our job!
Maverick chooses to graduate, and the last 20 minutes are a redemption he doesn’t really need. He’s a hero, he’s a badass, but we already knew that. He gains his rival classmate Iceman’s approval, but he doesn’t need it. He proves that even though he didn’t graduate at the top of the class he’s the best of the best, and still that doesn’t matter so much. What matters is: Life hit him hard with its best shot and he didn’t give up, even though there wouldn’t have been any shame in doing so. He gets back in the air. It’s simple and cliché, but that’s a lot of what life is as you get older: getting back up. That’s a lesson that means even more at 30. We should all be so lucky to age like Top Gun.
Yung Costanza thinks you are still dangerous, but you can be his wingman anytime. Follow him on Twitter.