‘Top Gun’ (1986) Review: ‘80s Nostalgia and the Need for Speed
By Daniel Rester
Top Gun: Maverick is finally hitting theaters this week after years of delays. So what better time to look back at the original 1986 film? Top Gun has become a minor classic due to its entertaining blend of aerial action sequences and cheesy dialogue and romance. The film also turned Tom Cruise into a megastar and put director Tony Scott on the map.
In case you haven’t seen Top Gun, the basic plot follows pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) and his friend “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) as they navigate TOPGUN, the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School. The cocky Maverick faces challenges along the way, especially from by-the-books team member “Iceman” (Val Kilmer). He also falls for Charlie (Kelly McGillis), an instructor at the school who is hesitant to begin a relationship with Maverick.
Scott’s film is highlighted by the aerial sequences, which are still among the best in cinematic history. The director stages them in a smooth but thrilling manner, placing the camera in a variety of interesting positions with his cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball. The editing by Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber is fast but fluid, cutting expertly between the characters in the cockpits and the wide shots of the jets. It’s no surprise the editing was nominated for an Oscar; the film was also nominated for Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Original Song (“Take My Breath Away” by Berlin), with the latter getting the win at the ceremony.
The cast is also a big plus, even if some of them are playing little more than types. Cruise is charming and badass as Maverick, and it’s easy to see why audiences fell in love with him. The film does lose some steam though when Maverick’s grieving process becomes repetitive in the second half and the character becomes more serious. Edwards is fun as Goose, while Kilmer got a career boost playing Iceman. McGillis is lovely as well, though her and Cruise’s chemistry can be hit-and-miss; Scott lays on the music, golden hour sunsets, and passionate close-ups thick in order to try and sell the romance better.
The script is the biggest fault of Top Gun as it can’t decide whether the main focus should be the aerial training or the romantic relationship. Instead of there being a fine balance, the film never really feels like it has a clear plot until the scond half decides the Cold War is still a thing. The training sequences feel scattered in their placement instead of each one having build-up and a specific purpose. Scott and his cast and crew mostly overcome the weak script though.
The end results of Top Gun feel a bit awkward as it tries to please all crowds. On one hand it is macho cheese perfectly fitting for the jingoism and shallowness of the Reagan era. On the other hand, however, it is progressive, not traditional, with its MTV-style slickness in its filmmaking techniques and its strong and intelligent female character in Charlie. It also has a lot of homoerotic subtext that conservatives probably just passed off as manly rah-rah scenes. The beach volleyball sequence, half-naked locker room talks, constant sweatiness and dramatic lighting, and boner suggestions give it an undeniably gay edge though.
Top Gun is a fun slice of ‘80s nostalgia, with a handsome Cruise commanding the screen, a rocking soundtrack (who could forget “Danger Zone?”), and terrific aerial sequences. A masterful film? No. But it is a classic piece of pop culture, and a film that helped bring more attention to the Navy and aviator sunglasses. Hopefully Top Gun: Maverick can have the entertainment value of Top Gun but better focus in its plotting.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
Running Time: 1h 50min