The Timeless Appeal of ‘Top Gun’

Illustration by Paul Spella; images by Mary Evans / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection This…

Illustration by Paul Spella; images by Mary Evans / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

This article was published online on June 15, 2021.

In 1983, the Swedish aerospace and auto company Saab ran an ad with an old premise—sports cars are sexy—and a new twist: Saab’s cars, the ad suggests, are as sexy as its fighter jets. The spot makes its case by splicing slo-mo shots of a car and a plane emerging from their respective hangars. The soundtrack is orchestral, the effect vaguely voyeuristic. The crescendo comes when the car and the plane meet on a shared runway, the jet hovering over the car, each pulsing with raw power.

The ad was the handiwork of the British director Tony Scott. On the strength of it, he was hired to create another ode to high-velocity machismo, this one at feature length. Top Gun premiered in May 1986, when the pain of Vietnam had receded, the Cold War was on the wane, and people had embraced the hope that it was morning in America. Scott’s film answered the moment by attempting to sell not a car, but a country: Love the U.S. again. Buy the U.S. again.

Top Gun marked its 35th anniversary this spring, and its decades-in-the-making sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, originally set to be a summer blockbuster, is now scheduled to premiere later this year. While we wait, I rewatched the original—and promptly experienced the whiplash that comes when a dated movie feels, somehow, utterly timely. Advertising strips away the world and its complications until all that’s left is want. Top Gun, an ad with a 110-minute run time, retains its allure in part because it is selling a desire that remains, all these years later, unfulfilled: an America that proves worthy, finally, of its immense power.

t op Guns story is simple enough: Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, call sign Maverick, is a hotshot Navy pilot who is as rebellious as he is talented. He won’t listen to orders. He’s an unreliable wingman. He’ll go rogue at Mach 2, which is pretty much the worst time for someone to decide that the rules do not apply to them. But genius is genius, and so Maverick—played by Tom Cruise—and his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), get chosen to attend Top Gun, the Navy’s ultra-elite flight-training school in Miramar, California. (A bit like the film that bears its name, Top Gun is both forward-looking and fusty: It is meant to train pilots for future engagements in “the lost art of aerial combat.”) At the school, Maverick and Goose compete as a two-man team, mostly via combat maneuvers against fellow trainees, to win the Top Gun trophy and the Navy-wide bragging rights that come with it. When people in this world talk about “the top 1 percent,” they do so with no ambivalence.

Maverick’s closest rival at Top Gun is Iceman (Val Kilmer), a by-the-book pilot who answers Mav’s natural talent with tactical skill. But Iceman, crucially, is not Maverick’s adversary. Nor, really, are the Navy’s military foes—all we know of those faceless pilots is that they fly Soviet-made MiGs. Maverick’s real enemy, Top Gun makes clear, is Maverick himself. The son of a pilot who lost his life and his reputation in the fog of war, Maverick wrestles with his inheritance. He confuses bravery, often, with recklessness. Iceman puts it best. “Maverick, it’s not your flying; it’s your attitude,” he says. “The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse. Dangerous and foolish. You may not like who’s flying with you, but whose side are you on?”

The story of Maverick, at once officer and outlaw, shares themes with the Western, its frontier shifted from the ground to the sky. Top Gun is also, via Maverick’s relationship with his civilian flight instructor, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), a screwball-inflected romance. And a workplace drama. And a product of preening propaganda. (The Navy, which provided equipment and training for the production and reportedly shaped some of its story lines, set up recruitment booths outside theaters showing the film. Applications to Annapolis soared.) The film is also, however, an epic. Top Gun takes elemental themes—parents and children, humans and nature, individual desires and communal demands—and funnels them into its hero’s journey.

Movie still of Maverick and Goose sitting in a plane
Maverick (Tom Cruise) takes the lead as he and his flying partner, Goose (Anthony Edwards), flout Navy rules. (Paramount Pictures / Everett Collection)

I grew up in the ’80s, so nostalgia, for me, helps explain more than a little of Top Gun’s abiding appeal. The film was, for a time, everywhere. (In some ways it still is. See: jokes about “wingmen” in bars; aviators as always-trending fashion accessories; Tom Cruise’s ongoing megastardom.) Part of Top Gun’s draw is also that it is exceptionally well made. Its cinematography captures the kinetic thrill of being airborne, the thrust of the engines, the thrum of the drive against gravity. Top Gun operates in the tradition of Yeats’s “tumult in the clouds” and 1927’s Wings and 1982’s Firefox : It bursts with awe for the small miracle of human flight, for earthbound creatures who soar across a limitless sky.

Top Gun also gives us the gift of its volleyball scene, the narratively expendable but spiritually crucial affair in which Mav and Goose join Iceman and his flying partner for some sweaty sets on the beach. (“I didn’t have a vision of what I was doing other than just doing soft porn,” Scott later joked, adding that before filming he sprayed the actors with baby oil.) Some of Top Gun’s other contributions include the delightful “Great Balls of Fire” sing-along; the multiple locker-room scenes featuring extremely brawny men in extremely tiny towels; the balletic elegance of the USS Enterprise crew members as they engage in full-body semaphore; the sublimely silly moment—a successor to Scott’s Saab ad—in which Maverick races a fighter jet while he’s on his motorcycle, becoming so overwrought with the joy of it all that he thrusts his fist in the air. (Planes! Fast! Yeah! ) And then here come Mav and Goose, striding in their flight gear, uttering a line so transcendently prosaic that it tips over into poetry: “I feel the need—the need for speed.”

Are you looking to consider the grim realities of war, or to acknowledge the humanity of “the enemy”? Top Gun elides those inconvenient complications. If you are in search of some full-throttle patriotism, however, this film has you covered. Top Gun indulges in its metaphors. A hero who is young and arrogant and attempting to come to terms with his legacy might remind you of a country you know. And again and again, that hero is absolved. Maverick disobeys orders; he gets sent to Top Gun anyway. His antics get Goose in trouble with their superior; Goose forgives him. A series of scenes with Charlie goes roughly like this: She criticizes one of Mav’s flight maneuvers; unable to tolerate the negative review, he throws a tantrum and drives away on his motorcycle; she chases after him in her car, almost causing a pileup on a busy street; she catches up to him; he braces for her outrage; instead, she tells him she’s falling in love with him. There are many versions of this exchange in Top Gun. Maverick is someone who fails not just upward, but skyward.

Movie still of Maverick and Charlie having a conversation in a bar
Mav’s civilian flight instructor, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), dares to criticize him, but of course can’t resist his charm. (Paramount Pictures / Everett Collection)

To watch Top Gun now, freshly aware of how easily rugged individualism can take a turn toward the toxic, is to appreciate anew the film’s dicey feat: For its redemption story to land, its hero must be arrogant but not malignant, culpable but capable, infuriating but also easy to love. Maverick’s is a load-bearing charm. And his film’s willingness to pamper him raises still-fraught questions about selfish entitlement. Who gets the gift of multiple second chances, and who does not? Who has to follow the rules? Who is allowed to break them?

“Every screenplay eventually gets to: whose movie is this?” Jack Epps Jr., one of Top Gun’s screenwriters, said in a 2012 interview. Top Gun is about Maverick, but it is also, more simply, for him. In this universe, everyone—Mav’s best friend, his girlfriend, his teachers, even his competitors—serves his needs. They give to him, selflessly. They want him to get what he wants, whether the desire in question involves his love interest (half of Miramar, it seems, is ready to drop what they’re doing to help Mav serenade Charlie) or his destiny. The Mav-centric tendencies are so great that in Top Gun’s pivotal twist—Goose dies, in a plane Maverick piloted—the loss is both a tragedy and a narrative necessity. Its pain is what leads Maverick, the film suggests, to put away childish things. Goose dies so that Maverick might live.

It’s not your fault, everyone tells Maverick. “To be the best of the best means you make mistakes and then you go on,” Charlie says. Finally, Maverick listens. Top Gun ends triumphantly—for Maverick and therefore, the implication goes, for everybody else. He is vindicated in his exceptionalism. His father, Mav learns, died valiantly. His own battle, waged against unnamed foes, is won. Authority has integrity again. It’s morning in America again. This is how you sell a country to itself. It’s not your fault : Few messages are more seductive.


This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Infomercial for America.”