Top Gun: How It Defined Summer Blockbuster

Produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and directed by Tony Scott, “Top Gun” is emblematic of the noisy and slick blockbuster actioners of the 1980s. For better or worse, this silly film went on to define the modern day actioner for the Reagan era, in the same way that Spielberg’s “Jaws,” a far superior picture, did for the 1970s.

The opening build-up of this roller-coaster of contrived emotions and slick action is typical of the style of British helmer Tony Scott, reflecting his background in commercials. The mounting music score and heavily stylized visuals combine to produce an overriding but superficial feeling of excitement. After less than one reel, you realize the film’s message, that flying jet fighters is the ultimately glamorous macho thing, filled with nasty competitiveness and buddy humor. We also learn the risks of the profession, that pilots can crack-up and freeze and that the result of that is death.

Which came first, Tom Cruise’s superstar status, or the phenomenal success of “Top Gun” It’s hard to say. Though Cruise was already a major name after the teenage comedy “Risky Business,” in which he danced in his underwear, his charisma could not help a lousy picture like “Legend,” an expensive epic-fantasy dud. Even so, “Top Gun” producers insisted on signing Cruise and led to a perfect match of star and project.

After this picture, Cruise became the image of a macho Eighties youth, arrogantly sitting in a fighter plane’s cockpit, wearing military garb and winking at the audience while giving the “thumbs up” sign. Cruise pre-sold the film on the basis of the shrewd publicity campaign.

“Top Gun” was a High-Concept movie, from the canny casting of Cruise to the sly if superficial exploitation of the then Gung Ho! political mindset, from the trendy MTV style music-mix set against rapid-fire editing to the pseudo-feminist romantic plot, about a modern liberated professional woman (Kelly McGillis) who somehow surrenders to an old-fashioned man.

A retro film, “Top Gun” was a 1940s formulaic flick superficially updated to the 1980s market demands in its cooler music, grittier language, and more intense sex scenes.

Let’s not forget producers Bruckheimer and Simpson’s record, having made the equally MTV-like movie package, “Flashdance” (1983), which also showed understanding of the current mood in its music and fashion trends. Like “Top Gun,” it was a retro in plot and attitude, modernized by state of the art technology and sight and sound spectacle that pleased the young undemanding viewers of the Reagan years.

The producers admitted that Jim Cash and Jack Epps’ script of “Top Gun” was a slender 80 pages; the average length of scripts is around 120. The scenario is basically a sketch with the rudimentary plot and one-dimensional characters.

And the plot Maverick (Cruise), a talented hotshot flyer with a chip on his shoulder and a deep need to prove himself, enters a prestigious training school at Miramar Naval Air in San Diego. His best buddy, Goose (Anthony Edwards), is soon involved with pretty local girl Carole (Meg Ryan), though Maverick is lusting after the “older woman” and astrophysics instructor, Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), nicknamed Charlie (that’s the only feminist touch in the film, giving the heroine a male’s name).

Life in the fast, unfriendly skies include romances as well Maverick’s competition as “Top Gun” with Ice (Val Kilmer). When necessary, Maverick seeks advice from the rugged understanding flight instructor (Tom Skerritt), who knew Maverick’s father, reputedly a coward. Assuming the role of the surrogate father, Viper helps Maverick overcome his deep anxieties, which the youth covers with his ultra-macho pose.

Eventually Maverick proves himself by outdoing his father: He’s shooting down several Russian aircraft, in a strange sequence, which offhandedly gave the impression the U.S. and the Soviets might already be engaged in an all-out war.

Though director Scott created a flashy visual scheme set against insistent music, his approach here (as in the equally loud and empty “Beverly Hills Cop II”) is more commerce than creativity, in a movie that lacks any resonance of meaning beyond the visceral adventure on screen.

“Top Gun” was a product, and watching it was not unlike looking at an air force recruiting advertisement done in the style of a rock video. Indeed, the Air Force observed the film’s popularity and asked their ad agency to create new TV commercials that looked almost identical to “Top Gun,” tapping into the trendiness among youth of the military, disparaged during the Sixties but now climbing up to a new level popularity, the highest since the patriotic 1940s.

At the time, Cruise must not have been unaware of his movie’s Reagan-era implications, and defended it as “nothing more than a romantic entertainment set against a flashy training school backdrop.” A few years later, when he filmed “The Color of Money,” with Paul Newman, Cruise’s consciousness was expanded by his liberal costar.

Later, hearing that Oliver Stone was preparing a film version of Ron Kovic’s anti-Vietnam War memoir, “Born on the Fourth of July,” Cruise begged Stone for a chance to read for the part. In his eventual role as Kovic, which gained him respect and his first Oscar nomination, Cruise considered himself vindicated for what had been the unintended pro-war implications of “Top Gun.”

The dialogue is preposterous, but Cruise, seemingly unembarrassed or self-conscious, utters with straight face such phrases as, “You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot, maybe too good,” or “We need to be the best-of-the best.”

Wrapped with tiny towels, the hot-shots strut their muscled stuff in the locker room, which might explain why, inadvertently, “Top Gun” has become notorious for its blatant metaphors and gay symbolismcourtesy of a Quentin Tarantino’s monologue in another picture.