Top Gun CE Review
Although it would be wrong to say that you can find out everything you need to know about the high watermark of Reaganite America from Top Gun - there are no bankrupt farmers or unemployed steelworkers featured – it’s true that it tells you a great deal about what was going through Uncle Sam’s mind in the middle of the 1980s. Like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and Rocky IV, it’s a film that could not have been made at any other time and, similarly to those endlessly revealing slices of popular culture, it’s a paean to a country at ease with itself; a piece of unashamedly breast beating patriotism, equally shameless peacockery and golden-hued bullshitting that reflects a confidence borne of economic boom, Libya-bashing militarism and the re-election of a bad actor turned consummate, if occasionally forgetful, politician. The only significant pop culture critic of American power was Bruce Springsteen and most people thought he was a super-patriot anyway. A year later, times had changed – Irangate began to tar the Reagan image, Oliver Stone had inconveniently reminded the country of the dangers of American imperialism and Wall Street was about to go down the toilet in spectacular fashion – and Top Gun already felt like something of a relic. But for a short time, during the summer of 1986, Top Gun was America on an aircraft carrier.
The plot, for want of a better word, concerns one Maverick (Cruise) who, along with his best friend Goose (Edwards), is sent to “Top Gun”, an elite training school for the top one percent of pilots in the navy. Quickly establishing himself as one of the best in the school and a prime candidate for the prized Top Gun trophy, he clashes with his chief rival Iceman (Kilmer) and falls for leggy instructor Charlie (McGillis). Soon, tragedy overtakes him and he discovers that life is a lot tougher than it once seemed. But his skills are decisively put to the test when the best of the best are put into real action against enemy pilots.
It’s not difficult to ridicule Top Gun; that’s a mercy, since taking it seriously would lead one to some frightening conclusions. But an honest appraisal would have to concede that the film is, in some respects, terribly alluring. For one thing, there are the planes. I imagine that most men, if they are soul-searchingly honest, and a good number of women went through a stage of growing-up when nothing could have seemed more exciting, or more symbolic of the straining and snapping of apron strings, than leaving the ground and climbing above the clouds in command of your own plane. In some of its aerial scenes, Top Gun is sufficiently intoxicating to drag one back to one’s juvenile dreams of soaring, unfettered, away from the restrictions of childhood. Such moments explain more than adequately why people would want to become navy pilots; it’s simply an extraordinarily exciting thing to do. The film doesn’t soft-pedal the danger of the job; indeed, it emphasises that it’s the living on the edge which gives this kind of flying its particular appeal. Through the death of Goose, it also goes some way towards acknowledging the real world of risk which lies behind the soft-focus dream. Whenever Top Gun has the good sense to concentrate on the seduction of riding the sky, it’s riveting and often genuinely beautiful.
Sadly, someone thought it would be a good idea to bring it down to earth. Apparently, in his first cut, director Tony Scott produced an art film which had loads of great flying sequences and virtually no connecting narrative. It would be pleasing to see this version since it would no doubt headline the things which make the film worth watching at all. However, thanks to the tender ministrations of Messers Simpson and Bruckheimer, the plot of Top Gun came into being and this is where the trouble starts. The whole “Who’s best in Top Gun” storyline is servicable enough but was it really necessary to include quite so many stereotypes? Ball-breaking commanding officer; cool but scarred veteran; slightly fascist blonde bully; dusky, pouting teacher; and so on. It’s never made remotely clear what the obviously sensible and intelligent sees in the superficial and smug Maverick. As for the moment where he attempts to seduce her before he knows she’s the teacher, that sort of dud scene was on its last legs back in the early days of talkies. This is the kind of film where you can identify who’s going to get killed the moment they first make the audience laugh and if you can’t guess which character knows the truth about what happened to Maverick’s dad in Vietnam then you deserve to have your ‘Junior Birdmen’ card taken away. The would-be romantic scenes between Cruise and McGillis are ludicrously overheated in a fashion which resembles Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks and the use of slow motion is often risible. Needless to say, virtually all of these stylistics recurred to numbing effect in virtually every film that Simpson and Bruckheimer (and then Bruckheimer alone) made in the years which followed.
Readers familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s oft-quoted interpretation of the film as a gay fantasy may be wondering when I’m planning to make some cheap jokes about ‘riding my tail’ and ‘I’ll be your wing-man”. To be truthful, I was indeed tempted. There’s a slightly sordid quality present in Top Gun which invites sexual readings of the film. I’m not talking about the flying scenes, which are genuinely seductive and even erotic in their ethereal splendour. I mean the lengthy scenes which fetishise the male body. Tony Scott used photographs by the gay photographer Bruce Weber as a source for his male leads and their intimidatingly sculptured bodies are displayed as often as possible. The volleyball game – serving as a symbolic dick-measuring contest between Maverick and Iceman – has the sun-kissed, slightly rotting sheen of a Los Angeles porno movie and the locker room scenes are almost as languorously masturbatory as the ones which open Brian De Palma’s Carrie. But in itself, this isn’t anything particularly unusual for Hollywood, which has been fetishising the male body since the days of Valentino. Gay men tend to find the film a major turn-on it’s true but so do many women that I’ve talked to and the evident appeal of Tom Cruise half-naked in a towel isn’t hard to square with the traditional role of the youthful star making his mark on the business. The scenes of male bonding are as much reminiscent of other movies - From Here To Eternity, The Deer Hunter, virtually anything by John Ford – as they are suggestions of incipient homosexuality and the idea of lads being lads together in a world without (many) women has become a staple of popular culture in the past twenty years.
In fact, my reading of the film would be a lot more simple. It’s basically a return to the playground. With the exception of the romance between Cruise and McGillis – girls, eurghh!! – the behaviour of the characters would fit in well at any primary school. There’s an infantile, almost innocent quality to the relationships between the men. They are very simple but very strongly defined – the emotional pull between Maverick and Goose, the rivalry between Maverick and the ‘school bully’ Iceman – and the outside world doesn’t come into it at all, until Goose dies in the aforementioned, somewhat jarring shift back into something resembling real life. When Iceman and Maverick finally acknowledge each other’s talents, the effect is less homoerotic than touchingly naive. It’s as if teacher has bashed their heads together and they’ve decided to shake hands and become best friends. Even the volleyball scene suggests small boys who are taking their shirts off because it looks really tough and grown-up. During the flying, the only thing needed to complete the illusion of kids dressed up as pilots would be Tom Cruise going “Zooooommmmm, nwahhhhhh, du-du-du-du-du” into his mouthpiece.
The look of the film is pure MTV. The cumulative effect is a little tiresomely sun-drenched and gossamer-light focus, as if you’d just spent an afternoon admiring Peter Cetera’s new kitchen. It’s important to remember that MTV was still in its infancy while the film was being made and the art of the rock video was still developing, so what now looks like a succession of promo videos linked by a vague storyline was actually the development of a style which MTV latched onto. The use of music to back vast swathes of the film was obviously influenced by productions such as Flashdance, Footloose and Beverley Hills Cop. It becomes a little bit irksome after a while because the viewer gradually realises that emotions which the film can’t evoke through words or images are being grafted onto the visuals through the use of cheap pop music. Even if one takes this for granted, it was a major mistake to use “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” because it’s a far better song than any of the original compositions and it certainly shows up the two big ballads as being very weak indeed – “Take My Breath Away”, an awful collection of power-chords and screeching vocals, and “Heaven In Your Eyes”, which serendipitously matches a cretinous lyric with a banal tune. Harold Faltermeyer’s music score is equally mediocre with the Top Gun Anthem sounding like the unfortunate result of a collaboration between Aaron Copland and Rick Wakeman. Much as it pains me to say it, the only decent new song included in the film is “Danger Zone” sung by, god help us all, Kenny Loggins.
None of the actors are required to do very much. Tom Cruise is asked merely to act cocky, present a vaguely childish vulnerability and deliver the kind of one-liners that are normally only thought up by the people who write captions for Page 3 of “The Sun”. He does what he’s there to do well enough but there are few signs that this is the same actor who was so good in Risky Business and would develop into a reasonably daring and very proficient actor. Kelly McGillis has to look fabulous, which she does very acceptably, and much the same can be said for the young male cast, if clean-cut Californian twentysomethings are the particular bag you’re in to. Viewers with sharp eyes will notice Tim Robbins in a very early role and John Stockwell from Christine shows up too. Among the adults performing in thankless roles, the reliable Tom Skerritt and Michael Ironside come off best, although there is minor amusement value in the sight of James Tolkan playing the same tight-arsed disciplinarian that he essayed so often during the 1980s and getting to say things like “Your ego is writing cheques that your body can’t cash”.
Ultimately, Top Gun has no depth whatsoever and every attempt to evince the emotions of the audience is hyped up to the point of exhaustion. But the flying scenes are scintillating and even the most cynical viewer is likely to succumb, even if only for a few moments at a time. But despite its superficiality, maybe even because of it, it says a great deal about America. This is the product of a country that knows in its heart that its the best but needs reassuring about its pole-position in the world. Knowing its own hegemony, it still feels the need to beat its chest and chase eerily undefined shadows halfway across the world. It’s surely no accident that the enemy pilots engaged in the final combat sequences are never identified or given significant individual identities. They stand in for all the countries and cultures which are un-American and it’s hard to watch the film without thinking of Libyan civilians dying in agony as their country is bombed for the crimes of international terrorism. There’s always a slight spoilsport feeling at the back of my mind which wonders whether America should really be mucking around in the middle of the Indian Ocean in the first place. None of this is unusual of course – around the same time we had an equally dubious operations in Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge and, of course, in Rambo: First Blood Part Two. In my experience, the film made British audiences feel good and cheer so it’s easy to imagine how it went down in American multiplexes. It’s a moot point whether its the schematic ‘good guy makes it to the top’ plot or the faceless enemy-bashing antics which make people cheer – I suspect a mixture of both. So I’m left with a strange sense of conflict in my mind when watching Top Gun. How can you come to a simple conclusion about a film which is often so devastatingly beautiful but so clichéd, narratively primitive and ideologically empty? I guess the only real answer comes from the title of the song “Playing With The Boys”. That’s what we’re doing and the film has no more moral centre than a playground game in which the goodies beat the baddies. That may be very little but it’s in a great, if not so honourable Hollywood tradition, and for some of the time, it’s just about enough.
Top Gun was originally released on DVD back in the late 1990s on a barebones disc with a particularly disappointing transfer. To say this new DVD is an improvement would be a vast understatement.
The new anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film, framed at roughly 2.35:1, looks excellent. Admittedly, slight print damage is present in places and the image occasionally looks softer than even the DP intended. But there’s plenty of detail to be found and the level of grain is satisfyingly film-like. No significant artifacting is present and the colours are gorgeously rich and full. My main criticism is the presence of occasional aliasing in places.
No reservations whatsoever about the soundtracks however. Along with the original Dolby Stereo mix – a pleasing inclusion for purists such as myself – we get two spectacular remixes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is highly impressive but the DTS 6.1 Surround track is astounding. The bass in room-shatteringly intense, the surrounds are aggressive and exciting and the sound is so enveloping that, at times, you have to remind yourself that you're not actually in the film. The range of the track is exemplary and dialogue remains clear and isn't drowned out by the ambient effects.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track which features – deep breath – Tony Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer and writer Jack Epps, along with technical advisors Captain Mike Galpin, Pete Pettigrew and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe. This is highly entertaining with a good mixture of risqué anecdotes and meaty information about the production. Tony Scott is particularly amusing whether ruminating on gay photography or the various ways in which he nearly got kicked off the film.
Also on the first disc is a ‘Vintage Gallery’. This isn’t a collection of photos but a repository for four music videos and some TV spots. The latter items are pretty standard stuff and once you’ve watched one you can safely ignore the others. But the music videos are a treat for fans of unintentional camp. We begin with Kenny Loggins going ‘Right into the Danger Zone’. Wherever the Danger Zone is, he’s clearly not dressed for it since that baggy white shirt is bound to crease beyond all recognition. I also fear that his designer stubble would have no chance of passing Navy regulations. Interesting haircut though and one which I seem to recall copying back in the days when I thought flicked-up hair was a style statement. Then. with the inevitability of a bad debt returning to haunt you, Berlin come on with “Take My Breath Away”. You’ll remember this tedious video turning up on Top Of The Pops when DLT or Peter Powell would introduce it with not noticeably diminishing excitement as it remained in the charts for god knows how many weeks. The lyrics make no sense – and why would they, considering that they were penned by Giorgio Moroder’s mechanic? The lead singer is wearing some kind of Laura Ashley kimono and seems to have either been undecided between black and blonde rinses, or to have had a nasty argument with an oil tanker. “Heaven In Your Eyes” is a deliriously kitsch item of mid-1980s hair metal, sung by a band called Loverboy. Evidently, Loverboy were sex gods to legions of American women whose split-ends would quiver at the sound of a power chord. The lead singer looks like a contemporary of Bertrand Russell and wears the kind of tight leather trousers which enable one to reach those high notes with real conviction. His belly is nicely showcased by a tight safari-print T-Shirt and fans of sweat will be delighted to note the tell-tale gallons of water cascading down the back of his jacket. He only needs to point at a member of the audience for her to achieve orgasm, which is a neat trick if you can do it and a talent which would have saved me a lot of sweaty unpleasantness had I possessed it. Needless to say, the sleeves on the jacket are rolled up in a manner which irresistibly reminds one of Paul Calf. At one point, the lead singer screams “We’re living on the edge”, which is ironic because a less edgy song would be hard to find. Finally, we get the Top Gun Anthem, performed by Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens, the latter fresh off a lengthy tour with Billy Idol. This fact probably explains Mr Stevens’ look of slightly dazed apprehension throughout.
The majority of the extra features are on the second disc. Most notably, we get an exhaustive six part documentary on the making of the film. This runs over two hours and is fascinating stuff. There are extensive interviews with many of the key personnel with Tony Scott coming across particularly well. I’d never considered him to possess much of a sense of humour but he comes out of this as a wry and intelligent man who likes his work but isn’t precious about it. We also hear from Bruckheimer, writer Jack Epps, DP Jeffrey Kimball, the editors, Harold Faltermeyer, Kenny Loggins and several cast members. Tom Cruise makes some relatively brief appearances but the best impression is made by the very funny Michael Ironside, a self-amused Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich. By the end of this documentary and the commentary, you will know as much as you could ever want to know about Top Gun and probably more than you wanted to know.
Also present are two multi-angle storyboard sequences; “Jester’s Dead” and “Flat Spin”, with an optional commentary from Tony Scott – this time without Jerry Bruckheimer butting in every few seconds. In addition, there are some fascinating production photographs divided into nine sections.
Finally, the second disc contains another ‘Vintage Gallery’, made up of mid-eighties promotional material. Several interviews with a disgustingly young-looking Tom Cruise are featured along with a couple of dispensable EPK features. If you like nostalgia for a time when this sort of thing was done without any grace or style, then you will find these pieces thoroughly satisfying.
The film, the documentary and the vintage featurettes are fully subtitled but the commentary and the music videos are not. Quite apart from anything else, this denies you the chance to fully relish the nonsensical lyrics to “Heaven In Your Eyes”.
If you like Top Gun then you will adore this special edition, Even viewers who are less thrilled about the film would find plenty of value in the extra features. The film itself is a mess but the flying sequences save it from the trash-culture dustbin.