Top Gun: The Pure Spectacle of (Sweaty) Bodies in Motion

By James David Patrick

The best movies will reach down deep inside, change us, inspire us to action or overwhelming feeling. Ultimately, we hope to emerge from any theater slightly changed. We would not devote hours of our precious time to foster stasis. Even the most disposable of entertainment should leave an impression, and every civilized filmmaker should want that for their audience.

I had a friend in high school – we’ll call him Frank – who loved Top Gun. (He’d seen Top Gun more than I’d seen Ghostbusters.) As a result, Frank also wanted to be a Navy pilot. Desperately. In his bones. Although he had solid grades, he wasn’t exactly a top student. The Naval Academy wanted the best. He worked his academic tail off during those final two years and obtained a nomination by writing letter after letter to his state representatives. (In order to be admitted to an Academy, you must receive a nomination from one of your state representatives, senator, or the Vice President of the United States.) He received an acceptance from the Merchant Marine Academy. Frank knew that once admitted to an academy, he could excel and transfer to his desired destination – the Naval Academy. He did every single one of those things, ultimately realizing his dream of flying jets for the US Navy. He retired a few years ago having lived out that childhood dream to its fullest extent. How many of us can say we checked the childhood dream box? I never played professional baseball or unearthed a complete dinosaur skeleton now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

I can hear some of you grumbling. Top Gun‘s military-state propaganda machine strikes again! Listen, it’s easy to see how glossy Hollywood entertainment can influence young minds. Legend has it that Navy recruitment went up 500% after the release of Top Gun in 1986. My friend Frank, however, wouldn’t have been a part of those numbers. We graduated high school in 1997. He wanted this for more than a decade – not exactly a desperate, spur-of-the-moment Stripes kind of situation. Top Gun changed him.

Sidenote: I wanted to make movies after I watched Thunderheart (1992), and arguably that’s an even worse idea to plant in a kid’s head. Read more about Thunderheart in my Underseen / Underappreciated 1992 list.

Behind the flash and spectacle, there’s not much to Top Gun. I say this as a longtime fan, but a fan that recognizes exactly how Tony Scott’s movie manipulates us as pop-culture spectacle. As a direct result, it also manages a nifty narrative sleight of hand that most viewers never took the time to recognize – certainly not in 1986. And yet the same elements that wowed us then still retain the power to do so now. I’d argue potentially more so… if we resist the temptation to buy into the cynical contemporary re-evaluation of the film.

The Paramount stars fly over their mountain, the opening, minimal synth of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem” snaring our attention and pulling us into a title card that introduces the elite Fighter Weapons School: TOP GUN. Suddenly we’re on the deck of a real aircraft bathed in a golden hue – humans and jets backlit and silhouetted against the horizon. Afterburners fire up alongside Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone” and a jet catapults from the deck. And then another. And another. Tony Scott’s camera cutting between hand signals, the mechanical beauty, granting us access to a world we never knew. This is pure spectacle, a seductive synesthesia of sight and sound. Alfred Hitchcock claimed that only silent cinema could be pure cinema. I won’t argue his specific point, but I would also cite Top Gun as an example of pure unsilent cinema, free from the burden of narrative baggage.

As one of the greatest makers of spectacle, Tony Scott knew exactly how to use the niche elements at his disposal to their fullest potential. Made with the cooperation of the US Navy, Scott had almost unlimited access to their full arsenal. The footage feels dangerously real even as we’re fully aware of the fictionalized story. Real planes, real carriers, real Navy personnel. Tom Cruise really flying. No computers. No visual trickery. As an audience we can feel the difference. With the proliferation of CGI throughout popular cinema, Top Gun has never felt more real.

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