Cinemanalysis: Top Gun (1986)

by Jason Flatt

Top Gun (1986) turned Tom Cruise from pretty boy to action star in an unconventional but powerfully effective way.

When Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone is playing, there is only one movie that must be accompanying it: Top Gun (1986). Directed by Tony Scott, Top Gun transformed Tom Cruise from mere heartthrob into a certified action star. With the long-awaited announcement and trailer released for a 2020 sequel, there is no better time than now to strap back into the gunner’s seat with this classic.

TOP GUN, Kelly McGillis, Tom Cruise, 1986, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

A Different Action Star

It is hard to get a read on what kind of person Maverick (Tom Cruise) is during the beginning of Top Gun. On one hand, he is a suave guy with a clearly good heart. He defies orders in order to save his wingman Cougar (John Stockwell. It is not just gutsy, it is compassionate. On the other hand, Maverick is a supremely unlikable, self-righteous jerk. He is exceptionally cocky both in his piloting and his attempted wooing of Charlie (Kelly McGillis). It is downright creepy when Maverick follows her into the restroom to persist in pursuing her even after being initially rejected. There is just an unpleasant aura to the character that is rare for the main character of a film. He is not totally hatable, but he is not exactly the easiest to love in the first few sequences of Top Gun.

This initial confusion is embodied Iceman’s (Val Kilmer) reaction to Maverick’s antics in and out of training. He knows Maverick is an exceptional pilot and that his unconventional thinking is often right. He also detests Maverick though, quite fairly, because his selfish, renegade attitude puts all of the other pilots at risk. Charlie also embodies how the audience is meant to feel about Maverick. She is initially mostly repulsed by his juvenility, but at the same time, there is a small spark of recognition in her that perhaps his demeanor is more a mask for unaddressed personal pain than it is a permanent disposition.

Top Gun Understanding Somebody Who Doesn't Understand ThemselfUnderstanding Somebody Who Doesn’t Understand Himself

Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was not necessarily born with a chip on his shoulder. He developed it over years of believing that the Navy was denying him what he deserved: entrance into the academy and general respect. He believed this was entirely on account of who his father was. Meanwhile, his unresolved grief and eternal state of aggrievement only make things worse for him.

What makes Maverick an especially unique action star is that he is largely a failure for the majority of the film. His abrasive yet endearing personality aside, the only reason Maverick gets into Topgun is because the pilot that was meant to resigned his commission. Maverick also fails repeatedly once he is there, despite his tactical genius, and never wins the Top Gun trophy. He is unliked by virtually everyone else except for Charlie, who has generously taken the time to uncover Maverick’s deepest wounds. Of course, he also has the undying support of Goose (Anthony Edwards), his copilot, best friend, and the only person who knows Maverick better than himself.

There are cracks in Maverick’s facade, though. When Maverick makes mistakes that put Goose in danger several times throughout Topgun training, it is clear that Maverick is really upset with himself not just for failing, but for endangering his friend. The rare display of accountability and regret is essential for eventually understanding Maverick as a three-dimensional person. Despite his antics and misgivings, Maverick is still the hero of Top Gun’s story no matter how right Iceman is about how dangerous and standoffish he is.

Top Gun Good InfluencesGood Influences

Maverick’s development from the beginning of Top Gun to its end is so endearing precisely because of how drastic it is. While it is absolutely tragic that his growth only becomes apparent as a result of Goose’s death, the seeds for Maverick’s turnaround were sown from the beginning of Top Gun. Goose’s death was not an isolated incident that suddenly transformed Maverick.

Maverick was fortunate to be surrounded by people, other than Goose and his family, that could see through his pain to support him in different ways. Charlie had no reason to give Maverick extracurricular attention given his behavior when they first met. Following her into the restroom was downright creepy. Yet, she could somehow see through the way he acted out and the genius he had in the classroom that there was more to him than just flirtation.

Even Maverick’s Topgun instructor Viper (Tom Skerritt) plays a pivotal role in satiating his need for a healthy mentorship. Viper explains the truth about Maverick’s father and makes it clear that he harbors no resentment towards him or Maverick. In fact, he provides some of the best empathy towards Maverick of anybody after Goose’s death by giving him the perfect balance of patience and pushback while getting Maverick back in the F-14 saddle.

Then there is Iceman, who was a perfect foil for Maverick. He not only provided competition for Maverick physically and intellectually but, unlike typical bullies in movies, Iceman’s goal was never to put Maverick down or sabotage him. Doing so would only make Iceman’s own life and work more difficult. So, even before Goose’s death, Iceman, above all, only wanted Maverick to do better so that he could trust Maverick as a wingman. Their intense confrontations may have been seeped in ire, but as their tender moment after Goose’s death and their jubilation after combat victory showed, Iceman would much rather have seen Maverick succeed than fail. His toughness and irritation was merely how that manifested.

Top Gun Because I Was InvertedBecause I Was Inverted

Altogether, it is the empathy everybody shows, rather than the coldness typically expected in the type of cutthroat environment that is Topgun, which inverts Maverick from a reckless miscreant into a beloved hero. Had Maverick begun Top Gun as the usual infallible pretty boy action star, the ending would still have been satisfying. A big victory after a major set back is always satisfying. Yet, because Maverick is less-than-lovable and rarely victorious at the onset of Top Gun, his arrival as a fully-realized hero and human puts him, and Top Gun, amongst the upper echelon of action movie excellency.

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