Bro Knows Film: ‘Top Gun’

Aug 28, 2013
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This week, Bro Jackson film writers Nikhil Dandekar and Brandon Curtis go to the mat (via pretty amicable e-mails) on Tony Scott’s mega-blockbuster, “Top Gun.” The duo commence their partnership from the perspectives of both a seasoned veteran and a greenhorn. The results are pretty entertaining and it gets pretty deep, too.

ND: Look, I’m not going to mince words here. I think “Top Gun” is one of the best action movies ever made. And I hope that last sentence doesn’t cause you to discount all my opinions from here on out. For one thing, I emphasize “action movie.” This is an argument I make when I discuss nearly any Tony Scott or Michael Bay film, but it’s one from which I refuse to budge. I think both do a wonderful job of putting their actors/actresses in a position that will enhance the action and create that sense of exhilaration that we want when we see big budget actioner in the theater. Occasionally there will be missteps, but for the most part, they’re able to manage the narrative without it becoming a caricature. These are movies that I will always enjoy seeing because they stem from the childlike sense of wonder I once had. I think the flight sequences are impeccably filmed, and I can’t begin to imagine my reaction if I walked into a theater in 1986 and watched this in all its glory. So, for the most part, I’ll ignore the stock characters, the sappiness and the corny dialogue and just enjoy the ride.

Aside from the the flight sequences, I love the chemistry between Maverick and Goose. The scenes in which they’re together are the strongest in the film, whether in the cockpit or their endless banter on the ground. When Goose dies, I cry. Every goddamn time. I hate that something that I KNOW is going to happen still makes me tear up, but it does. I think it’s the saddest scene in cinematic history, and I won’t apologize for it. Part of what makes it so tragic is how likable Anthony Edwards is as Goose. He’s loyal and witty, someone I’d undoubtedly want to be friends with in real life. And despite the filmmakers’ attempts to throw in backstory about Maverick’s dad and a hot little romance with his teacher at Miramar, the true emotional core driving the film forward is the bond between Maverick and Goose.

Plus, this is the film that launched little Tom Cruise‘s A-list career. How can that be a bad thing? Your problem, and it’s the same with all you haters, is that you just can’t handle the truth.

BC: Actually, I wouldn’t call myself a hater; in fact, I liked the movie. This was also my first time seeing it, so I lack the perspective of an avowed “Top Gun” devotee such as yourself. Seeing it for the first time at 32, I know that I missed the window where this film becomes pivotal to one’s cineaste development but I got to reward myself with a little Tony Scott, and that’s never a bad thing.

I’ll start off by saying, I really appreciated the dramatics and interplay of the movie. Every character, stock characters as you say, exists to aide Maverick in his emotional growth in some way. You have Goose who dies so that Maverick can be humbled and shaken. You have Tom Skerritt as Viper, the instructor/surrogate father who instills in Maverick the belief that he won’t always be living in the shadow of his father, and gives him knowledge about his father that ensures he won’t have to. You have Iceman, who is technically a better pilot but lacks the heart that makes Maverick our hero. You have Charlie, the civilian instructor, who like Iceman is a bit of a reminder that Maverick isn’t quite the ace he appears to be. Charlie can resist his charms (briefly) and teaches him a little more about persistence and triumph than coming in second to Iceman ever does. There are a couple of other characters who don’t serve nearly the functional importance but are still rendered nicely. When Maverick quits shortly after Goose dies, I appreciate that it is Slider who calls Charlie to tell him that Mav quit the program.

The character’s placement in the locker room scene would suggest (in any other movie) an act of sabotage, but here it is just one of many moments when the characters actually try to do right by each other. Iceman thinks that Maverick takes too many risks but absolutely respects his talents, and any scene that places them in confrontation underscores that point. In fact, thinking on it, I think the reason Maverick never bests Iceman is because it’s never his concern. He walks away from a tie-breaking volleyball game happy enough to have been victorious in the moment, but he never needs or wants Iceman’s validation. Maverick is happy being great, even really really good but the only thing he needs to conquer is fear– from what happened to Goose, of what happened to his father and about his own legacy.

I also appreciate seeing hard-ass character actors put in positions where they nurture the hero and like him despite his tendency for showboating. Overall, I most appreciate how genuinely good-hearted and caring every major character is from top to bottom. I’m also a sucker for the fractured father-son relationship story, and though the father is long dead I like watching people reconcile that, in this case, unknowable side of themselves.

The dogfight that closes the film is really exciting and helps to remind me that even though he visually went off the rails in the early 2000s, Tony Scott has always had a pretty impeccable eye for action. I like the action scene a little bit more on the functional level than as a set-piece. What it achieves for Maverick’s emotional growth and how neatly it ties up the whole film despite seeming like a really convenient eleventh hour action climax is really something special.

With all of this said, I think we should talk a little bit more about some of the characters in all of this. I’ve criminally shortchanged how likeable Anthony Edwards is, but I think Meg Ryan is great in her two scenes. Is she enough of a presence for you to get a read on? How she handles Goose’s death and, in particular, how do you feel about the line “God, he loved flying with you Maverick. But he would’ve done it anyway… without you. He’d have hated it, but he would’ve done it.”?

ND: You’re right. Meg Ryan really does leave a mark, even though her screen time is so short. There’s an obvious chemistry between her and Goose, in part because they’re both so goofy. They’re that couple that everyone is jealous of initially, but get obnoxious with time. Maybe it’s a good thing she was only in the few scenes. “Take me to bed or lose me forever!” I love that. The scene in the diner that culminates with the group rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” hits all the right notes, no pun intended. Ryan provides Goose’s character with some depth while singing Maverick’s praises to Charlie. Multitasking, ftw! Skerritt makes a huge impact as well, like you said, as the surrogate father figure. That he was the one to inform Maverick of his father’s sacrifice only deepens his influence. Everyone seemed to recognize the origin of the chip on Maverick’s shoulder, but he was the only one who could address it directly. The respect the trainees have for him is evident, and the scene in which he ends up in the air against our protagonists is absolutely thrilling.

And in the same vein, since we’re talking characters: perhaps the most important element of a good film/TV series in my mind is the presence of dynamic characters. Whether they change for better or for worse, it’s important that the leads do change. Of course being the optimist that I am, I love watching characters grow onscreen. For all the MiGs that Maverick shoots down, his greatest enemy is his own self-doubt because that’s what underlies all that surface-level arrogance, right? Deep down he’s terrified that he’s going to end up just like his dad. Aside from Goose’s death, every moment in the film steers him closer and closer to overcoming that self-doubt. Maverick has an edge; it’s what makes him such a fascinating character. But it’s also obvious that the same edge is going to get someone killed, and it finally happens. Even though he’s cleared of any culpability, Maverick’s impatience in tailing Iceman so closely certainly didn’t help. But they say, the true test of a man is how he responds to adversity. And even though it takes a little pushing, I’d say he certainly comes out on top in the end, which is exactly what I want to see.

In all honesty though, this is not a movie I’ve ever talked about with such a serious tone. It was always mindless entertainment. So thanks for ruining that by forcing me to analyze it like this.

I do have two questions for you though. First off, what did you think of the music? The soundtrack went 9x platinum; it was a monster hit at the time. “Danger Zone” is without a doubt one of my favorite songs from the 80s, and the main Top Gun theme is one of my favorites as well. The only misstep is “Take My Breath Away” (a great love song in its own right) that is undone by the total obnoxiousness of the moment. “I just don’t want anyone to know that I’ve fallen for you.” BOW BOW BOW BOW BOWWWWW (when I brought up the sappiness and corny lines that I try to ignore…this is an example).

And my other, much more important question: how about that beach volleyball scene, eh? The most homoerotic sequence in what is otherwise the ultimate guy’s movie. I just don’t understand why Anthony Edwards couldn’t roid up for a month or so before filming just so he could show off his abs like the rest of them.

BC: I think Carole‘s (Meg Ryan) final line to Maverick is a bit of the old sticking the knife in gently and turning. I feel like she’s telling Maverick that he effectively stole Goose from his family and if he was anywhere but with him then he’d still be alive. It’s not technically (certainly not mechanically) his fault that Goose is dead, but she’s absolutely right in her assertion that he is dead because of that day, being in that plane. It’s a great moment too because she says it with no venom, only a broken heart and it hurts so much more. I agree, too, about how good a couple Goose and Carole are and I think Ryan brings so much of that ride or die devotion to the role. The only thing that comes close to that in a man’s man of a movie is Bill Duke’s Mac talking to Blain‘s corpse in “Predator.” I really can’t say enough good stuff about how Ryan makes Carole come off the page.

As for your other points, the music is great. I appreciated the spontaneous serenades and I think it’s kind of a risky move for a film, you have to be absolutely confident about the effect you are having on your audience. I especially loved the use of “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay” and how it reminds Maverick of how his mom would lock herself away and just think of his father. Looking out to an endless horizon that you’ll never see him from; it also works on another level because Otis Redding died in a plane crash and the song effectively functions as a “Dear Joh”n letter about being discontented and yearning for something that you can never have. A lot of the soundtrack, in fact, is used to distill the essence of character, if not love– “Take My Breath Away” and “Great Balls of Fire” were depolyed effectively, while “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Danger Zone” both reflect Maverick’s inner turmoils– and that seems to be a bit of a lost art in this day and age.

I don’t really find the volleyball scene to be all that homoerotic. As much as you have men in various states of half dress in the film, Tony Scott doesn’t really come across as a voyeur. I can see the geography around the bodies in the game, it’s clearly shot and no one glistens all that much. Maybe I’m missing it as a first timer, or maybe I’m a little caught up in the film’s earnestness and sincerity to really revel in the homoerotic aspects of it. There’s a fair amount of dick talk but nothing that really makes me want to jump on the bandwagon as far as that subject goes. A little more sweaty bods and some voyeuristic impulses would’ve brought me into that conversation hook, line, and sinker, but as it stands now it rolls off of me (like Slider, Wolfman, and Hollywood did this morning). But if you want to talk about the awesome blue filtered sex scene then, yeah, bodies are temples there. We get slow motion writhing, a little nibbling, I think.

All of that said, I’m glad I could help you have a serious discussion about the film. I’m also glad that I finally had a compelling reason to watch and that the results were both fun and productive. At least, I think they were; and I have to admit that I’ve got a lot of lovin’ feelings for this film and that is, in no small part, thanks to you.

ND: This was a pleasure, Brandon. We’ll definitely have to do it again soon, perhaps next time on a film with some more depth. In other words: you can be my wingman anytime.

I'm 32. A college graduate and I impress no one.