#526) Top Gun (1986)

#526) Top Gun (1986)

OR “Yvan Eht Nioj”

Directed by Tony Scott

Written by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. Based on the magazine article “Top Guns” by Ehud Yonay.

Class of 2015 

The Plot: LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a cocky young pilot in the US Navy. Despite his disregard for safety, he is still one of the best pilots in his unit, and he and his wingman LTJG Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are recruited for TOPGUN, a program teaching the top 1% of navy pilots dogfighting skills. During his training, Maverick butts heads with fellow student LT Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), woos civilian instructor Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), plays some volleyball, feels the need for speed, and of course, rides into the Danger Zone!

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Tony Scott, saying he “delivers on all fronts” with “slick, visually arresting action-set pieces”. Tom Cruise’s star appeal is also highlighted. The write-up, however, begins with a weird sentence about how “a wag might be tempted to call this…film ‘The Testosterone Chronicles'”. Where is this coming from?

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “Top Gun” prior to this viewing, and it’s…fine. The flight scenes are extraordinary, but everything else just sits there. Not bad, not great either. Despite these shortcomings, “Top Gun” has continued to be an iconic crowd-pleaser 35 years on. Sure it’s a Popcorn Movie, but it’s also the definitive Popcorn Movie of the ’80s. With a focus on action entertainment, and a plethora of quotable/spoof-able moments, “Top Gun” more than earns its spot among notable American films.

Everybody Gets One: Tony Scott got his start making commercials for his older brother Ridley Scott’s production company in England. Tony was approached with “Top Gun” based on his work helming the vampire movie “The Hunger” as well as a Saab commercial in which the Swedish car is shown racing a fighter jet. This is also the only NFR appearance for many of the film’s stars, including Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, and Meg Ryan.

Wow, That’s Dated: Surprisingly, “Top Gun” doesn’t show off its inherent ’80s-ness the way a “Ferris Bueller” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” does. And call me a wag, but “Top Gun” definitely could have been called “Toxic Masculinity: The Motion Picture”.

Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1986, “Top Gun” entered the 1987 Oscars with four tech nominations. The film lost three of these nods to “Platoon” and “Aliens”, but “Take My Breath Away” took home the Best Song Oscar. After Berlin passed on performing at the ceremony, the song was sung on air by…Melba Moore and Lou Rawls?

Other notes 

  • Like many a movie based in a branch of the US military, the script for “Top Gun” was subject to approval by the US Navy in order to receive their cooperation (including access to Miramar Base in San Diego, site of the actual TOPGUN program). This resulted in several script changes, including less crashes and more incidents involving human error rather than anything wrong with the Navy.
  • Any movie that brought us the song “Danger Zone” cannot be all bad.
  • Amazingly, I don’t have a lot to say about Tom Cruise’s performance, other than he is very charming in this movie, and has not aged a day in 35 years.
  • James Tolkan gives a nice turn as CDR Stinger, though this begs the question: Didn’t that guy ever have hair?
  • Wow, Kelly McGillis is giving a total 180 from her performance as an Amish mother in “Witness”. For starters, she uses zippers!
  • We have arrived at the volleyball scene which I gotta say, may have been overhyped for me. I went in knowing it was filled with homoerotic imagery (intentional or otherwise), and sure there’s a bunch of fit shirtless guys being athletic but…I guess I expected more? I’ve seen more slabs of meat in my freezer.
  • Apparently the love scene was an afterthought, filmed when preview audiences complained that Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis never “hook up”. The whole scene is silhouetted because McGillis had changed her hair for another movie. This lighting effect ensures that we see how much tongue both of these actors are using, and boy is it gross. More like “Take My Lunch Away”.
  • This is Meg Ryan’s third movie! She doesn’t have much to do, but she delivers exactly what the part of Mrs. Goose calls for. Now what’s it gonna take to get “When Harry Met Sally” on this list?
  • “I feel the need, the need…for speed.” I didn’t realize just how random that moment is. It just kinda happens and then we all move on. Do people quote it because it rhymes?
  • All of the dogfight scenes are giving me flashbacks to when the Blue Angels fly over my neighborhood during Fleet Week. That may be the one annual tradition I’m glad quarantine took away from us.
  • Wait, Tim Robbins was in this? I guess he had his gear on the whole time.
  • “Top Gun” is dedicated to the memory of Art Scholl, a veteran stunt pilot who crashed in the Pacific Ocean while filming second unit aerial footage for this movie.
  • On a lighter note, the end credits also give us a plethora of nicknames from the various pilots who served as technical consultants. Among my favorites: “Bozo”, “D-Bear”, “Rabbi”, “Squire”, “Organ”, “Jambo” and “Jaws“.


  • “Top Gun” was met with a mixed critical reception, but word of mouth made it the biggest hit of the year, solidifying Tom Cruise as a movie star. Tom Cruise has spent the last four decades making some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and that’s all I have to say about him.
  • Tony Scott spent the next 25 years cranking out well-crafted action movies including “Days of Thunder”, “True Romance”, “Crimson Tide”, and pretty much every action movie Denzel Washington did in the 2000s.
  • The US Navy called “Top Gun” one of the best recruitment efforts of all time, with some reports estimating that Navy enrollment shot up 500 percent in the summer of 1986. Also surging in popularity: Bomber jackets and Aviator sunglasses, a look today known as “The Biden”.
  • An immediate “Top Gun” follow-up was quickly rejected by Tom Cruise, and while another sequel idea stalled after Tony Scott’s death, “Top Gun: Maverick” will finally be reaching theaters in July 2019 June 2020 December 2020 July 2021. [Update: The film has now been pushed back to November 2021. I’m beginning to think this movie doesn’t actually exist.] [Update: May 2022. Final answer.]
  • “Top Gun” has been subjected to its share of parodies over the years, most memorably in the movies “Hot Shots!” and “Team America”. The “Top Gun” references came full circle in 2013 when the Pixar film “Planes” featured Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer as the voices of two Navy fighter planes.
  • And of course: “Danger Zone”.

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