Of the many things Top Gun can be said to be about, flying really isn't one of them. Sure, it concerns U.S. Navy pilots, and it comes loaded with aerial sequences. But even in the slick hands of director Tony Scott, the action scenes feel pasted onto the rest of the movie. No matter how many times Scott shows close-ups of his stars looking nervous and determined in their cockpits, the daring young men don't seem all that connected to their flying machines. Top Gun also really isn't about politics, except by omission. Military conflicts bookend the film, but the enemy never gets a name, much less an ideology. After successfully engaging the "bogies" in fatal armed combat, Top Gun star Tom Cruise and his fellow pilots celebrate on the deck of their aircraft carrier, even though they've most likely just started World War III. And on close examination, the movie doesn't even lend all that much support to Quentin Tarantino's hilarious Sleep With Me monologue about its queer subtext. ("They are this gay fighting fucking force, all right?")
"I wanted to make Apocalypse Now on an aircraft carrier," Scott says on the audio commentary of the new Top Gun DVD. He eventually settled for a vision of "rock 'n' roll stars flying silver jets against blue-black skies," but the film has a lot more to say about naked personal achievement than rock 'n' roll or silver jets. Like his brother Ridley, Tony Scott originally came from advertising. When he made Top Gun, he hadn't quite learned to stop selling. He uses Cruise—then deep in his sunglasses-and-cocky-grin period—to peddle a vision of living at maximum power, no matter what the cost.
Top Gun follows Cruise to a school dedicated to reviving what an opening scrawl calls the "lost art of aerial combat," There, Cruise (codename: "Maverick") takes risks to obtain the "Top Gun" trophy he wants, much to the chagrin of Val Kilmer (codename: "Iceman"), who follows the rules to the letter. The greatest obstacle to Cruise's goal comes with the death of his friend and flying partner Anthony Edwards, but in the end, he accepts that Edwards was just the guy who rode in the back of the plane, and sometimes the second bananas die. Besides, Edwards called himself "Goose," so what did he expect?
The message: Exceptional people get a free pass, so long as they act in the interests of their own success. The romantic subplot with Kelly McGillis, scored to the immortal Berlin song "Take My Breath Away," ultimately reveals itself as a long, sexy distraction. Top Gun could just as easily be a film about selling vacuum cleaners. That might not have moved as many tickets, but Scott could conceivably have made it work. Collaborating with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his partner Don Simpson, Scott made the smoothest jet-fighting melodrama imaginable, shot it in a gauzy sunlit style that would forever signify the summer of 1986, and reached an audience of millions. They set a goal and achieved it.