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Tony Scott's 1986 military film "Top Gun" is about a Navy pilot named Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) whose reckless antics in the cockpit of a fighter jet earned him the nickname of "Maverick." Thanks to Cruise's charm, an overwhelming helping of machismo, and a lot of really impressive, real-world piloting, "Top Gun" became an enormous hit, eventually becoming the highest grossing film of the year, having made $176 million domestically in its initial run (and that's not counting re-releases or home video), which, when adjusted for inflation, comes out to over $460 million. "Top Gun" became a regular staple at slumber parties for 1986 youths, and its iconography, score (by Harold Faltermeyer), and hit song, Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" (which won an Oscar), all became pop culture touchstones.
Like 1984's "Red Dawn" and 1985's "Rambo: First Blood Part II," however, "Top Gun" is very clearly a propaganda film, used to glorify American military might during the Cold War. Its legacy, then, is mixed. Some people take away Maverick's confidence and cockiness as the defining features of the entire film, used as an exemplar of the ultimate soldier. Critic Amy Nicholson (who literally wrote the book on Tom Cruise) once said in a brief video essay that Maverick is a misunderstood character because his bravado and machismo are actually a front, and that Maverick should be seen less as a hero and more as a phony.
Val Kilmer, who played the character of Tom Kazansky, aka Iceman, in "Top Gun," once admitted that he didn't want to appear in the film, eventually admitting in the documentary "Val" that he disagreed with its glorification of the military. A mere four years after "Top Gun's" release, even Cruise expressed some discomfort with "Top Gun," and felt that a follow-up would have been irresponsible. In the January 1990 issue of Playboy magazine (via Gizmodo), Cruise sat down to talk about what was then his most recent film, Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" — an openly antiwar film — and he was frank about "Top Gun."
'That's not the way war is'
Given the chance to reflect on "Top Gun" for a few years, Cruise finally had a chance to respond to the notions that it was a right-wing, pro-military ad, and that a lot of young kids had seen it, perhaps learning bad lessons as to what war looked and felt like:
"Okay, some people felt that 'Top Gun' was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it. But I want the kids to know that that's not the way war is; that 'Top Gun' was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality. That's why I didn't go on and make 'Top Gun II' and 'III' and 'IV' and 'V.' That would have been irresponsible."
It should be noted that any film that requires use of military uniforms, military rank, and military equipment like planes, aircraft carriers, ships, or helicopters, will all have to be made with the express permission of the military, and often receive financial aid from the military with the understanding that the film will indeed function as positive PR. It was François Truffaut who declared that no war film can truly be an antiwar film because battlefield drama is so inherently cinematic. Cruise compartmentalized these notions in 1990, saying that "Top Gun" was also, primarily, just a fun romp.
"'Top Gun' is a joy ride and shouldn't be looked at beyond that. 'Born' is about real people and real events. 'Top Gun' should be looked at as going on Space Mountain. It's like a simple fairy tale."
'I am totally responsible for World War Three!'
The Playboy interviewer did press Cruise on this point further, however, asking the actor if "Top Gun" might have been a little too convincing to boys and young men who would then go on to enlist in the military. The "fairy tale" of military might, Playboy points out, is often a real-world rallying cry. Cruise was dismissive, seeing such an accusation as perhaps exaggerating the matter, and that it was a film he made that is behind him and no longer represents who he is:
"Think of that: I am totally responsible for World War Three! Come on. Let's look at the reality of what I am saying: where my beliefs lie. I didn't have anything riding on 'Top Gun.' The fact is, I really want people to see 'Born on the Fourth of July.' It's a movie that had to be made."
While Cruise felt that a "Top Gun 2" was irresponsible in 1990, he would eventually make "Top Gun: Maverick" in 2022, directed by Joseph Kosinski. The sequel will catch up with Pete Mitchell, still a hotshot maverick after 36 years, and now training a new generation of pilots, including one played by Miles Teller, portraying the son of Maverick's late best friend from the 1986 film. Whether or not "Top Gun: Maverick" will address the pro-military concerned raised by Tony Scott's film remains to be seen.
"Top Gun: Maverick" opens in theaters on May 27, 2022.
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