Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #27: Top Gun

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Top Gun (released May 1986)

Tom Cruise confronts Val Kilmer in Top Gun, the highest-grossing film of 1986.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: 
At the beginning of Top Gun a title card somberly informs us:
On March 3, 1969, the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it Top Gun.
One day, some filmmakers should craft a meaningful, big-budget, Oscar-bait motion picture about the origins of Fighter Weapons School... because Top Gun is so not that movie. Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. toss you immediately into an intense aerial combat sequence over the Indian Ocean. One of the Naval Aviators has a mid-air meltdown, survives, then promptly gives up his flight status. Since he was the aircraft carrier's number one choice for Top Gun school, there's a slot to be filled -- which turns out to be very convenient for a pilot named Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his radar officer Goose (Anthony Edwards). Everyone is a little iffy about this turn of events since Maverick is "dangerous," "a cowboy," "a wildcard" and "completely unpredictable." "Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!" Maverick's commanding officer barks just before he sends him (and Goose) off to Top Gun school at a naval air station in Miramar, California.

In Miramar, Maverick encounters the rest of the one percent of all Naval Aviators who get into Top Gun school. They're handsome, chew gum with their mouthes open and fondly regard one another as "dickhead" or "pussy." Top Gun school gives them a hard on. We know this because, well, it's the kind of thing the men in this movie say out loud. A rivalry is quickly established between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) -- who will win the Top Gun trophy? And Maverick's mavericky reputation precedes him -- as does that of his father, a pilot who died under some unexplained, classified circumstances that everyone has decided to interpret as recklessness. Thus, Maverick is a dangerous, completely unpredictable wildcard cowboy because... like father, like son. Oh, and the Top Gun instructor is a preposterously hot woman named Charlie (Kelly McGillis) that Maverick intends to bed because the audience must always be reminded of Tom Cruise's heterosexuality, especially since this movie is about as homoerotic as it gets. I mean, seriously, at the 41-minute mark, Top Gun interrupts everything for a glorious, completely irrelevant, shirtless outdoor volleyball match featuring lots of sweaty abs and pecs. In gay porn, this is the kind of scene that precedes an orgy.

That's Rick Rossovich as "Slider." He's very enthusiastic about volleyball.

Top Gun is... uncomplicated. Every question raised -- Will Maverick and Charlie be a thing? Will Maverick triumph over Iceman? Will Maverick ever find out what really happened to his father? -- gets answered. When someone dies, Maverick loses his confidence and has to prove himself again. This is Scriptwriting 101, but I have to give Top Gun credit where credit is due. That opening aerial combat sequence is stunning and emotionally impactful. Nearly 30 years later, in fact, the aerial sequences are still genuinely spectacular. Jeffrey Kimball's cinematography is extraordinary. No matter how bogus the love story here is, Cruise and McGillis sell it; they've got chemistry. Meg Ryan is solid in a small supporting role, and the older cast members -- Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, James Tolkan -- bring the gravitas. I'm indifferent about most Tom Cruise films, and I especially hate it when he acts with his teeth (that overtly cocky bear-trap smile is more off-putting than inviting to me). But to be fair, he has his moments here; some of his reactions and gestures suggest a vulnerability that feels absolutely truthful.

Stray Gay Observations:

Owning my own embarrassing misogyny: Watching Top Gun, I dismissed the idea that there was ever a female Flight Weapons School instructor in the 1980s. As I researched the film, I discovered that Kelly McGillis' character was inspired by Christine Fox, a real civilian flight instructor. In 2013, President Barrack Obama appointed her as acting deputy defense secretary, making her the highest-ranking woman ever at the Pentagon.

Kelly McGillis appeared in a couple of huge Hollywood films besides Top Gun, like Witness and The Accused. She became a major star, but felt unmotivated by fame or box-office success. Instead, she chose stage roles and, occasionally, more low-profile film projects. She's done quite a bit of Shakespeare, took the lead in Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler on Broadway, and played Mrs. Robinson in a national stage tour of The Graduate. In 2009, she publicly acknowledged that she's a lesbian, something she believes has been true since childhood. She's transitioned nicely into character roles; I particularly enjoyed her as a psychic in The Innkeepers (2009), a smart little slow-burn horror flick.

Everyone in this movie has a nickname -- Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Viper, Jester, Cougar, Slider, Hollywood, Wolfman. Everyone. Kelly McGillis plays Charlotte Blackwood, but her character is referred to as "Charlie." At first I thought all that was a dumb contrivance by the writers. Nope. These are call signs. Reading the credits, I noticed that all the instructors and pilots serving as technical advisors or flyers -- all of them -- have call signs: Bozo, D-Bear, Loner, Curly, Silver, Rabbi, Too Cool, Squire, Bio, Vida, Horse, Player, Organ, Circus, Jambo, Secks, Sunshine, Hollywood, Flex, Sobs, Tex, Boa, Rat, Jaws. Sight unseen, I just want to hang out with Bozo, D-Bear, Bio and Sobs. Admit it, you really want to know how a guy gets a call sign like "Sobs."

Filled with electronica, synthpop and power ballads, the Top Gun soundtrack encapsulates '80s radio. Giorgio Moroder wrote and produced the film's love theme, "Take My Breath Away" by the Los Angeles-based band Berlin, and it won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Moroder's influence over music has been inestimable -- since the mid 1970s he's collaborated with, among others, Donna Summer, Electric Light Orchestra, Sparks (oh God, how I love that quirky-queer band), Queen, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, David Bowie, Kenny Loggins and, most recently, Daft Punk.

Maybe one day Tom Cruise will win an Oscar for packing on some pounds to play Sen. John McCain, the real Navy maverick and POW with a nice smile who probably wrecked his own legacy by choosing Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate in 2008... and then turning into a grumpy hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn dotard that really doesn't know when to get the hell off the political stage.

In a post-Don't Ask Don't Tell America, surely someone must be thinking of a remake where Maverick hooks up with Charlie the Gay Male Top Gun Instructor. Or, he falls for Goose the Radio Intercept Officer. Well, anyway, I was thinking about that.

Should You See It? Frankly, I don't have a very high threshold for superficial, jingoistic nonsense like this. I kind of hate it when filmmakers crassly oversimplify the complex aspirations and dangerous accomplishments of military personnel. This would have been a better movie (maybe) if they skipped the dramatically inert romance and made the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman more realistic and observable. And with the exception of Anthony Edwards as Goose, the supporting cast is woefully underutilized. The filmmakers don't even have the courage to name an enemy -- the bad guys in the MiGs are generically referred to as "the other side" and they come from "foreign territory." But somehow, dammit, Top Gun entertained me even as I rolled my eyes, proving that I'm not completely immune to the charms of rousing, testosterone-oozing, Support Our Troops propaganda. Top Gun is a patriotic elixir: After the film's release, the Navy reported a 500% uptick in the number of young men who showed up at recruitment offices wanting to be Naval Aviators.

Next Time: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

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