Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Boys on Top: “Top Gun” Revisited

 A year from now (at least we can hope!), Top Gun: Maverick will come roaring into movie theatres across the nation. That’s right: we’ll see Tom Cruise as Maverick and Val Kilmer as his frenemy Iceman return three decades later as U.S. Navy flyboys who still feel a need for speed. This news sent me back to the 1986 original, which sealed Tom Cruise’s legacy as the action hero with the most agreeably cocky grin in Hollywood.

 Top Gun was, I’ve learned, the Navy’s best recruiting tool of all time. After seeing it, young men flocked to recruitment offices, eager to sign up to wear pristine white uniforms and soar like eagles in defense of their country. (Who needs video games when you can do the real thing?) It’s hardly clear whether a next-gen Top Gun will have the same appeal, in an era where wars seem to be getting hotter all the time, but the romantic spirit of the original is what has stayed with me. That and the fact that Top Gun is essentially an ode to masculinity. The message: boys just gotta be boys, and ain’t it grand?

 What makes Top Gun such a testosterone flick? Well, it’s crammed full of young guys with cool codenames like Cougar and Wolfman and Merlin. They share a blood-brother camaraderie, as well as a boyish sense of adventure that would be right at home on a Cub Scout sleepaway.  A self-confident swagger is something they prize, even if it’s softened by the secret sorrows they do their best to conceal. (Maverick is dealing with a mysteriously lost father, and his evolving relationship with flight instructor “Viper” – played by Tom Skerritt – has all the complexity of a father/son bond.) These men are easy on the eyes too: as they shed their shirts to play beach volleyball, the camera shamelessly ogles their glistening pecs.

 Are there women in this man’s world? Of course, although the feminine gets short shrift here. Cruise’s leading lady, Kelly McGillis, is undeniably gorgeous, and yet part of her charm in this film is that she can hold her own in a man’s world. Not only is she beautiful and brainy and good at a quip: she’s an aviation expert who lives to talk knowledgeably about fighter jets. She looks fully comfortable astride a motorcycle, and even her nickname – “Charlie” – is tomboyish. The film’s second important female character, played by a very youthful Meg Ryan, is more traditionally feminine: she’s the cutie-pie wife of Maverick’s best pal and mother of a young son. Still, she comes across as a male fantasy figure when she shouts to her spouse across a crowded barroom, “You big stud . . . take me to bed or lose me forever.” Later in the film, while dealing with her own fresh bereavement, she takes it upon herself to console Maverick. Yes, she’s lost her husband and the father of her child, but in this movie he’s the one who’s really suffering after his buddy bites the big one on his watch.

 The death of Goose is a sad moment, needless to say, but it only serves to shore up the idea that pain must be accepted as one component of pride and accomplishment. There’s no room in a man’s world for sorrow to serve as a stumbling block. Instead, like the knights of old, Maverick and his buddies must bury their grief and move on. Because, of course, a boy-man’s gotta do what a boy-man’s gotta do. It will be interesting to see if the  near-geriatric 2021 Maverick still follows that code.



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