Top Gun (1986 Review): Everything It Needs to Be

I’m still hyped from Top Gun: Maverick, so this week I wanted to talk about the original. Strap in, blast Danger Zone, and join me as I share my thoughts.

Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are sent to Top Gun: the U.S.A’s academy for the finest naval pilots in the country. Here Maverick finds love, adversaries, and checks for his ego as he quests to be the best. His attitude and antics keep him in constant trouble with his superiors, and his dangerous flying style may get him grounded for good.

Tom cruise’s smile alone earns Top Gun extra points. He’s so darn charming! That’s important to note, because Cruise’s charisma carries this film. Pete Mitchell isn’t a likable person on paper: he’s reckless, hot-headed, and arrogant. Yet Cruise manages to make him a lead we root for!

Importantly: Cruise wasn’t a typical macho 80s leading man. He shows us Maverick’s vulnerabilities in a way other movies of that time wouldn’t have dared. Many of Top Gun‘s best moments are when Maverick drops his bravado to let pathos win us over.

The supporting characters in this film are admittedly thin. But the actors do such good work in their roles that their characters feel better-formed than they really are. Anthony Edwards especially invites your adoration with what I consider to be a small amount of screen time.

Goose is the heart of Top Gun and its moral compass. He’s often a scene-stealer, and is a joy to watch. I only found it strange how he didn’t mention his family once in the movie’s first half…

Kelly McGillis had a tough task matching Tom Cruise blow for blow. She was a great foil for Maverick and pushed his growth in meaningful ways! I just wish Pete could have been as beneficial to Charlie’s story. The most he did was give her an inner conflict: is it OK to date a student? That dilemma is explored well enough, and led to some great scenes. But my point is: Maverick caused more trouble for Charlie than anything else. So I wondered why she wished to pursue the relationship at all (besides the fact that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise). I just wish their coupling could have proven more mutually beneficial.

Charlie is both progressive and regressive for a female lead. On the one hand, she’s a straight-up professional who doesn’t take Maverick’s BS; yet her ending, while satisfying, does a disservice to the character. It seems reasonable in context, but is worse in retrospect (especially when you take Top Gun: Maverick into account).

Iceman (Kilmer) and Maverick (Cruise) have a lover’s quarrel in Top Gun.
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Another stand-out is Val Kilmer’s “Iceman”. Truth be told: Iceman is Top Gun‘s real hero, but he’s treated like the villain because he’s not the protagonist… Funny how perspectives work that way. Now, Iceman does antagonize Maverick. I’m not denying that. But Iceman was also 100% spot on with his assessment of Pete Mitchell. I’d have trust issues flying with that guy too!

Top Gun gave its love story adequate time to breathe. Though I still don’t know what’s the real love story here: is it Maverick and Charlie; Maverick and Goose; or Maverick and Ice Man? I can easily make arguments for all three… Suffice it to say this cast has great chemistry!

Top Gun offered a good subversion of expectations with the character Viper (Tom Skerritt)– “Fightertown USA”’s commanding officer. Usually the authority figures in these movies are unabashed antagonists who live to make the lead’s life hell. But Viper, though he can be hard on Maverick, has Mitchell’s back when it counts. Viper’s actions support one of Top Gun‘s main lessons: we don’t always get along, but we’re ultimately on the same team, so we’d best act like it.

Top Gun isn’t about the almighty U.S Military dominating its foreign opponents and saving the world; it’s about cocky young men with talent, but little experience, who need to grow up. I feel like most military films don’t have so much meat on their structure. They’re more content as propaganda pieces which show off expensive hardware. To be clear: Top Gun is kinda that as well. But it’s also a genuine, emotionally driven, and relatable story at its core.

Speaking of the “expensive hardware”: Top Gun contains multiple great action scenes! They’re fast-paced, fervent, and frantic. Each of them accomplishes the goal of a good action scene: to thrill its audience whilst moving the story along. The jets, firefights, and training drills tell a story and are of consequence.

My goodness, do I love seeing those jets in action! It’s good ol’ fashioned practical stuntwork– the kind most movies don’t bother with anymore (Top Gun: Maverick being an exception). And it’s SO much better than most comparable scenes of today! The danger feels more real because it is real. One stunt pilot (Arthur Scholl) was even tragically killed while filming Top Gun.

My one issue with the film’s aerial combat is it can be hard to tell what’s happening. The shots with the jets look great, but they sometimes lack cohesion in the edit. Battle geography is often unclear– where the jets are in relation to one another, and where exactly they’re going. The cockpit shots effectively bridge the gap between exterior shots (mostly). But they can’t hide all the cracks.

Although I might spin that criticism into praise and argue this frenetic style adds to the chaos. The pilots would probably have a hard time keeping the geography straight themselves. So why should we know exactly what’s happening at all times?

One last thing: Jeffrey Kimball’s cinematography for Top Gun is gorgeous! The sunsets, take-offs, landings, beach volleyball– even love scenes, are exceptionally rendered. The colors pop in a visually pleasing manner. He just makes everything look as sexy or awesome as can be.

Top Gun isn’t the most complex film out there. It won’t change your life or make you think too hard. But don’t mistake simplicity for bad. There’s cool intense action, charming leads with good chemistry, quotable lines, and a killer soundtrack. It satisfies every need I wished for it, going in.

So I’d say Top Gun is Pretty Darn Good.

How many of you want to be pilots since seeing this film (or its sequel)? What did you think of Top Gun (1986)? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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