This review includes full spoilers. Proceed accordingly. For other movie reviews from me, click HERE:
Let’s get our game faces on. If you want to put on aviators and a bomber jacket, too, well, no judgment here.
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Jim Cash (written by), Jack Epps, Jr. (written by), & Warren Skaaren (screenplay – uncredited)
Stars: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt
Run time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
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.
Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School.
The flyers call it:
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is on patrol near the Persian Gulf when radar contact is made with an unknown bogie. The two pilot teams in the air, flying a pair of F-14 Tomcat interceptors, are callsigns Cougar (pilot) and Merlin (radar intercept officer), as well as Maverick (pilot) and Goose (RIO). The commander on board the ship is not excited about the fact that Maverick and Goose are in the air and will need to be relied upon. The unknown bogie turns out to be a pair of MiG fighters. Maverick locks his missile radar on MiG Two, who promptly “bugs out.” MiG One gets missile lock on Cougar but is chased off when Maverick flies upside down, directly above the MiG, flashes gesture to the enemy pilot, and takes a polaroid picture while doing so. MiG One finally disengages and the two Tomcats fly to the Enterprise, but Cougar is so spooked that he cannot land. Maverick disobeys orders to land and talks Cougar to the deck despite being low on fuel himself.
Cougar (John Stockwell) turns in his wings to the captain of the Enterprise, Tom “Stinger” Jordan (James Tolkan). He fears he has lost his edge and cannot be relied upon to fly combat missions any longer. In the hallway outside of Stinger’s office, he thanks Maverick (Tom Cruise.) Maverick and Goose (Anthony Edwards) then enter Stinger’s office themselves. The Captain complains to Maverick about how dangerous his actions were, relays to him that his family name is not that good within the ranks of the Navy, and tells Goose that he is lucky to even be present. However, rather than punish the two of them, the Captain tells them that he has to send someone from this squadron to Miramar. Maverick is the only qualified candidate for the assignment from the squadron so instead of being punished, Maverick is going to Top Gun.
Maverick is riding a motorcycle at a high rate of speed, on the highway to the danger zone, in Maramar, CA, Fightertown U.S.A.
At Top Gun, we learn from Jester (Michael Ironside), as he teaches a class on naval aviation, that the Top Gun program was created to improve fighter pilot capability after military brass noticed a reduction in that skill during the early days of the Vietnam War. As class is winding down, Jester introduces the class to their commanding officer, Commander Mike Metcalf, callsign Viper (Tom Skerritt.) Viper asks Maverick if he believes he will be the best pilot in the class. He replies, “yes, sir.” Viper tells him that’s pretty arrogant in a setting like Top Gun but also that he likes that in a pilot.
After the first day of class, several of the pilots go out to a local bar. Maverick looks around the bar and notices several young attractive women.
This is what I call a target rich environment.
At the bar, Goose motions Maverick to another pilot, “Iceman” (Val Kilmer). Goose shares that Iceman’s reputation is to be absolutely mistake-free. Goose banters with Iceman’s RIO, “Slider” at the bar. Iceman comes over and joins the three of them. We finally learn some real names! Maverick’s real name is Pete Mitchell. Iceman’s name is Lt. Tom Kazansky. Iceman tells Maverick that he is sorry to hear about what happened to Cougar and he and Cougar were like brothers in flight school.
Iceman asks Maverick if he has “figured it out” yet, referring to who the best pilot in Top Gun is, and clearly believing it to be himself. While smiling, he and Slider insinuate that Maverick and Goose are lucky to have landed Cougar’s spot and that they were also lucky to have experienced the incident with the MiG.
After Iceman and Slider walk away, Goose challenges Maverick to a $20 bet. The terms of the bet are that Maverick must have “carnal knowledge” of a lady “on the premises.” Maverick eyes an attractive blonde haired woman, tells Goose that the bet does not seem fair to him, and says “she’s lost that lovin’ feeling.” Goose says that she has not lost that loving feeling. Maverick says that she has and Goose eventually just says “I hate it when she does that” before following him. Maverick approaches the woman (Kelly McGillis) and begins to serenade her with the famous Righteous Brothers tune. Maverick and Goose start the song and eventually all of the pilots in the bar are carrying the tune along with them.
She introduces herself to Maverick as Charlotte Blackwood. When he introduces himself as Maverick, she asks if his mother did not like him or something. She asks if he has tried that stunt with the song before and whether it worked when he did. He tells her that the first time he tried it, he crashed and burned.
Charlotte: And the second?
Maverick: I don’t know. I’ll tell you tomorrow but it’s looking good so far.
Charlotte: Listen, can I ask you a personal question?
Maverick: That depends.
Charlotte: Are you a good pilot?
Maverick: I can hold my own.
Charlotte: Great, then I won’t have to worry about you making your living as a singer.
Maverick: I’m going to need a beer to put these flames out. Yo! Great Mav, real slick.
Undeterred by rejection, Maverick follows her into the ladies room. That also… does not work.
The next day “Charlie” appears at the School. She is a civilian flight instructor with a PhD in astrophysics. Maverick’s first inclination regarding Charlie is to crouch down and hide behind his aviator sunglasses. However, he and Goose hear her say something regarding MiG capabilities that they know to be inaccurate and they whisper to each other.
Charlie: Excuse me, Lieutenant. Is there something wrong?
Maverick: Yes ma’am, the data on the MiG is inaccurate.
Charlie: How’s that, Lieutenant?
Maverick: Well, I just happened to see a MiG 28 do a…
Maverick: Uh, sorry Goose. WE happened to see a MiG 28 do a 4g negative dive.
Charlie: Where did you see this?
Maverick: Uh, that’s classified.
Charlie: It’s what?
Maverick: It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
As they wrap up this discussion, it becomes apparent that she is impressed by his piloting – if not his decision-making – and Maverick flashes a victorious smile in her direction. She follows him after class and tells him that she would like to hear about the MiG sometime. He replies that she has security clearance and she can read about it. Iceman also pulls him aside after that incident and asks him who was covering Cougar while he was performing the stunt with the MiG.
In his first class exercise, Maverick goes against Jester. He succeeds in getting a missile lock on him. However, he flies below a “hard-deck” (minimum flight altitude) to do so. He makes this worse by “buzzing” a flight tower at low altitude after.
Goose: No. No, Mav, this is not a good idea.
Maverick: Sorry Goose, but it’s time to buzz a tower.
After the class exercise, in the locker room, Iceman – the only other pilot to beat Jester – tells Maverick that his win did not count because they did it below the hard deck. He further tells Maverick that every time he goes up into the air he is unsafe.
Iceman: I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.
Maverick: That’s right, ice… man. I am dangerous.
Maverick and Goose listen while Viper and Jester are chewed out by the tower’s commanding officer who spilled coffee on himself during Maverick’s fly-by.
In Viper’s office, after, he calmly tells them that they knew what the hard deck number was and flew below it. He orders Lt. “Maverick” Mitchell to obey orders going forward. After the two younger officers leave, Viper says that Maverick’s father was also a maverick. He asks Jester if he would want the younger Maverick with him if he were going into battle and Jester says that he does not know.
That night, Goose goes to see Maverick and expresses concern about whether they will graduate. He says that he has a family to think about. He also says that he understands that Maverick has to live with the reputation of being Duke Mitchell’s kid. However, he is worried that Maverick pilots as though he is flying against a ghost and that it makes him nervous.
You’re the only family I’ve got and I’m not gonna let you down, I promise.
Sometimes later, Charlie approaches Maverick while he is studying. They discuss flight maneauvers and she notes that Maverick’s tactics are too aggressive for the situation with which he is presented. The double entendre continues as he describes himself – both as a person and as a pilot – as going right after something when he wants it. As Slider is listening, and hearing what sounds like another Maverick rejection at the hands of Charlie, we see that she passes Maverick a note telling him to meet her at 5:30 SHARP that night and that their get-together is classified.
In the next scene, the Navy pilots are playing beach volleyball. Between flexes, Maverick continues checking his watch. Eventually he leaves, over protests from Goose, and rides his motorcycle to meet Charlie.
After arriving, Maverick tries to excuse himself to take a shower at Charlie’s house. She tells him that she is not okay with that and states that she is hungry. Over dinner, she tries to pry information about the MiG 28 from Maverick. He is the only pilot who has been up against one in a combat situation.
Over dinner, Maverick tells Charlie about his family. His mother died shortly after his father. His father disappeared in an F-4 on November 5, 1965. The public speculation as to what happened is that Maverick’s father screwed up. Maverick,, however, does not believe that.
The contest between Maverick and Iceman continues; in a later exercise Viper and Jester team up against Maverick and fellow F14 pilot Hollywood. Maverick breaks a cardinal rule by abandoning his wingman to go after Viper, and in so doing Hollywood is “shot down” and then the same fate befalls Maverick. He says the specifics of what happened are classified.
After sharing the information about his father with her, he gets up and tells Charlie that he is going to take a shower. We hear him get on his motorcycle and drive away.
Goose’s wife Carole (Meg Ryan) and his son arrive.
In class, Charlie discusses Maverick’s encounter with the MiG. She says that he made a bad decision in gambling with an aggressive move, despite the ultimate success of his maneuver. After class, Maverick is upset and Charlie follows him to his motorcycle to talk about the class discussion. Maverick revs his engine above the sound of her voice and drives away. She follows him. After she runs through an intersection, narrowly avoiding traffic, Maverick stops and yells at her.
She tells him that her report is right on but that she sees real genius in his flying. She says that she could not say that in the classroom because she was worried everyone in the room would see through her and she does not want them to know she has fallen for him.
After a moment of stunned silence, Maverick kisses her. The kissing continues back at her house. The kissing takes their breath away, apparently.
The next day at school, Maverick is feeling pretty good about himself.
Maverick: I feel the need…
Goose: … the need for speed.
Maverick is only two points behind Iceman for first place.
In the next flying exercise, Maverick is teamed with Iceman. Maverick is flying as Iceman’s wingman. Maverick abandons his position as wingman to “get Viper” who is flying as part of that exercise. The move backfires and leads to Maverick and Goose being “killed” by Jester. After, both Jester and Iceman tell Maverick that his flying is great. His decision-making is the problem. They are not out of the competition, though, because Viper got Iceman before Jester got them.
Maverick finally agrees with Iceman’s assessment.
After a few melodramatic seconds of Maverick thinking about his father, he and Goose later end up at a bar. Goose is playing “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano with his son while Carole (Meg Ryan) asks Maverick if her husband ever embarrasses him. Charlie is sitting nearby and Maverick becomes increasingly uncomfortable as Carole relays aloud Maverick’s reputation for going home with “hot women.” After Maverick leaves to sing with Goose, Carole tells Charlie that she believes Maverick is in love with her.
Carole: Hey Goose, you big stud! Take me to bed or lose me forever!
Goose: Show me the way home, honey.
Maverick leaves with Charlie on the back of his motorcycle.
The next day provides another class exercise and we are going right into the danger zone today!
Maverick and Iceman are n the air together. Maverick is angry at Iceman for taking too long to fire at an enemy craft. Maverick flies closer to take the shot. When the two jets get close, Iceman’s thrusters inadvertently cripple Maverick’s engines. Maverick’s F14 plunges in a flat spin toward the sea. The two pilots eject. Goose crashes into the canopy and dies.
After, Viper tells Maverick that if he flies for long enough, incidents like this will happen and then happen again.
You’ve got to let him go.
Maverick blames himself, anyway. Charlie drops him off to deliver Goose’s things to Carole. Carole tells Maverick that Goose loved flying and he would have flown anyway, even without Maverick. The official report finds that Maverick was not at fault for the incident and they clear him for flight status right away.
In the next class exercise, Maverick’s confidence is gone. He refuses to take a shot on Jester when an opportunity presents itself. Viper advises Jester to continue sending Maverick up to fly. However, Maverick quits.
One of the pilots, Wolfman, calls Charlie to let her know. She finds him at a bar drinking ice water.
Charlie: Were you going to leave without saying good bye?
Maverick: I heard you got that job in Washington. Congratulations.
Charlie. Thank you. But I wasn’t going to leave without saying good bye.
Maverick: It’s good to see you. Congratulations.
After offering to help him, and telling him again that what happened with Goose was not his fault, Maverick tells her that if he wanted help he would have asked for it. She calls him a quitter, says good bye, and leaves.
After, Maverick goes to Viper’s house. He finds out that Viper flew with his father. Viper tells Maverick that Duke Mitchell did nothing wrong. His death is classified because it happened on the wrong side of some lines on a map. Viper has a high opinion of Maverick’s father and also of Maverick. He tells Maverick that he has acquired enough points to graduate with his Top Gun class.
Maverick graduates. He shows up to congratulate Iceman on being Top Gun. At graduation, several of the pilots are told they are being shipped out immediately for a crisis situation. Viper tells Maverick that he will get a RIO when he gets to the ship and that if he does not,
Give me a call. I’ll fly with you.
One day later, in the Indian Ocean, Maverick and his classmates are assigned to the Enterprise. The pilots are to give air support for a rescue mission of a ship stranded in enemy waters.
Iceman and Hollywood are intercepted by five MiGs. Hollywood is shot down. Iceman is outnumbered when Maverick is launched. Merlin is Maverick’s new RIO. Maverick arrives at the fight and is surrounded by enemy MiGs. He briefly loses control over his own fighter and has flashbacks to Goose’s death. He breaks away leaving Iceman alone while Merlin yells at him to reengage. Maverick pulls himself together after asking for Goose to talk to him. Iceman and Maverick then destroy four MiGs causing the remaining fighters to bug out.
Maverick then requests a fly-by.
Negative ghostrider, the pattern is full.
Maverick, of course, and also Iceman, do the flyby anyway.
Maverick and Iceman finally become friends. They return to a raucous celebration on the ship. Maverick throws Goose’s dog tags into the Indian Ocean. Stinger tells Maverick that he has been offered any assignment he chooses. Maverick says that he wants to be an instructor at Top Gun.
Back in Miramar, Maverick is at a bar. Someone puts a quarter into the juke box and we hear The Righteous Brothers begin singing. Maverick looks around and does not see who played the song. He gets up to look around and Charlie appears in the room behind him. He turns around and sees her.
They reprise the conversation from earlier in the movie about their situation being complicated, that their situation crashed and burned the first time, and Tom Cruise smiles when he says the second time is looking good so far.
Right before they kiss… roll credits.
Nobody makes a recruitment advertisement like the U.S. military. [Pause.] Oh, are you telling me that this was not a recruitment ad? I should put my application down? Are you sure? Well. The Navy should probably send the producers a thank you, anyway.
Top Gun is a cool movie. Fast jets. Fast motorcycles. Young and attractive men and women. Aviators (the sunglasses). Pilots. A mysterious hero father. Callsigns. Beach volleyball. School rivalry. Kenny Loggins. The Righteous Brothers.
Well, I guess some of those things hold up better than others. This movie is 34 years old, though. It’s amazing that most of it *does* hold up.
What still works with this movie? Like I said – just about everything, really. The flying sequences are still fantastic. The movie is not stingy with the flying sequences, either. We start in the air, with a dogfight that ends in Tom Cruise giving a MiG fighter the bird and Anthony Edwards taking a Polaroid. We just about end in the air, too, with Maverick and Iceman fighting off a bunch of Russian MiGs. In between? A lot of class exercises… in the air.
Does the actual story work? Well, let’s talk about that.
- Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is haunted by the mystery surrounding the death of his father.
For most of the movie though, that’s all we know. Duke Mitchell’s death is alluded to and the mystery of it is hinted at throughout the movie. But the movie does not spend much time building that mystery beyond hints. As a result, when Maverick finally finds out at the end of the movie, from Viper, that his dad did nothing wrong other than dying on the wrong side of a border, it felt a little anti-climactic. That was fine, though, inasmuch as the premise made sense as a motivator for the movie’s protagonist.
- The Love Story. Does it make sense?
Let me put this another way. Does it make sense that an alpha male pilot would be interested in an attractive woman who is at least his equal and is someone he is not supposed to date? Also, she rejects him the first time he makes a move on her? Um, yes. That makes perfect sense.
Does it make sense that an alpha woman who works in aviation would be interested in an ace pilot, one who might be the only person in the military who knows something about MiGs that she does not, when getting that knowledge from him might advance her career? Add to that equation also, he looks like a mid 20s Tom Cruise? Um, yes. That makes perfect sense.
If that love story developed quickly, well, young people are young people.
- Did Maverick have a character arc?
He starts out the movie an ace pilot, with an overly aggressive flying style, and with a penchant for rules breaking in general. He remains that way for most of the movie. When Goose dies, Maverick temporarily loses his confidence. However, after being exonerated from fault in Goose’s death, after finding out that his dad was a good pilot, from Viper, and after going through a dogfight against some MiGs with Iceman, Maverick gets his confidence back. He ends up back at roughly the same place he started. He ends as an ace pilot, with an overly aggressive flying style, and with a penchant for rules breaking. In some respects, his arc felt like a circle. Even the dialogue he uses with Kelly McGillis at the beginning of the film gets repeated as the movie ends.
However, that circle description might not be entirely fair. The Maverick we meet in the beginning of the film breaks the rules for sometimes selfish reasons. He buzzes the tower without considering the consequences for Goose, Jester, or Viper. He abandons his wingman in a class exercise because he wants to “get” Viper and it costs his team. By the end of the movie, though, Maverick is breaking rules more wisely. He goes against orders so that he does not “leave my wingman” during the dogfight with the MiGs. When he buzzes the tower at the end of the film, he does so knowing that the maneuver will be cheered.
Then again, Maverick also breaks rules to save Cougar to start the film so maybe his arc really was a circle. In any case, his arc – whatever it was – is not really a problem for me because of the way it is executed. A journey to prove your doubters wrong is fine if your story proves them wrong. Ending up in the place where you started in those types of stories is fine. In fact, ending up where you started is the point.
All in all, the story works well enough to not detract from the unbelievable action sequences with the fighter jets.
Other stray throughts:
- Tom Cruise has a perpetually intense energy. He never relaxes. Ever. Flying a plane. Hitting on women. Sitting alone at a bar drinking ice water. Looking through his wallet. Singing. He never lets up.
- The dog tags that end up in the Indian Ocean at the end of the movie are from Goose. But if you watch carefully the name on the tags changes a few times. I paused the movie while watching it to try to read the name. In one scene, they definitely read Metcalf (“Viper.”)
- I was today years old when I realized that Tim Robbins was playing Merlin.
- Iceman is a better pilot than Maverick. Everything Iceman says throughout the movie, to and about Maverick, is correct. Iceman was the real Top Gun and he earned it.
If you have not seen this one in a while and you are in the mood for a great action movie, I highly recommend that you enlist in the United States Navy. Err, go watch Top Gun.
Originally published on September 20, 2020