Top Gun

August 17, 2011

Cruise and the flag: the future of movies

Top Gun has all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. It has glitz, it has stars, it has high technology, it has the new patriotism (or is that the old xenophobia?). Every little element seems calculated to produce a true-blue audience-pleaser.

Doubtless it will please audiences. But there may be too many earmarks. Somewhere within the yards of shiny jet fighters and the approximately 1,095 close-ups of sweat-drenched faces, somebody forgot to make a movie—a movie, at any rate, with anything like a sense of recognizable life.

The brainchild of those packaging wizards, Paramount producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop), Top Gun is the story of a Navy pilot (Tom Cruise) who enters an elite flying program called Top Gun. He’s obsessed with being the best there is and he’s willing to break the rules to do it.

At the program, he attracts the rivalry of a fellow hotshot (Val Kilmer), the fatherly interest of the school’s commanding officer (Tom Skerritt), and the non-fatherly interest of a knockout instructor (Kelly McGillis, late of Witness).

Most of these relationships are programmed to fulfill their particular niche in the story, as is Cruise’s friendship with his goofily likable Radar Intercept Officer (Anthony Edwards)—that’s the guy who sits behind him in the F-14. Edwards serves much the same—no, make that exactly the same—function that the David Keith character served for Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

In fact, the screenplay for that film might have served as the blueprint for Top Gun, so familiar are the new film’s plot turns. The big difference is in directorial style. Where An Officer and a Gentleman was straightforward and traditional, Top Gun is full of diffused light, screeching Dolby, and high-powered techno-sheen.

This comes courtesy of British director Tony Scott, whose first film, The Hunger, also was marked by irritating visual tics. Scott is undeniably nervy with the aerial battles, which include a couple of encounters with Soviet MiGs.

But he can’t shoot a simple scene of people talking without turning it into a battle of close-ups. This insistent style becomes oppressive, and shuts down whatever life the actors might have provided. I can think of only one scene, when Cruise and McGillis share a dinner and listen to Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” when the human element enters. When Scott labors to inject some humanity, as when Edwards (who displays some nice comic flair) and Cruise jam on “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s forced.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are sequences in Top Gun that are entertaining. Most of the dogfight stuff is engrossing, even through there’s a consistent problem with knowing who’s who in the sky.

But Top Gun really reminded me of Short Circuit, last week’s supposed early summer blockbuster. Both seem wholly derivative of past successes, and overwhelmingly mechanical in their appeal. If they are any indication of the ’86 summer season, we are in for a long dry spell.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

As it turned out, the Year in Film 1986 was indeed not one for the ages. This film, of course, did all right; apparently I didn’t quite see the phenomenon coming, and it’s absolutely in the running for the representative film of the decade. I actually think it’s a very significant title in terms of influence, at least as much as Star Wars. The shadow of Top Gun is still in play, as Bruckheimer and Tony Scott continue to make pictures and Michael Bay and his ilk are directly descended from this movie, but the movie lives in our culture in ways that go far beyond the multiplex; the gross mindset on display here has gone everywhere, and may even have determined a few elections along the way. Right, Maverick?