Goddammit, Top Gun: I kind of love you.
I saw you again last night, at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere. The venue alone was enough to prompt a surge of nostalgia: I sat there often in the 1980s, heart hammering in anticipation of EVEN BIGGER Lukes and Leias and Hans, Indianas and T.E. Lawrences (and possibly even Marty McFlys?). Last night, there you were, Top Gun, you big, dumb, Bruckheimer movie. And not only that: my friend Katherine, with whom I first saw you in 1986, was sitting beside me. (This wasn’t the first time she and I had strolled along memory lane together.) Yup: Nostalgia central, for us and the hundreds of other middle-aged people who surrounded us, clutching the cans of beer and plastic cups of wine that are miraculously available at movie theatres, here in 2018.
Pop-cultural nostalgia can be creepy and cancerous. It can drive middle-aged people to spew hate because there’s now a black Stormtrooper in the Star Wars universe, and also a bunch of female characters, some of whom have clearly failed to be white. Oh, and because there’s a female Doctor in the TARDIS. “This has killed my childhood.” “Thanks for ruining everything with your political correctness.” (Those are paraphrasings of much more vitriolic statements that I don’t have the heart to seek out now, even in the interests of direct quotation.)
To my great surprise, I discovered last night that I don’t feel terrible about you, Top Gun. Not like I do about the John Hughes movies I also loved, which, when I’ve re-watched them, have made me wonder how the fuck I, and really mostly everyone else, could have been so oblivious in the ’80s. (“I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” “What are you waiting for?” To say nothing of Long Duk Dong. Really, Sixteen Candles?)
Those other heinous ’80s movies—hell, most of today’s big-budget Hollywood movies—set such low bars that I’m likely overstating your just-fine-ness. But it was so unexpected, to discover this where I thought I’d find only retroactive horror.
I repeat: You’re a Big, Dumb, Bruckheimer Movie, from your “Danger Zone” soundtrack to your fighter jet porn to your cheesy (and thus eminently quotable) dialogue to your cirrus-thin yet also bombastic plot. You have one black character and three female characters (two of whom are navy wives; one of whom has only one line). You’re macho and loud, swathed in stars and stripes. You are, pretty simply, bad.
What you aren’t is heinous.
Strangely, for a Big, Dumb, Swathed-in-the-Flag Movie of your ilk, you lack brown-skinned terrorists or soldiers with strange accents. No nation’s name gets invoked again and again, making American blood boil. It takes nearly two hours for anyone to even die, in this movie that’s about boy-men who fly war planes, and we don’t know who, exactly, has died—just that they were flying MiGs (so the U.S.S.R. is the closest we’ll get to an I.D.) above the Indian Ocean. We don’t see them die; we just see their two jets explode. We don’t see their faces; we just see their menacingly tinted helmets. This is cartoon violence, yes—an easy, bloodless way of making it all a game, keeping the audience’s spirits high and existential questions low. But this also means there’s no targeted hatred. And that means you’ll age better than most of your Big, Dumb friends: your Enemy could be anyone, because they’re no one. (Also, as is made clear with the subtlety of a megaphone and jackhammer combined, Maverick’s true Enemy is himself.)
Then there’s Kelly McGillis’ Charlie. She could be dismissed as just another sexy librarian type—but you know what? She’s actually, genuinely (in Big, Dumb Movie terms) intelligent. She has an established career of her own—she’s a goddamn astrophysicist. She’s beautiful, but she’s not Barbie, and other than that one lingering shot of her stilettos and seamed stockings during the Big Reveal, the camera is most interested in her face. (IMDB provides this tidbit about Kelly McGillis: “Was fired from the film Bachelor Party (1984) allegedly because the producers thought she wasn’t pretty or sexy enough.”) Sure, Charlie exists, narratively, to shape Maverick’s arc—but so does Val Kilmer’s Iceman.
Maverick pursues this idiosyncratically gorgeous, smart, older woman…without being a rapey asshole. There’s an early scene when he follows her into the women’s bathroom at the bar after she’s gently, smilingly, banteringly told him she has friends to meet and that his pick-up attempts must therefore come to an end. She asks him, after he’s followed her in, if he expects them to drop and do it right there on the tile; he suggests the counter. She laughs and walks out. The whiff o’stalking wasn’t great, Top Gun, but you made her firmly in control and him an impetuous but totally unthreatening idiot, and it could have been worse. Lowbaritis strikes again. (Sadly, at the very end of the movie there’s more than a whiff o’quitting-her-awesome-Washington-job-because-she-wants-to-be-an-instructor-with-him. She doesn’t say it outright, but the whiff is pungent.)
Her beauty and intelligence get to him. His beauty and vulnerability get to her. And hoo boy, but Tom Cruise was beautiful to me, in 1986. Not so much when he was flashing that toothy grin (the largeness of his teeth is unsettling today, probably because they’re no longer that large; he’s definitely had work done), but when the camera catches him in repose, his eyes bright green with tears (there are copious tears, in this Big, Dumb Movie, though they mostly gleam and don’t fall). Cruise has become this thing—this crazy Scientologist bone-breaking stunt-doing machine thing. It’s hard to remember that, in 1986, he was just a boy-man who looked beautiful when he cried.
Yes, Top Gun: Your hot boy-men. They talk tough and fly killing machines but they’re also grieving for their dead pilot dads and loving their wives and kids. And, in not even slightly subtextual ways, each other. “This is giving me a hard-on,” murmurs one trainee to another as they’re watching footage of a plane being shot down. “Don’t tease me,” the other murmurs back. And the locker room scenes. Hardly-there towels draped across boy-men who are, in turn, draped near other boy-men. And sweaty, shirtless (except Goose) boy-men grunting and lunging, making beach volleyball look like a completely new and shocking thing, to the teenagers of 1986.
I’d never seen this kind of male objectification before. I was used to getting eyefuls of the female kind, but this…Well. Then and now, I just want to wrap all those hurting, reckless, six-packed boy-men up in a horny, compassionate embrace. It’s not a very smart or enlightened instinct, but instincts seldom are.
People applauded, as the credits rolled. People took selfies and laughed and hummed that insidiously catchy theme music and got ready to throw their 3D glasses away. (3D Top Gun—now that was new.)
Speaking of credits rolling: This has to be all I have to say in defense of a bad movie. My first blog post in eight months, and it’s about Top Gun. Second-person Top Gun, no less. I’m an idiot, and I’m probably hideously wrong about almost everything I’ve written here—as blind about the object of my nostalgia as anyone else is about theirs. But there it is. Top Gun, you doof: I kind of love you.