Summer of ‘86: Tony Scott’s Top Gun

When I remember Top Gun, I always think of a pair of women’s shoes and a message from God.

Summer of ‘86: Top Gun
Photo: Paramount Pictures

When I remember Top Gun, I always think of a pair of women’s shoes and a message from God. In the spring of 1986, I was, in addition to my regular gig at Los Angeles City College, teaching a course at UCLA in the History of American Film. They needed somebody in a hurry, I was available, I did it, they never asked me back, and I never wanted to go back. The thing about teaching at UCLA is that you stand behind a wooden lectern that could repel Genghis Kahn and look out at 144 students. They are all 19 or 20, they all have perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect tans, perfect teeth, and are all very bright in very conventional ways. All you have to do is imply something will be on the final exam and 144 heads go down, even though the official notes are taken by one of the graduate student TA’s. To me that is not teaching but shooting fish in a barrel. I much prefer LACC, where you never know who or what is going to walk in the door. The UCLA students were all upper-middle or upper class, and were surprised to see Benjamin’s father in The Graduate (1967) cleaning his own swimming pool. Didn’t they have pool cleaning services way back in the ’60s? The students bought into Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan from two years before: that it was morning in America, and we were building up our might to combat the evil empire. That attitude showed up in a number of movies of the period, especially Top Gun.

My wife had gone off to England for her mother’s 75th birthday, and a couple of my former students at LACC (one was a graduate of Stanford, the other a graduate of USC before they came to LACC) decided they could not bear the thought of me home alone. They figured I was probably starving to death, there with my VCR and my hot tub. So they arranged to bring over a dinner in return for which we would watch something on the VCR and get into the hot tub. One of their husbands came along, but I am not sure if he was there to protect their virtue or mine. While we were watching a film on the VCR the phone rang. It was the 3rd Woman who had been in the same class with the first two. She had come back to town and was trying to contact the first two. The first two told me to tell her to come on over. We all sat in the hot tub (no fondling as far as I knew), and they went home. But the 3rd Woman had left her shoes at my house. This is not surprising because she had a habit of leaving stuff everywhere.

I called her, and we made arrangements to make a shoe transfer. The screenplay she had been writing in my screenwriting class was a feature about a young man who learns to fly propeller-driven planes from an older woman. It would have been perfect for the young Tom Cruise. She was a big fan of airplanes and wanted to see Top Gun, so we agreed to meet in Westwood, see the film, and I would give her the shoes. She was bouncing up and down in her seat during the film, although we both realized that it made her script obsolete for Cruise. After Top Gun, nobody would believe he could not fly. I was not enchanted by the film. I had known a few naval aviators when I was in the Navy in the ’60s, and the film captured the fliers’ self-serving romanticism. But it takes it at face value. I kept thinking of Jules Furthman’s great screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings (1939). That script not only captures the fliers’ bravado, but illuminates the emotions underneath. We know what they really feel in a way we never do in Top Gun. The other reaction I had to Top Gun was that if I had known it was going to turn out like this, I would have scheduled Dr. Strangelove (1964) in my class at UCLA so the students could have seen where that careless warmongering attitude could lead to. But it was too late in the quarter.

We did not manage a shoe exchange that day. She was getting a ride to somewhere else and did not want to lug the shoes around. So they came home with me. A few days later, we made arrangements for her to drop by my house. I told her she had to be there by a certain time, since I was leaving to pick up my wife from the airport. The 3rd Woman did not show up by the time I had to leave, so I left the shoes in my mailbox. I had a notepad that had printed on the top “A message from God,” and I wrote a note to her on that. When my wife and I got home later, the 3rd Woman had added a note: “I always knew I would get a message from God, but I did not think it would be about my shoes in a mailbox.” Years later she told me she had finally received a real message from God. She had gotten married and they spent their honeymoon in Hawaii. It did not go well. The groom spent most of his time flirting with an older woman at the hotel. The bride was frolicking in the surf by herself. A guy started paying attention to her, and she was seriously considering…then a giant wave picked her up and smashed her face down in the sand. Sounds to me like a real message from God.

When I began thinking about writing my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, I made up a list of films as part of a questionnaire for moviegoers. I wanted them to write about their responses to the films, both when they first saw them and later if they saw them again. Given the cultural impact of Top Gun, I put it on the list. The people who answered the questionnaire had a lot to say about the film. What follows in the rest of this article is a slightly condensed version of the Top Gun section of the book. I had introduced the film as an example of a producer, Don Simpson in this case, controlling a film more than the director:

In the mid-’80s, Simpson, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, produced a number of large-scale commercial hits. Top Gun was the highest grossing film of 1986, but in it Simpson was so sloppy about the accuracy of the Naval Aviators Top Gun training program that the retired admiral assigned as the technical advisor said to one of the real instructors, “I’m just trying to keep them from turning Top Gun into a musical.” Given the amount of rock music on the soundtrack, he may have failed at that as well, although he did admit, “Most of the decisions they made, made the movie better than reality. They just knew how to make it work.”

Octavio Jimenez, who was in his teens at the time, seems to have been the audience Simpson and the retired admiral were both aiming at.

Top Gun really brings patriotism to its highest form in the sense that this movie was really done to promote the U.S. through the eyes of a hotshot pilot who happens to be the best in the world at what he does and shows it by defeating the communist threat to peace. I have to say that this movie did its job on me and because I am so drawn by planes this movie really knew where to hit me when it came out in theaters. I was amazed when the fighting scenes came out in Top Gun and was saddened when tragedy hit and Goose died in a plane accident, but what really made the movie great was the music associated with the movie, which in combination made the movie a classic in my mind.”

Virginia Keene “found the situations and relationships (especially the romance) to be contrived and unbelievable—probably because my father was a Naval Aviator. The only things that worked for me were the spectacular flying scenes and a good song. This didn’t work on any other level. I’ve seen parts of it since, on cable. I had forgotten that it launched the careers of Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, and Tim Robbins, so I guess it had some value.” She thought it was so successful originally because of Tom Cruise. “This was a star vehicle if there ever was one.” Daniel Barr definitely responded to Cruise and the time period, calling the film “Pure ’80s, Cruise was the young icon that inspired me as a young man and actor, as it did the rest of the world. It will always be his best performance for me, heroic, fresh, vulnerable. It is a corny film and looks dated now but it had an innocence and energy that transcended its political limitations. Perhaps because it was made before his ego and Scientology got hold of his soul.”

Jack Hollander was at the time “very disappointed in this film—I found the acting blasé (probably due to the weaknesses of the script), and the plots totally unbelievable, and the action sequences a bit hard to follow (although generally exciting). I suppose my initial reaction on viewing this had something to do with the unbelievability of the contrived combat between the good guys (red-blooded Americans) and the bad guys (those pesky red commies). Haven’t we beaten this horse to death yet?” Al Gonzalez “saw this at a theater when it first came out. I thought it was stupid. I saw it again on video. I liked it a little better. I don’t know why. But I still laughed at some of the heroic, formula aspects that made the movie what it was.” Dorian Wood “never really liked Top Gun. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I saw it in a cheap hotel room while on a cross-country trip to New York. I was pretty cranky and completely exhausted. Nevertheless, years later I saw it again, and I still hated it.”

A lot of people in the military responded to Top Gun. When Michael Sampson “first saw Top Gun it was a very enjoyable experience. At the time I was in the United States Navy assigned to an aircraft carrier. When I first saw the movie I literally felt that I was a part of that movie. It was a piece of art I could relate to. Strange enough I recently watched Top Gun for the second time and the experience was totally different than what it was like when I was in the military. I did not feel like a participant but more like a spectator.” Ervin Riggs was a jet mechanic in the Air Force when he first saw the film and “it seemed like I was right out there on the launch pad as the mechanics taxied out the aircraft. I could just feel what they were going through as they launched and recovered the jet fighter aircraft.”

For Blair Woodard, the “film holds a lot of high school memories. It came out my junior year and I saw it at least six times over the summer. Having seen parts of it recently on video I was not as impressed as I remember being at the time. I think that to really appreciate the flying sequences one needs to see it on a big screen but I was also not into the characters as much any more. I chalked it up to maturity on my part.” Paula Lampshire was in her late teens when she saw it and “really liked it because I always wanted to join the Navy and fly a fighter plane for the experience and the personal challenge. But I never did join. So, I experience the idea of it every time I see Top Gun.”

Lampshire was not the only girl who liked the film. As Mia Gyzander says, it was “Well, kind of nice for teenage girls.” And not just teenage girls. Stewardess Shaun Hill-Kret thought it was “the best adrenaline movie I’ve seen…. Wouldn’t want to see this movie if I was thinking of joining the Marines, cause they’d get me for sure.”

That is more or less what happened to Peter Albers. “I’m embarrassed to say I called the Marines the next day after seeing the film. Not that I didn’t have problems with the film—the whole last act of going to fight the commies disgusted me right at the time. Flying just looked like so much fun, and women dig you! When I think of how close I came to going to Platoon Leaders Camp because of that damn film, I get physically ill.” Edward Pina was also caught up the “great adrenaline rush of a movie. All those jets flying at top speeds, flying all over the sky blowing up other jets. After watching Top Gun you wanted to become an Air Force pilot and fly with Maverick, Keman and Viper.”

Kenneth Hughes saw the same connection that Peter Albers did. “What can I say? I like chicks and planes, etc…. Play me for the boy I am.” Bryan Cawthon also got the connection. “It had technology, it had big egos and it had the sex scene with the beautiful woman.” Dennis Wilkes, having heard rumors about the actors involved, had a little trouble with the sex scenes. “A closeted actor and a closeted actress playing lovers. But they clicked, unlike Richard Gere and Jodie Foster” [with Sommersby (1993), there were the same kinds of rumors about those actors as well]. For Arnold Quinlan, who either had not heard the rumors or did not care, “Kelly McGillis was yummy. Basically your adolescent nocturnal emission type of movie. Big bad plane, big bad motorcycle, and big bad Kelly McGillis.” (This perhaps shows the advantages of market research on a film like Top Gun. At early screenings of the film, test audiences demanded steamier love scenes between Cruise and McGillis, and they were shot and edited into the film.)

The people who saw the connections between sex and planes were not alone. And unlike Shaun Hill-Kret, Peter Albers, and Edward Pina, many male viewers knew it was not the Marines and Air Force the film was about, but Naval Aviation. Applicants for the program increased, and many of the Navy flyers who participated in the Tailhook scandal in 1991, where women were molested in a Las Vegas hotel, had been inspired by the movie. The official report noted that “the movie fueled misconceptions on the part of junior officers as to what was expected of them and also served to…glorify naval pilots in the eyes of many young women.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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