When I told my friends I was going to see Top Gun during its brief 3D theatrical re-release (which ends this week), nobody was particularly impressed. When I mentioned that I had never seen it before, their eyes widened, and each put forth some variation of the same question: “How is that possible?” The film is not high art; it’s not that that they couldn’t conceive how someone who writes about film would never have gazed upon it. They were surprised because this film was everywhere when we were kids, and it was specifically targeted at young, impressionable boys like myself. But what was its impact on my generation? Top Gun was the highest-grossing film of 1986, but its legacy extends far beyond mere dollars and cents.
Many critics and cultural historians have written about the film’s impact. In an article for GQ entitled The Day The Movies Died, Mark Harris cited Top Gun’s release as the moment when movies changed into “pure product.” He suggested the film’s aim was not story but the “transient heightening of sensation” that has subsequently become the basis of most forms of contemporary media. The audience at the time was made up of adolescents whose attention span had been shortened by music videos and video games. Now, that audience has widened to include most adults, or whatever you would call people who go to Michael Bay movies.
Much has also been written about the film’s reactionary politics. Its Vietnam revisionism is evident in the back story ascribed to Maverick’s father, a Vietnam-era pilot whose failure hangs like a shadow over our young hero’s soul. The depiction of women is firmly pre-feminist, as Charlie (Kelly McGillis) turns down a professional promotion to stay and support her man. Like many action films of 1980s, it depicted individualism as a moral good in Maverick’s refusal to play it safe and adherence to his own instincts. Lastly, many have noted that Top Gun, whose script received approval from the Pentagon in exchange for the use of military equipment, functions as a feature-length recruitment video at a time when the military was suffering from low morale after the stain of Vietnam.
All of that has been said already. What I really want to talk about is the gay stuff. For a primer, watch Quentin Tarantino lay it down in the little-seen Sleep With Me (1994):
That speech marks the beginning of the pop culture critical form known as Top Gun revisionist theory; over the years, much has been added to it, and although I was prepared for some allusions to homosexuality, what I encountered in the theater last weekend ran deeper than some incidental references. I had heard about the volleyball scene, in which Maverick and three of his colleagues flex, hug, and pat each other on the butt while playing shirtless in the California sun. I had heard about the intense erotic stares between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer). Nobody ever mentioned the exclamation – “I want butts!” – by Maverick’s superior, irate after an unauthorized fly-by caused him to spill coffee on himself. And I was particularly startled by an early scene in which Maverick and his flyboys are watching a video of planes being shot down, when one student whispers to his friend that it “gives [him] a hard-on.” His friend’s reply was impossible to misinterpret: “Don’t tease me.”
What was going on here? Was the military trying to recruit gay young men to the cause? I doubt it, considering the conservative context in which the film exists. In the mid-1980s, gay men were dying in record numbers and being ignored by the federal government. It would be an understatement to say they were certainly not a targeted demographic for recruitment. A more reasonable theory is that those forces who were interested in using the film as a recruitment tool (and we can’t say for certainty whether it was just the Pentagon, or if the writers/directors/producers had similar intent) were tapping into the raging sexuality of the adolescent boys who were the film’s targeted demographic, in the hopes of sublimating those feelings into the male camaraderie and pride in country that the U.S. Armed Forces were selling. Teenagers are full of testosterone and have large sexual appetites, but they often don’t quite know where to put it. Top Gun accesses that sexual frustration with the phallic idols of missiles and warplanes, insidiously turning the feelings that have their biological underpinning in the act of creation into a force of destruction.
In addition to the examples cited above, a close reading of the relationship between Maverick and his partner Goose supports this theory. The friendship between the two airmen – who fly in the same plane, one in front of the other – has all the trappings of a deep, complex romantic relationship. The two are inseparable; and, according to his wife, Goose “loved flying with [him]”. When Goose dies, Viper (Tom Skerritt), Maverick’s superior, attempts to console him – this scene, like many others, takes place in the showers – by telling him that “there will be others” and reminding Maverick that he has to “let him go.” This sounds like the type of advice you would give a teenager enduring his or her first break-up, and it reinforces the idea of Maverick and Goose as a romantic couple.
None of this is to suggest that Maverick and Goose are actually gay. But this subtextual analysis suggests that the Pentagon’s influence over the script went beyond ensuring that the military was portrayed in a positive light. Romantic frustration has driven men to war for decades. Need proof? Read this interview (published this week) with the Navy SEAL who killed Osama Bin Laden, explaining that he joined the military after a girl dumped him. “That’s the reason Al Qaeda has been decimated,” he joked, “because she broke my fucking heart.” With Top Gun, military officials in charge of the Pentagon’s relationship with Hollywood betrayed a deep understanding of the reason men go to war. Many are seeking either a sense of belonging or a means of taking control over a world in which we have little – either of these can be the result of the sexual frustration that is common in teenagers.
The military’s recruitment strategy was successful. Top Gun inspired a generation to join up, as the Pentagon reported that applications for the Naval Aviator program increased by more than 500 percent after the film’s release. The film would become a cultural touchstone that politicians would use as shorthand for military fortitude and general coolness. John McCain, a former Vietnam fighter pilot, nicknamed himself the “Maverick” of the Senate for his lack of adherence to party orthodoxy. George W. Bush famously referenced the film with his press conference in which he landed a plane on an aircraft carrier to celebrate “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. In that case, however, the cinematic archetype could not match reality; the vast majority of casualties in Iraq occurred after that speech, which came to be seen as a symbol of the Bush administration’s shortsightedness.
As we can see from the film’s enduring political and cultural legacy, Top Gun has taught a generation what it means to be a hero. In other words, the film’s ending – Maverick saves the day and is given his choice of assignments – is redundant. He chooses to go back to Top Gun Flight School and become an instructor. But of course, Maverick was already teaching a generation of young men to trust their instinct, be all that they could be, and sublimate creation into destruction. Those young men of my generation who learned from Top Gun are on the verge of being leaders of the free world. In the words of Maverick’s superior, upon hearing that he has chosen to be a teacher, “God help us.”