Need for Speed
Nobody really quite understood what I was trying to do. They thought I was going to do The Hunger on an aircraft carrier.
—Tony Scott, “Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun”
The gay community… that’s where all these haircuts came from and this sort of hard-edged military look.
—Tony Scott, commentary, Top Gun
God, I want him back.
—Maverick (Tom Cruise), Top Gun
The opening titles sequence of Top Gun are frankly thrilling. These images of an aircraft carrier’s deck were, as Tony Scott recalls during this commentary for Paramount’s new two-disc DVD set, Top Gun: Special Collector’s Edition, shot “in slow motion with graduated filters; it was kind of artsy and dark, and esoteric. Paramount saw these dailies, and they panicked and forbid me to shoot another foot of slow motion footage.” As Scott goes on to say, he tried to deceive the studio by shooting more slow motion footage anyway, and also shooting non-slow motion, but ended up sending the wrong can to the executives, who promptly fired him.
In fact, he says, looking back almost 20 years, the suits hired him back and then fired him twice more, for other disobediences (one involved dressing up Kelly McGillis so she looked “beautiful in what do you call it? Kind of a whorish way. The studio took away my nine-inch heels and the makeup lady”). But he was right, he knows now, and Top Gun‘s success had everything to do with being right on time, in terms of its “rock and roll” visual and soundtrack aesthetics. His second film (made four years after The Hunger—Scott claims no one would hire him after the first film), and coming on the heels of Flashdance (another Jerry Bruckheimer concoction), it helped to break open the floodgates between tv commercial/music video makers and film directors. And the industry has never looked back.
Still, looking back now on Top Gun, it’s hard to miss how cheesy, badly plotted, and utterly homoerotic it is (props to Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino, who put this notion to celluloid in Sleep With Me; in part, the monologue goes like this: “The real ending of the movie is when they fight the MiGs at the end, all right? Because he has passed over into the gay way. They are this gay fighting fucking force, all right?”). It’s also unlikely that the rerelease of the film to this Special Collector’s Edition DVD will result in a spike in military recruitment. Miami Sound Machine and Cheap Trick are not likely to convince anyone that flying sorties over Iraq is a good idea these days. “When the guys first offered me Top Gun,” muses Scott, “I couldn’t quite see it.” And yet, the whole team now sees the project as a gigantic success, reflective of a moment and influential on what came after.
Much of this self-back-patting comes in length main documentary included here, on disc two. Here, Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and writer Jack Epps, Jr. (who partnered with Jim Cash) tell pretty much the same stories they tell on the movie commentary track, and production crew members recall the process; this is divided into six sections, with titles like “Playing With the Boys: Production: Land and Sea,” “The Need For Speed: Production: Air,” and “Combat Rock: The Music of Top Gun.” (You see how this is sounding like recruiting material.) The disc also includes “Multi-Angle Storyboards” for a couple of scenes (called “Flat Spin” and “Jester’s Dead”), and a so-called “Vintage Gallery” of documentaries made in 1985, including a “Behind the Scenes” short, “Survival Training,” and some mini Tom Cruise interviews that remind you how young and callow he seemed then.
The film only underlines this point, as his performance is as flat as any he’s ever given. “When I came to Top Gun,” says Scott, “Tom Cruise was already attached.” That is, he was signed to play Maverick, the troubled, cocky, eventually traumatized pilot paired with the ideal radio man (RIO), Goose (Anthony Edwards). As Epps recalls, the F-14s the boys flew allowed for excellent narrative opportunities, as they all had built-in buddies (two per cockpit). That the film doesn’t exactly take advantage of these opportunities, but rather puts the buddies in helmets with their names labeled on them and then sends them into spins while barking non-dialogue like, “Stay with me!” Such excitement is apparently enough to convince Epps that fly boys are where it’s at. “Once you get around Navy pilots,” he says, “you get absorbed with them, and you just want to be them.” To translate this thrill, the film was shot “in the sky,” no lame CGI or models. It “had to look like something you’d never seen before,” says Epps.
One angle on this newness was the boys’ deep friendships, masculine and competitive but also tender and intimate. Goose is the perfect buddy. Worried that Maverick isn’t paying attention to his work, he comes by his room late one night for a tête-à-tête: “I know it’s tough for you,” says Goose, so understanding. “They wouldn’t let you in the academy because you’re Duke Mitchell’s kid. You have to live with that reputation. But every time we go up there, it’s like you’re flying against a ghost. It makes me nervous.” Maverick agrees to be serious” “You’re the only family I’ve got.” They make up. The flight scenes can continue apace.
The producers were famously in search of a blockbuster (Bruckheimer likes to tell the story of how he read the magazine article that became the film’s beginning, and how he dangled it before his then partner Don Simpson with the description, this is “Star Wars on earth”). And so the film was not going to comport to soul-searching or to Scott’s initial idea, that is, Apocalypse Now. (They got a blockbuster too, grossing half a billion dollars worldwide.) On seeing the eventual gung-ho script, even the Navy cooperated, granting access to a real aircraft carrier (the U.S.S. Enterprise), plus F-14s and pilots. And so the director went to work, trying to make visual poetry out of paltry material: “Painting is my background,” she says, and so “the colors balanced against each other.”
Indeed, what many viewers remember about Top Gun is the spectacular look, from the adrenaline-blasted dogfight scenes (choreographed by pros, who sound off on the technical advisors’ portion of the commentary track) to the romantic mush in deep blue light. And, of course, the eye candy scenes. In the notoriously gratuitous volleyball scene—Mav and Goose vs. Iceman (Val Kilmer) and his RIO, Slider (Rick Rossovich)—set to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys,” the tanned musculature is frankly stunning (watch Rossovich pose). Scott observes, “I didn’t really have a vision of what to do, but in the end, it just became hunky bodies in the California sun, and it became a favorite with the women as well as the guys, especially the San Francisco guys.”
All this activity rather left Kelly McGillis, who plays Charlie, civilian contractor evaluating the pilots and Maverick’s love interest, rather a fifth wheel. Still, Scott fought for her, as he had seen her in Witness and quite thought she could act and look serious, in a way that more conventionally pretty girls could not. “The studio was pushing younger, let’s say, more ‘fashionable-looking’ actresses at me.” But he held out, which led her to the unenviable position of having to tell Maverick, with a straight face, that their relationship would be “complicated.” Little did she know.
For Avary and Tarantino are right: the film is about boys, coming together and apart, falling all over each other. At the top of the heap was “the real fighter pilot’s fighter pilot,” Commander Mike Metcalf (Tom Skerritt). Scott was fond of his quiet authority, displayed in his brother Ridley’s Alien, and here Skerritt is as supportive and also inspiring as can be. Following the death of Goose, which may or may not be due to Maverick’s showboating during a training mission, poor Mav is thinking about quitting. So torn up that he’s looking at his own bloodshot eyes in the bathroom mirror, he’s hardly phased by Metcalf’s appearance, as he instructs the kid (“Let him go”). The camera pulls out from the mirror reflection to reveal pretty, post-Risky Business Cruise wearing tighty whities as he leans over the sink.
Whether or not you think he’s responsible for Goose’s death (the Navy absolves him, but Scott holds out that “it was a little ambiguous whether he was at fault or not”), the film is happy to celebrate his Tom Cruiseness, above all else. If nothing else, Top Gun‘s transformation of military maneuvers into a set of domestic contests and terrific visuals looks forward to current efforts to smooth over with images what’s really at stake in war.