Top Gun



An Essay by Norma Ramsay



Top Gun belongs to the genre of war films, although the emphasis is on the 'Cold War' between America and the U.S.S.R. The film is full of action, principally aerial "dogfights" between the Americans themselves in flight simulations, and, at both the beginning and end of the film, between the Americans and the Russians. The Camera work in these flight sequences is spectacular, since the camera is either in the cockpit with the pilots with lots of close-ups and reaction shots, or is in another 'plane following, in long shots, the aerobatics of the fighter planes. The cameras tip and tilt like the planes, giving viewers a real sense of involvement in the action. One very effective sequence occurs about 2/3 of the way through the film when Maverick's (Tom Cruise's) plane gets into a "flat spin" out of control, and the camera emulates the spinning movement. In these "dogfight" scenes the pace of the editing is extremely fast, cutting from pilot to pilot and 'plane to 'plane. In the conflict with the MIGs with which the film opens, there is also rapid cutting from the control room in the aircraft carrier to the 'planes themselves. The red/blue lighting of the control room adds to the tense atmosphere with its clipped dialogue of naval jargon - "a trailer", "a Single", "he's bugging out and going home", - and serves to differentiate between locations of the ship and the 'planes.

Music is a very important feature in this film. It is heard right from the start of the film when white titles on a black background are accompanied by slow music with a strong beat. It is an enigmatic opening; the viewer watching legs walking across the screen while aeroplanes come in and out of the frame on a dark misty morning with no establishing shot to let us know what is going on and where. As dawn breaks the jets take off from what we know now to be an aircraft carrier, the music increasing in speed and intensity, with added, rather strident and mainly female vocals. Men start running, the editing becomes faster, the music speeds up and the song Ride into the Danger Zone is introduced. This song is repeated at various parts of the film when the fight sequences occur.

Another song which acts also as a musical motif is Living on the Edge , first heard when Maverick goes to Miramar to be trained as a Top Gun pilot. This song gives way to Ride into the Danger Zone thus highlighting to the audience how dangerous this training will be. The former song, in fact, recalls a statement one of the pilots, Cougar, made to his superior officer after he had "frozen" in the cockpit after the first encounter with the MIGs. Asking to be relieved of his duties as a pilot, Cougar told his commander that he had "lost the edge". This scene, incidentally, prepares the audience for Maverick's later loss of confidence in himself after the death of his co-pilot and best friend Goose. In contrast to this heavy rock music which accompanies the fast action, there is slower more romantic music used to highlight the romance of Charlotte Blackwood (Charlie) and Maverick - You take my Breath Away and You've Lost that Loving Feeling . The latter is sung by Maverick soon after his arrival at Miramar, in a pub when he "targets" Charlie with his intentions. When Charlie makes a date to meet Maverick (a nice touch of role reversal) the theme You take my Breath Away is first heard, being heard at later moments in the film as their relationship develops, most particularly in the intimate love scene. Just as You've Lost that Loving Feeling signalled the start of the romance, so it is used at the end of the film when Maverick returns to the pub at Miramar, plays the song on the jukebox and Charlie enters, having given up her post in Washington to be permanently with him.

One of the other characters, Goose, also has music associated with him - Great Balls of Fire - perhaps used to emphasise his fearless, slightly zany character. He plays it on the piano in the pub at a point in the film just after Maverick, in a simulated fight with their instructors, has been "killed". The song played by Goose and, later on the soundtrack, taken up by Jerry Lee Lewis, focuses attention on the character of Goose who immediately afterwards in yet another fight simulation, is tragically killed. This time Maverick is exonerated from blame, but the death of his buddy has a traumatic effect on him and he, like Cougar earlier in the film, "loses the edge".

Another feature of the war genre is the different rivalries portrayed. Of course, the most obvious is the conflict between America and Russia, which is realised in the dogfights which begin and end the film. Parallels are drawn between the two confrontations both in filming techniques and use of music. Each begins with the pre-dawn activity of men and planes being equipped for action, the planes then streaking off into the sunrise, to the same musical accompaniment. In the second more dangerous confrontation, when a real battle engages and planes are actually shot down, however, the pace of editing is faster, emphasising the increased tension and danger. Just as in the first confrontation Maverick had to escort Cougar to safety, so in the second Maverick has to do the same for Iceman. Iceman has been Maverick's closest rival for the award of "Top Gun" on the training course. When Maverick first goes to Miramar, at the briefing when the commander, Mike Metcalf, tells the pilots about the competition, the camera shoots into closeup of Iceman, thus ensuring that the audience knows who Maverick's closest rival will be. The rivalry continues throughout the film from the first "squaring up" in the pub, through the combat simulations, to Iceman receiving the award at the graduation ceremony, after Maverick had lost his nerve on the death of Goose. The rivalry however, ceases when Maverick rescues the stricken Iceman and escorts him back safely to the carrier. Conflict too, is seen between the men and their instructors. After the confrontation with the Russian MIGs which begins the film, Maverick is "carpeted" by his commander for "ego mania". The commander is portrayed in a rather stereotyped way, insulting Maverick and shouting at him when we know he does not really mean it.

True enough Maverick's fate is to be sent to Miramar to be one of the top 10% of pilots. At Miramar he not only conflicts with his superiors for "buzzing the tower" and breaking safety rules, but with the civilian instructor Charlie, when he challenges her assertion that an F14 cannot do an inverted 4G dive (Maverick having just done one!) Furthermore, conflict is seen within Maverick himself when he has to decide whether to give up flying on the death of Goose, or to graduate and return to active duty.

Typical also of the genre is the setting - America - with all its associations of freedom and patriotism. The American flag is often in evidence, for example when Maverick calls on Mike Metcalf to discuss his future, and at the graduation ceremony around the swimming pool. Perhaps the blue and red lighting in the control room on the aircraft carrier is meant to remind us of America too! The dogfights between American and Russian planes arise because the Russian MIGs are invading the Americans' airspace and thus violating their freedom. The film enables America to feel good about itself after the disastrous Vietnam War, whose veterans the American nation would rather forget. The setting of Miramar itself is in prosperous California, where the sun always shines. It is a typical White Anglo Saxon Protestant society with little evidence of ethnic groups. There is one negro pilot who becomes Maverick's new partner after the death of Goose, but he is represented in a rather unsympathetic way. Maverick has forced himself into the skies, but has lost his nerve. The negro pilot seemingly unable to comprehend Maverick's "block", berates him for not firing on the "enemy" . This pilot in addition is the only black man seen at the graduation ceremony.

Typical of the genre, too, is the narrative structure of the film, which can be classed as Classical Realism. In it, an individual, in this case Pete Mitchell (Maverick), struggles to achieve a goal or solve a problem. As I have pointed out earlier, the character is in conflict with others, circumstances surrounding him, and even himself. In Top Gun there are the outer struggles of Maverick to win the award of best pilot at Miramar and the respect of his fellow pilots, and the love of his lady, coupled with the inner struggle of coming to terms with the death of his best friend Goose, of whom he had said "You're the only family I've got." The film ends decisively for Maverick for, although he did not win the top pilot's award, he managed to regain his nerve in combat flying and save Iceman. In addition, the love story worked out well with Charlie giving up her lucrative job in Washington to be with him.

Following the pattern of classical narrative, the opening shots of Top Gun pose questions for the audience, which are ultimately answered. I have already discussed the opening sequence with the legs and aeroplanes moving in and out of the frame, in the pre-dawn light, causing the audience to wonder where and when all this is taking place. As the planes take off and shots of the men in the cockpits are interwoven with shots of the men in the control room, and as we listen to the dialogue, we realise that the Americans are chasing two MIG intruders out of American airspace.

We quickly realise that Maverick is going to be the hero of the film as he, against orders from control takes charge of the situation, and, having seen off the intruders, brings Cougar - who has lost his nerve - safely back to base. We also realise that he is a stubborn self willed character who is bound to come into conflict with authority. When Maverick is sent to Miramar and we hear about the "Top Gun" award, we wonder whether Maverick will achieve this. The ending of the film confirms the classical structure, since Maverick has overcome his emotional block brought on by Goose's death, has "got the girl" and has developed into a mature responsible human being about to take up his post as an instructor at Miramar. Thus the young man in conflict with authority has become part of the authorities himself. Just as the narrative follows a pattern which audiences easily identify, the same can be said of the representations of the characters within the film. As I have stated earlier, this is a white oriented society which upholds the values of fair play, justice and the American way. The Americans throughout are seen as the "good guys" who are instructed, in the encounters with the MIGs, not to fire unless and until they are fired upon. And indeed, in the final confrontation, it is the Russians who open fire on the Americans.

The American "buddy system" operates too. Every pilot and co-pilot are intensely loyal to one another and depend on one other for their lives. Thus we can understand Maverick's devastation when Goose is killed. We can also understand the reluctance of many of the other pilots to fly with Maverick in combat: so much so that Mike Metcalf says he will co-pilot with Maverick if no one else will. The close relationships of the pilots with each other are shown in the scenes in the showers after the fight simulations, in the game of volley ball, and in the sauna. The fact that they are all semi-naked and are thus revealed as perfect physical specimens beautifully tanned and muscled, would appeal to both women and men in the audience - the men perhaps identifying with them. The other males in the film, the instructors, are represented as firm, occasionally outwardly blustering, but essentially fair. Mike is, in addition, a father figure to Maverick, and having known and admired his real father, Mike listens to Maverick's problems and advises him on them, and even volunteers to be his co-pilot.

The women in the film are represented either as beautiful and successful in a man's world (Charlie) or beautiful and supporting wholeheartedly the man she has married (Carol, Goose's wife.) Young women in the audience would perhaps see a role model in Kelly McGillis (Charlie). There are two sides to her character - or at least to the way she is represented on screen. On the one hand, Charlie is a woman whom, I think, feminists would empathise with. Although she initially seems to be very impressed at meeting Maverick and learning that he is a pilot, she is not so easily won over, refusing his seductive advances. Later, she is revealed as a civilian adviser in aerial combat techniques, knowing much more than the men she instructs. (All except Maverick, who challenges her over the question of the 4G dive with the MIG). She is visibly impressed - but the feminists in the audience will not be now since she is now being represented in a secondary role to the man - the "adoring female" type. The representation of Charlie seems to move between these two readings throughout the film. She drives a Porsche fast and furiously - usually a male trick - impressing even the daredevil Maverick. She invites Maverick to dinner but "calls the shots" about when they should eat. ("Now! No, you can't have a shower!") Yet over the meal, long seductive glances are exchanged. It is the same next day when they meet in the elevator. She's even dressed like him now in white t-shirt, black leather jacket, baseball cap and jeans -and again those long seductive looks! She even gives up her Washington job to be with him at Miramar. Carol, on the other hand, is not seen in anything but a wife and mother representation. She does not complain about the long separations from Goose and having to bring up the children single handed. She adores him, but knows he loves flying more than he does her. When he is killed, she bears no ill will towards Maverick. Why is she in the film at all, one wonders. To lend poignancy to Goose's death and intensify Maverick's guilt perhaps? To force the audience to compare Goose with Cougar, who gave up flying because he loved his wife and children more, and thus highlight the obsession some men felt for flying? Certainly she seems to me more a device than a real person. Both women however, probably represent the two sides of American womanhood: the successful career woman and the wife and mother, Barbara Bush, type. As such there is nothing unusual about their representations. In conclusion, I would say that Top Gun , as an example of the genre of war movies, fulfills the expectations of its audience.


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