Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in Top Gun.
When Top Gun, a testosterone-fueled tribute to the Navy's Fighter Weapons School hit the screen in 1986, it rocketed to the number one box office position, amassing $344.8 million in worldwide grosses. With stunning aerial photography, a glamorized male model-like cast with Tom Cruise in his prime and an omnipresent top forty soundtrack, the film even managed to snag four Oscar nominations including Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Song, "Take My Breath Away" (by Giorgio Moroder), for which it won the Academy Award.
The idea for Top Gun was born when producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, saw an article in the May 1983 issue of California magazine called "Top Guns" about the world of top Navy flyers and their training school. They were impressed with the article's aerial photography, the larger-than-life characters and the fact that the students and faculty had developed a language of their own to deal with high-speed air defense. "The pilots that attend the actual Top Gun school are a combination of Olympic athletes in the sky and rock and roll heroes," said Bruckheimer. "We immediately saw a movie."
At first, however, the movie they saw starred Matthew Modine, the young actor who had impressed critics with his work in Mrs. Soffel (1984) and Vision Quest (1985). But Modine had other plans and turned the role down to star in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987). That opened the door for Tom Cruise, who had been building his fan following with roles as the young entrepreneur in Risky Business (1983) and the high-school football player in All the Right Moves (1983). The role would be his breakthrough, propelling him to the top of the box-office polls and marking the birth of a new superstar. Ironically, at 5', 7", he was an inch too short to become a Naval pilot in real life.
Cruise didn't let that stop him from spending months at the Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego attending Top Gun classes so that he would know first-hand what it took to be a pilot. He even got to ride in a TA-4 with the famous Blue Angels squadron. During filming at sea on the carrier USS Enterprise, he learned how to land on an aircraft carrier, while also filming his own behind-the-scenes look at the film's making.
Joining Cruise for Top Gun were a crew of young actors on the rise. Anthony Edwards, as Cruise's radar officer, and Rick Rossovich would go on to starring roles on the NBC hit ER, as would character actor Michael Ironside. Edwards' on-screen wife and off-screen girlfriend, Meg Ryan, was three years away from her breakthrough performance in When Harry Met Sally... (1989). Tim Robbins, who appears in the second half of the film as Cruise's new radar officer, would go on to star in Bull Durham (1988) and The Player (1992) while also winning international acclaim as the director of Dead Man Walking (1995). Val Kilmer, who only appeared as Cruise's nemesis, "Iceman", because of a contractual obligation, would go on to stardom as Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991).
At a cost of $1 million, the film was made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy, which supplied training for the stars, technical advisors, air-sea rescue operations and five different types of aircraft for the filming. For all that, they still allowed some technical errors in the film. When the Top Guns take on a squadron of Soviet planes in the film's finale, the planes are incorrectly identified as MiG 28's, a nonexistent classification (the Soviets used even numbers for ground craft; fighter planes had odd numbers). The planes were actually specially dressed F-5 Tiger II's.
Despite the impressive aerial photography and high-speed action, Top Gun ran into trouble in previews when audiences felt that the love story was barely developed. The producers called back Cruise and leading lady Kelly McGillis six months after completing principal photography to add a love scene in an elevator. Since McGillis had cut and darkened her hair for another role, she had to wear a military cap through the scene.
With those changes, however, Top Gun became the top-grossing film of its year, a success that seemed to carry along almost everyone associated with it. Songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock scored an Oscar® and a chart-topping hit with their main theme for the film "Take My Breath Away," while also landing "Danger Zone" and "Lead Me On" on the hit parade. Kansas City BBQ in San Diego, where two scenes were shot, experienced an upsurge in business, particularly when they acquired a display of props and other memorabilia from the film, including Cruise's helmet. The biggest winners of all were the U.S. Navy; enlistments soared after the film became a hit.
Of course, there were a few dissenters. Songwriter Bryan Adams denied the filmmakers the rights to use his "Only the Strong Survive" on the soundtrack because he thought the film glorified war. More than one critic suggested that the film glorified more than war. They felt the loving photography of Cruise and his fellow flight students in various stages of undress gave the film a distinctly homoerotic quality. Writing in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael said the film redefined masculinity as "how a young man looks with his clothes half off" and called the picture a gay recruiting poster for the Navy. A few years later, writer-director Quentin Tarantino did a comic riff on the film in the independent Sleep With Me (1994) in which he had a cameo role as a party guest. In a speech he wrote himself, he goes on at great length about the film's gay subtext.
Producer: Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Jim Cash, Jack Epps, Jr.
Cinematography: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Art Direction: John DeCuir
Music: Harold Faltermeyer, Giorgio Moroder
Principal Cast: Tom Cruise (Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell), Anthony Edwards (Lt. Nick "Goose" Bradshaw), Kelly McGillis (Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood), Tom Skerritt (Cmdr. Mike "Viper" Metcalf), Val Kilmer (Tom "Iceman" Kasanzky), Michael Ironside (Dick "Jester" Wetherly), Rick Rossovich (Ron "Slider" Kerner), Tim Robbins (Sam "Merlin" Wills), John Stockwell (Cougar), James Tolkan (Stinger), Meg Ryan (Carole Bradshaw).
by Frank Miller