Raphael Atlas1
Smith College

  1. In the early pages of his classic manual on screenwriting, Syd Field hammers the point again and again: do it with the visuals, tell it in a picture.2 No one has taken the dictum more to heart than Karl Rove, the scriptwriter/director for at once the most aggressively staged White House in history and the most programmatically, systematically deceitful. Typical in conception, if particularly extravagant in execution, was the “Top Gun photo-op”
    Rove mounted during the early weeks of the Iraqi occupation in an effort to invent the chief executive as a war hero. Straight from the playbook of the Republican Party’s long-term campaign to code itself as virile (“strong on defense,” unlike its wimpy rival), the stunt contrived, the year before an election, to compensate for the incumbent’s embarrassing actual Vietnam-era record stateside that was distinguished by nepotistic interventions, extended no-shows, and disqualification. In early May 2003, the return of the carrier Abraham Lincoln was held up by days so that television viewers could be treated to images of the 56-year-old politician, costumed in a flight suit appropriate on a fighter pilot a generation younger, swaggering on deck from a Viking jet before a throng of cheering seamen. (The semblance of the high seas in the backdrop was achieved after the Lincoln was made to turn one hundred eighty degrees so that the cameras wouldn’t catch nearby San Diego.) On cue, the usual battery of partisan shills snapped into action, hoisting their megaphones to hawk their star’s manly sex appeal, even to the point of extolling the “presidential package.”3 So much for any illusion that interest in the First Genitalia among the defenders of family values may have passed with the previous administration.

  2. Nearly two decades after Top Gun opened in mid-May 1986, both Rove’s elaborate multimillion-dollar knockoff and the claque’s overheated reviews witness its currency, its jingoistic power, and its central topic: young male sexuality and narcissism in combat gear. In the week following its release, one month after Reagan’s warplanes bombed Libya, it emerged the strongest performer at the box office and eventually became the year’s top-grossing film. A “brazenly eroticized recruiting poster” (Denby 102), a “110-minute commercial for the Navy,” (Lamar)—the Navy itself used clips in its own television campaign—it was made under the aegis of that service by director Tony Scott, who earned his reputation in television advertising.4 For the production, the Navy made available technical advisers, about twenty fighter pilots, two aircraft carriers, the Miramar Naval Air Station, and a small fleet of $37 million F-14s; Navy Secretary John Lehman personally interceded whenever snags came up (Lindsey).5 In return, the Navy reserved, and exercised, the right to alter the production as it saw fit; characters in the script were changed at its behest.6 Predictably, the movie helped to spark a surge in enlistment.7

  3. The film’s overwhelming impact at the box office carried over into related markets. Orders for videocassette were pre-booked in record numbers, sales remaining in the top five for more than a year.
    Figure 2: The Top Gun Look
    Like Flashdance, an earlier effort by production team Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the release of which in 1983 was followed by an explosion of ripped t-shirts among young women, Top Gun spawned a new bomber-jacket-and-aviator-glasses look among men, ultimately even among kids.8 By August, the companion album had become the best seller in the country, no surprise to those such as Rex Reed who found the movie “nothing more than a lot of music videos strung together aimlessly as an expensive excuse to produce a hit album” (25).9 Actually, the releases of singles for radio play, the album itself, videos—four were generated—and the movie were coordinated to maximize commercial success.10

  4. The score, aimed to appeal across generational boundaries, mixes contemporary mainstream rock of various stripes and three “pre-sold hit songs” from the Vietnam era (Hoberman 59). Indeed, the movie itself recuperated the national trauma of the war, following films such as Red Dawn (1984), Rambo II, and Rocky IV (both 1985) in the Reaganite hyperpatriotic climate.11 While Top Gun compensated for the trauma by eroticizing its glamorous military heroes and their world, the score, as much as any other single factor in the movie, shapes their sexuality and the erotic dynamics among them.

  5. *                      *                      *

  6. The plot, as one would expect, is a cliché: wildcard pilot of an F-14, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) “grows up.” Introduced as a hotdog in Act I, he competes throughout Act II for alpha status with other crack cadets at the Navy’s elite flight school in Miramar, nicknamed Top Gun.12 Meanwhile, he abandons his relentless pursuit of casual heterosex in favor of a slightly older woman, astrophysicist and flight instructor Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). After the death during a training exercise of his buddy Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), in fact his only friend, he comes to terms in Act III with the haunting memory of his fighter-pilot father, lost over Cambodia, and develops into a responsible aviator as he helps his archrival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) win the day against the unnamed Soviet-sponsored enemy du jour over the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, generic labels “action,” “adventure,” “romance” pop up in reviews and squibs whenever one is needed.

  7. While the action and adventure revolve around Maverick’s efforts to prove himself against other pilots, there remains some question about the central romance. Ostensibly, of course, its principals are Maverick and Charlie. Its weakness, however, left test audiences uneasy, and critics agree that the two scenes added to amp it up before the film was released did not fix the problem;13 this romance plays as a perfunctory generic requirement, peripheral to Maverick’s chief struggle. What with its “premature resolution” barely halfway through the second act, as Diane Shoos and Diana George point out, and Charlie’s virtual disappearance thereafter, her scenes with Maverick “make up only one-quarter of the total running time.” The “real couple,” and the most intimate, who get the most screen time together at about forty-five minutes, are Maverick and Goose. The scenes after the latter’s death leave no doubt: the bereaved Maverick must be comforted by Goose’s widow Carole, and it is Maverick who takes the dog tags (28). If Maverick and Goose share the frankest and tenderest moments in the movie, however, Mav and Iceman share the hottest sparks. Judith Williamson, for example, notes that the movie functions visually as a romance between the two: “their eyelines are constantly matched as the film cuts between glances from one to the other; tensions are created and connections made through editing” (Deadline 29). As J. Hoberman puts it, “the locker room is more fetishized than the boudoir: the most sustained erotic tension is provided by the love-hate relationship between Maverick and his rival, Iceman” (59).14

  8. Beyond question, in any case, is that Top Gun is patently a film about Navy men. The dozen or so male speaking roles are Navy; of the four women who speak, only Charlie and Carole appear in more than one scene and deliver more than a few lines. The camera spends nearly all of its time on the smooth-skinned, even-featured (and to some extent look-alike) young flyboys who dominate the cast, and for whom, in Michael Wilmington’s words, “the script links sexual potency with their prowess as pilots.”15 Because they fuse eroticism and aggression indistinguishably, and because they are driven throughout to prove their prowess against one another, their instructors, and pilots from the hostile “other side,” erotic energy is at play among them even to the very last frame over which the end credits roll. The film, in other words, is just as much about the generation and management of this energy as it is about anything else, perhaps more so.16

  9. Indeed, when in full-on aggressive mode, men never get very far in their dialogue without erotic color. Thus, for example, cadet Wolfman, trying to locate the enemy en route to the climactic confrontation (1:30:01): “They must be close—I’m gettin’ a hardon.” Or commanding officer Stinger, exasperated by Maverick (14:42): “I’d like to bust your butt.” Or instructor Jester, as he pursues Mav during a combat exercise (31:23): “You’re mine!” (Maverick turns the tables and utters the same at 32:17.) Or the flight director enraged by Maverick’s hijinks (34:52): “I want somebody’s butt, I want it now!”

  10. Less competitive, more affectionate situations are eroticized too. When Maverick is struggling with Goose’s death, the commander at the school, Viper, is sympathetic but realistic (1:23:56): “I’m not gonna blow sunshine up your ass, Lieutenant.” And early in the movie, after Charlie asks for a word with Maverick, Goose tells his buddy (28:50), “Okay, well, don’t be late again,” and continues, while fussing with Maverick’s lapels, “You look great, honey.” “Thanks, dear,” Maverick rejoins. “See ya in pre-flight.”

  11. Explicitly homoerotic as these excerpts are, they are unqueered by a “semiotic chain,” as Barry Adam calls it in his sketch of military gender politics, that “binds aggression, masculinity, and self-esteem into a tightly wound mechanism designed to motivate and discipline the male solider” (111). In Top Gun, the semiotic chain structures the pilots’ interactions, not to mention their dialogue, locating them on one side or the other in a matrix of opposing states:17

    narcissistic inflation
    narcissistic annihilation

  12. Pump up self-esteem in Adam’s semiotic chain to get the narcissism of Top Gun; Pauline Kael observes that it’s “as if narcissism is what being a warrior is all about” (119). The whole matrix is concisely laid out in the first scene at the school (16:14–19:05), as the ground rules for the competition that dominates most of Act II are established and all of its principals first meet. On one side, the highest scorers in the simulated battles (“the best of the best,” in Viper’s words) win the Top Gun trophy, and their names immortalized on plaques, they enjoy the admiration of their rivals and later generations; on the other, the losers are summarily unmanned (“The plaque for the alternates is in the ladies’ room,” Iceman wisecracks), which is to say, annihilated (Viper: “There are no points for second place”).

  13. The nondiegetic 80s rock in the movie is an emblem of this world, and at the same time helps to create it. “Highway to the Danger Zone,” “Playing With The Boys,” “Mighty Wings,” and post-disco instrumental technopop during the action sequences, all at more or less the same up tempo, account for about two-thirds of its thirty or so cues; some half dozen of the rest are devoted to the instrumental “Top Gun Anthem,” essentially a strutting march in rock idiom. In contrast to these, the classics from previous generations—“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Dock of the Bay,” “Great Balls of Fire”—that predominate in the diegetic musical world are emblems of the Mav-Charlie and Mav-Goose romances. While these songs register as old-fashioned and even corny, state-of-the-art technology is the edgy currency both of the pilots’ world and of the music that underscores it.18


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1. A version of this essay was presented at Feminist Theory and Music, University of California at Riverside, June 18, 1995. References to moments in the film are given as necessary in parentheses.I'm very grateful for the ready and resourceful assistance of Pamela Skinner, reference librarian at Smith College; Lt. Commander Aron Buckles of the United States Navy graciously fielded my questions about protocols for launch and landing. At AP/Wide World Photos, Yvette Reyes made the process of obtaining licensing permission easy and pleasant. Smith College provided generous help with funding.

2. A screenplay “is a story told with pictures” (3, 8, 31); “film is a visual medium” (8, 27) that “deals in pictures, images” (8).

3. Thus Lisa Schiffren, onetime speechwriter for Dan Quayle: “After a long day of hauling the kids to playdates and ballet, I turned on the news. And there was the president, landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, stepping out of a fighter jet in that amazing uniform, looking—how to put it?—really hot. Also, presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as a commander in chief. But mostly ‘hot’ as in virile, sexy and powerful.” Kathleen Parker celebrated a “quarterback’s swagger,” “a stud muffin no matter what his other flaws, arriving on a testosterone bullet to the cheers of 5,000 sailors.” It was left to the men openly to size up the leader of their pack. Wrote Jac Wilder VerSteeg, “Rush Limbaugh, I am told, commented approvingly on the presidential package.” And G. Gordon Liddy, on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews, gave a running commentary: “He’s in his flight suit, he’s striding across the deck, and he’s wearing his parachute harness [which] makes the best of his manly characteristic.… Run that stuff again of him walking across there with the parachute. He has just won every woman’s vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn’t count—they’re all liars. Check that out.” Rove’s flacks at the American Enterprise Institute invoked the stunt as an emblem three months later in an issue of their magazine explicitly glorifying Republican virility and dismissing male Democrats as laughable impostors: “You really saw it on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Testosterone and camaraderie.” In contradistinction, Bill Clinton “couldn’t credibly wear jogging shorts” (Rollins 30).

4. In the same vein, Judith Williamson observes, “Top Gun isn’t just like an ad for the US forces. It is one” (1447); according to Pauline Kael, “The movie is a shiny homoerotic commercial” and “a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster” (119); and Julie Salamon refers to Top Gun as “this recruiting-ad of a movie.”

5. Accounts differ of the Navy’s charges to the production. According to Halloran, “an F-14 flight made just for the film cost $7,600 an hour, and the flight of an A-6 attack bomber $8,600. Of the $1.1 million Paramount paid the Navy for ‘Top Gun,’ $886,000 was for flight time of five types of aircraft.” Lamar has Paramount paying $1.8 million to the Navy; Lindsey, quoting director Tony Scott, reports that the Navy charged the filmmakers only for the F-14s’ fuel.

6. Robb reports that the female lead in the original script was “an enlisted woman in the navy. The navy, however, forbids fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel,” so the character was changed to a civilian (94).

7. See Robb (182), Vistica (231), Halloran, and Vesey. The Army’s own “Making Movies Guide” stipulates that the Pentagon will cooperate on a production only if it will “benefit the Department of Defense or otherwise be in the national interest based on the following factors: 1. The production must help increase public understanding of the Armed Forces and the Department of Defense. 2. The production should help Armed Forces’ recruiting and retention programs. 3. The production must be authentic in its portrayal of persons, places, actual military operations or historical events.” (Three more factors follow.) In actual practice, Factors 1 and 3 are highly flexible, entirely subordinate to the all-important Factor 2. Informed public understanding and authentic portrayals of the military, of course, often directly undermine efforts to recruit and retain. Whenever these factors are at odds in scripts submitted for approval, as Robb shows in his examination of Pentagon policy over the last fifty years, recruitment and retention trump authenticity invariably. As a non-negotiable condition for Pentagon assistance, filmmakers must accept any changes to the script by the DOD, which has final say. Indeed, the Pentagon goes so far as to actively block projects that it disapproves.

8. “With Tom Cruise as its superhunk model, ‘Top Gun’ air force fashion is blasting off.… It’s catching on so quickly that one of the top military apparel manufacturers, Avirex, New York, [which supplied the costumes for the production,] is supplementing its decade-old mail order and wholesale businesses with a retail store, The Cockpit, in New York’s SoHo this October” (Dolce). Sales of Ray-Ban’s Aviators increased by forty percent, representing fully half of Bausch and Lomb’s business in sunglasses (Delaney). Children’s fashion was not immune; as late as fall 1988, over two years after the movie came out, kids were wearing bomber jackets “based on the ‘‘Top Gun’ adult looks” of the previous autumn (Hochschwender).

9. Gelmis agrees: “The movie is a series of music videos to which a clichéd romance and a gung-ho rivalry between competing aces in the Top Gun class have been appended” (1450).

10. The four are “Take My Breath Away,” with Berlin, “Highway to the Danger Zone,” featuring Kenny Loggins, the “Top Gun Anthem,” and “Heaven in Your Eyes,” with Loverboy. For a short history of the album’s marketing, see DeCurtis.

11.While its “slick visuals” are “pure 80s,” Floyd remarks, the “atavistic gung-ho heroism and Cold War politics” of the film—“like the slicked-back hair styles—hark back to the 50s” (319–20).

12. Founded in 1969, the school was moved to Fallon, Nevada in 1996.

13. In the first, 48:00–49:44, Maverick and Charlie exchange leers in an elevator; in the second, 53:53–55:00, silhouetted against a blue background in a bedroom, they exchange fluids. Because McGillis had cut and darkened her hair for Made in Heaven, and Cruise, already at work on The Color of Money, also had a different cut, their hairstyles are disguised here. In the elevator, hers is mostly concealed by the oddly incongruous cap, his is slicked down (and the close shots that dominate the scene cut off the top of his head); in the bedroom, all of their features are obscured altogether (Bricker; “Afterburn”). Also in the elevator, we see the slouch McGillis affected to make Cruise look taller than she. In fact, he’s inches shorter, and she developed back problems throughout work on Top Gun from the constant strain of collapsing herself next to him.

14. To paraphrase Shoos and George, their romance is established at first sight, Maverick and Iceman exchanging glances “in a duplication of the cinematic codes associated with the first moments of male/female attraction” (28).

15. See also Conlon (20): “The two modes of engagement aren’t really distinct; warring is as erotic as loving is combative.”

16. Eight years after the movie was released, the homoerotic topic in Top Gun provided the basis for arguably the most celebrated moment in Rory Kelly’s Sleep With Me, the rant by minor character Sid (Quentin Tarantino) to the effect that Top Gun is “a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.

17. Reports Alexander Cockburn from an interview with Jaws, Jambo, and Flex, three 29-year-old Top Gun pilots: “I asked them what it took to be Top Gun instructors. ‘Extremely large penises,’ said Flex” (32). Michael Sprinker points out that “the film consistently and intentionally images human relationships in the language of war and combat” (439).“Top Gun doesn’t posit sex as aggression,” Hoberman observes, “it reformulates aggression as sex” (59). Rob Edelman notes that “Top Gun divides the world into winners and losers, good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains” (41).

18. Sprinker understands the “division of labor” in the score between “the evocation of nostalgia on the ground” and “affectless New Wave beats backing up action in the air” as keying a “split in the lives of the pilots between what they are out of uniform and what they become once they don flight suits” (440).


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