Scott: Top Gun (1986)

With The Hunger, Tony Scott had already debuted a fully-formed style, and it only took his second film for that style to reach its apotheosis, accelerating him into ever more flamboyant formulations of in the decades to come. For Top Gun was the perfect distillation of Scott’s career-long fixation: motion, movement, momentum, “the need for speed.” Where the slow third act of The Hunger didn’t quite gel with his style, Top Gun is propulsive from the very outset, unfolding a story with utter confidence that it will pass into mythology the moment it hits the screens. Like The Hunger, this is primarily a postural melodrama, and takes place silhouetted against vast fields of light, except in this case the light is largely external, and the palette is dramatically expanded to encompass the entire curvature of earth, ocean and sky.

In his most iconic role, Tom Cruise plays Maverick, a US Navy pilot who attends the prestigious Top Gun program at Naval Air Station Miramar. There, he has a wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), a rival, Iceman (Val Kilmer), a mentor, Viper (Tom Skerritt) and a love interest, Charlie (Kelly McGillis). On paper, this is every bit as formulaic as you’d expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer-Don Simpson production, but Scott would soon show how thoroughly he could exceed the blockbuster kingmakers of the mid-80s in Beverly Hills Cop II. While he takes his cues from their taste for slick spectacle, then, this is entirely his own vision, his masterpiece.

The opening scenes of the film take place over a naval cruiser in the Indian Ocean, where Scott introduces us to Maverick, and the “lost art of aerial combat.” In a series of acrobatic sequences, Scott draws on the great airplane dramas that came out of World War I and World War II, although there’s no overt ideological context here. Instead, this is a purely formalist display, Americans competing against other Americans, much as Maverick has no real external antagonist. His only enemy is his own demons, his own dispositions, his own body, while the film as a whole only processes war in the same manner as modern digital gaming: as an interactive fantasy that acts directly on the viewer’s sensorium, crying out for a console.  

These early scenes mark the first appearance of one of Scott’s most enduring signatures: a luridly saturated heat haze that sends coloured shimmers across the top and bottom of the screen. In this original incarnation, it works to collapse any sense of the horizon as horizontal, setting the aerial drama against the full curvature of the earth, and distorting any conventional sense of space and time. At one point, Maverick hangs upside down, suspended in space, a mirror image of the plane below him, dissolving all sense of regular spatial coordinates. From here, the film outlines a new kind of notional spatial field, and dissolves the spatiotemporal constrictions of classical cinema, starting with Scott’s manic shifts between people ensconsed in command centres and people in planes. It’s as if bodies have been split into hyper-corporeal and hyper-virtual components, command centres and instinctual responses (“your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”). The result isn’t exactly disembodiment so much as a new kind of collective embodiment, as Scott distributes affect across every scene and space, defying it to be contained by any single bodily impulse.

Outside of these planes and control scenes, space grows abstract and affective almost immediately. All we see, in this opening sequence, is the Indian Ocean and the training ship, which together form a similar kind of deterretorialised non-space as the oil rig and asteroid (and oil rig-asteroid) of Armageddon, much as Top Gun feels like the ancestor of Michael Bay’s entire directorial style. From here, the desert and ocean fuse into a new non-space that continues into Air Station Miramar, which might as well be in the middle of the sea, since there’s no clear sense of a coherent world outside it, nor any sharp distinction between air and land. Even when people are on the ground, they’re convered in a patina of sweat, like their bodies are working overtime, anticipating the insane sweat-soaked vistas of Revenge.

Whereas action cinema took the phallicised male body to its preposterous conclusion, Scott now imagines a digital phallus that is no longer fully embodied, or is at least distributed more equally over the entire male body. It’s a phallus that exists in motion, as a form of motion, rather than as the static appendages of classical action films, meaning that Top Gun (somewhat ironically) reveals how often action cinema was lacking in true action. Scott, by contrast, sets a challenge to film to move in ever more dramatic ways, much as the Top Gun program promises Maverick with a whole new conception of speed. It’s appropriate that Charlie, his love interest, is an aeronautical engineer, since together they collaborate on a new kind of supersonic phallic motion that propels the sublime melodrama of the second act.

By redirecting all this phallic energy into the virtual realm, Scott also removes the paranoia of the action film, offering up a collaborative rather than combative mode of masculinity. Cruise’s shortness has never worked so well, since he parlays it into an incredible sense of play that absorbs all possible absurdity, sending so much swagger over the film that the film eventually is pure swagger. There’s so much cascading affect here that everyone feels like part of the same mind, and recognises their own desire even in their worst enemies, meaning that every interaction is flirtatious, suffused with a cruisey openness to possibility that you don’t typically see in the more hermetic world of classical action cinema. Everything takes on a comic and campy edge, participates in a great cosmic joke, while Maverick and Charlie are always somewhat awry in their relation to each other, never quite settled into total clichés.

Where action films were fixated with male musculature, there’s only one moment in Top Gun that comes close to this spectacle. Yet the main focus of this scene, which takes place on a beach full of volleyball nets, is keeping an object in the air in gymnastic and ingenious ways. All of a sudden, in American culture, muscled bodies aren’t the point, or the end goal, just the means to a new kind of aerial ecstasy – and even then the ideal for the male body is no longer especially muscular, as occurs in action cinema, but lithe, like a piece of streamlined machinery. This movement away from classical corporeality often seems to anticipate the way that men have flocked to digital gaming to express their masculinity in our own time. Maverick often uses a flying device that looks like a video game, while his first sexual encounter with Charlie (and the iconic “need for speed” line) comes after he uses a computer simulation of her own creation. Even then, the sex scene is very brief, reserving the full sensual hit for the subsequent flight scene, as if to reiterate Charlie can only witness Maverick’s digital phallus indirectly, through her fetish for data, formulae and proto-gaming.

Nevertheless, Maverick’s co-pilots are able to witness this phallic dexterity directly, especially in the main centrepiece of the opening scene and film as whole; those scenes when they bring their planes as close together as possible in the air and lock gazes through the cockpit. Like Cruise’s own name, the cockpit takes on a new valency here as the locus of a masculine flow that is confident and cruisey enough to acknowledge the homosocial energy that classical action cinema worked so hard to disavow. When men lock eyes on land in Top Gun, it always has the same intensity of those moments in the sky when they directly (if fleetingly) witness the supersonic phallus that women can only understand in theory. Charlie comes close, since she has a male name, but it’s also a name that’s too associated with the enemy in Vietnam to truly make her one of the men, especially when the men have names like Viper and Iceman.  

It makes sense, then, that the emotional climax of the film doesn’t come with Charlie, but with Goose, Maverick’s co-pilot, and that it comes when they’re bundled together in the air in the most visceral way possible. Their engine stalls, they have to resort to ejector seats, and Goose’s parachute doesn’t open, but this blooms into the most beautiful sequence in the film, as air and sea come together in a field of lurid green dye, along with the most agonising scene, as the rescue team have to wrench Maverick away from the dead body of his buddy. It must be the prototype for the skydiving scene in Point Break, which revels in the same homosocial abandon, although in this case it somewhat ruptures the romantic fantasy of the film as a whole, resulting in the first moment Charlie calls Maverick by his real name: “Pete Mitchell.”

It’s at this point that Scott really leans into the melodramatic potential of the film as a whole too, using Goose’s death to generates a lurid sadness that really resonates with Cruise as a closeted celebrity, but also shifts the film towards full-blown musical in its efforts to capture this peak affective moment. Characters spontaneously burst into song, Harold Faltermeyer’s score is continuously and promiscuously emoting, and a series of standards (Great Balls of Fire, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling) are remade with a thick synthy futurity, as if not even the genres of musical and melodrama are enough to capture the intensity of motion and affect – motion as affect, affect as motion – Scott is aiming for.

Like Maverick, all Scott can do is take the singularity of his own vision and perfect it further, producing a third act that returns to the same naval carrier in the Indian Ocean, but with the threat of Russian pilots this time around. Yet there’s no real difference between the “test run” of the opening act and the “real” war of the second act, except for an even more intense envisioning of it all on Scott’s part. This is warfare as a perfection of American spectacle, the military-industrial apparatus collapsed into Hollywood’s spectacular apparatus, with a precision that Bay could never quite rival. The Russians are just a flicker in Maverick’s self-realisation and politics itself is just a flicker in America’s self-realisation. Perfecting the opening act in the final act, as a formalist gesture, is enough to dispose of the enemy, and Scott signals this formal achievement by taking his lurid horizon flares to the absolute limit of purples, yellows, reds and greens, as if searching for a new colour that exceeds all of them.

In other words, Top Gun itself is a piece of spectacular warfare, suffused with montage so streamlined and air-sculpted that it might as well be a airplane, cruising us through a widescreen experience that’s every bit as expansively homosocial as Maverick’s sky. Whatever else they might do, the Russians can’t rival American cinema, although the film has doubts despite itself in the closing scenes, which largely elide Charlie, as if aware that she can’t quite be renewed as a plausible romantic presence after the melodramatic peak of Goose’s death. Instead, the emotional climax comes when Maverick crowns a new co-pilot (“You could be my wingman anytime,”) and, while Charlie returns at the end, the final images are of planes touching in the air, poised in an affective freefall of hyperbolised homosociality.

About Billy Stevenson (777 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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