Study Guide

Top Gun

Top Gun Introduction


Release Year: 1986

Genre: Action, Drama, Romance

Director: Tony Scott

Writer: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr., Ehud Yonay (magazine article entitled "Top Guns")

Stars: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis


Tom Cruise wasn't always Tom Cruise.

His real name, i.e. the name he was born with, is Thomas Cruise Mapother IV (can you see why he dropped that last bit?). 

But what we really mean is Tom Cruise wasn't always the edgy, action-oriented, do-it-my-way-and-watch-me-win kind of actor he's now known as. Before Days of Thunder (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), and Mission Impossible (1996), Tom Cruise was just another up-and-comer, looking for his big break. 

That big break? It was Top Gun.

Top Gun, with it's crazy flying stunts, macho dialogue, and awesome aviators was a starmaker from the get-go. And it wasn't just Cruise who had a veritable coming out party in 1986 (the year the film was released). The movie was also Val Kilmer's first big role, a breakout part for Meg Ryan, the first screenplay turned into an actual film for writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and a huge success for the blossoming production duo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

The moral of the story: Top Gun made a huge splash. The film, which is mostly about one semi-insane Navy pilot's struggles with the rigors of the elite Navy fighter pilot program—that would be Top Gun—and his road to redemption, is stocked with frenetic, fast-paced jet flying (all real footage, no digital here) and tons of awesome Navy swag (dog tags, bomber jackets with patches, cool helmets—oh, and did we mention the aviators?).

The film more than earned back its estimated $15 million budget, grossing something in the $170 million plus range (in 1986 dollars no less). It was the most successful movie in 1986, and it crushed the video rental market, cashing in to the tune of around $80 million.

Heck, even the Navy was jazzed about the film. They had their best recruiting season in years as a result of Top Gun. In fact, they actually set up recruiting booths at theaters where the film was being shown in an attempt to capitalize on the viewer excitement and morale post-Top Gun (source). If you had bet a billion dollars that every boy between the ages of 5 and 30 wanted to become a fighter pilot after the film, you would have won.

So what was it about Top Gun that so enamored audiences? Let us count the ways:

  • A ton of great aerial footage
  • A great cast (Cruise, Kilmer, Ryan, Anthony Edwards, and a magnificently mustachioed Tom Skerritt)
  • Enviable characters (there's something so cool about Maverick) 
  • Memorable lines ("I feel the need, the need for speed" anyone?)
  • A country that was rediscovering its patriotism and pride during the peak years of the Reagan administration
  • Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer without their shirts

So sit back and hold on to your seats—you're in for one heck of a ride.

What is Top Gun About and Why Should I Care?

In 1986, there were an estimated 40,000 nuclear weapons ready to go worldwide.

Yes, that's 40 with three extra zeros. 40,000, folks.

The combined firepower of these weapons? Oh, about the equivalent of 1,000,000 of the same bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

Who had all these weapons, and why were they building them? Mostly the United States and the Soviet Union. They were involved in what has come to be known as the Cold War, "cold" because the two superpower never actually went to war, but amassed weapons like it was going out of style.

1986, you may or may not recall, was also the year Top Gun was released. So what does Top Gun have to do with the Cold War anyway?

The short answer: everything.

In a lot of ways, the fact that the bulk of the movie takes place at a special school for elite Naval aviators is the perfect depiction of the Cold War, the war that never actually happened: a whole lot of getting ready as if war were imminent. The word of the day in Top Gun, and of the Cold War, is (and was) preparation. As Viper says during the first Top Gun classroom session: "Although we are not at war, we must always act as though we are."

Okay, so what about the fact that Top Gun is framed by two big-time engagements with enemy fighters? Well, those aren't really what the movie is about. The first engagement is there to show that during the Cold War there was an enemy out there, an enemy that was dangerous and could really ruin your day (ask Cougar about that one). The second engagement is there so that Maverick can redeem himself (and prove that he's the top gun), and so that the pilots can show off their newly acquired skills. But you may have noticed that no one ever bothers explaining much about whom they're shooting at and why.

Speaking of those pilots, in a lot of ways Top Gun is really one big bromance. The Navy pilots are like brothers, albeit brothers who all have huge egos (we're looking at you, Maverick and Iceman) and an unquenchable competitive drive. In the end, it's really a sports movie, where the sport is aerial combat maneuvering (ACM) and where the team's two biggest starts (Maverick and Iceman) have to learn to work as a team and get along (which they finally do).

Trivia

Did you know that one of the film's cameramen died during filming? Yep, stunt pilot Art Scholl died during the making of the film when his plane crashed into the ocean. He was trying to capture footage of a spin for the film. Scholl's body and plane were never recovered. (Source.)

Al Gore didn't invent the Internet. Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash, the duo who wrote the Top Gun screenplay, did. Okay, they didn't either, really, but Epps jokingly remarked that he and Cash did invent the Internet because during the writing of the film the two used a phone line to link their computers (Epps and Cash were in California and Michigan, respectively).

The famous love scene between Maverick and Charlie wasn't filmed until much later. Some early viewers were upset that there was no love scene. The scene is only dimly lit because both McGillis and Cruise had changed their hairstyles for future projects already. (Source.)

We're sure the folks at the actual Top Gun school are happy that they're so popular, but it's understandable if they're tired of hearing about the film. Nowadays, legend has it that anybody who quotes the film there is fined $5. (Source.)

Top Gun Resources

Websites

Dynamic Duo
Want the real scoop on Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (the producers of Top Gun)? Look no further than this great and incisive commentary on Bruckheimer and Simpson's influence on contemporary cinema.

Take a Look at this Resume
Jerry Bruckheimer really has done it all. Seriously, the guy's resume is massive.

Picky Picky
Can you believe Tom Cruise didn't want to do the film at first? This short article talks about how Jerry Bruckheimer got Tom Cruise to commit to the film.

F-14 Association
Maverick and the boys would probably join this group, if it were real.

Book or TV Adaptation

The Real Deal
This guy was the real deal, and he also worked on the film. Check out his story here.

Articles and Interviews

A Panning
Sheesh, this guy could have been a little nicer.

Iceman and Maverick Reunite?
A short clip in which Larry King asks Val Kilmer about a potential Top Gun sequel, and Val talks a little about filming the original.

Video

The. Real. Deal
Check out this cockpit video of a Navy jet taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier.

Nostalgia Alert
If you were a kid in the late 80's or early 90's, this YouTube video of the original Nintendo Top Gun video game should bring back some memories

Guitar Solo
The music video for the "Top Gun Anthem" that features Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens jamming in an airplane hangar.

Iceman and Slider Are Such Jerks…
… and yet we can't stop watching this clip from the first meeting of Iceman and Maverick.

Audio

Jim Rome goes off about Maverick's selfishness.
Jim Rome goes off about Maverick's selfishness.

Loggins Logs a Hit
Check out the audio for the smash hit song "Danger Zone."

Images

Trademark Vest
That's him: Mr. Tony Scott

Then and Now
Did we really want to know?

Behind the Scenes?
Who knew it took so many people to help Maverick onto his motorcycle?

The Famous Duo
Here they are: young Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson.

Writer Duo
Here's Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr., the duo who wrote the Top Gun screenplay.