Study Guide

Top Gun Analysis

  • Dog Tags

    Top Gun is a move about Navy pilots. Naturally, there are gonna be dog tags.

    We're not referring to the actual dog tags you might get at a place like Petsmart, but these necklaces that all military personnel are issued and required to wear. Now, these things show up all the time in Top Gun. Not only can they be seen in scenes where the pilots have their shirts off (the famous volleyball scene, the various locker room scenes), but even at times when the pilots are in their flight gear. Why all the dog tags? Well, for one thing, they make the movie seem more realistic. People in the various branches of the armed forces almost always have their dog tags on, so the fact that we can almost always see the pilots' tags makes us see them as more realistic.

    The Last Of Goose

    Now, there is one very particular set of dog tags that plays a very important role in the last quarter of the film: Goose's dog tags. They are the only remnant of Goose that Maverick has, other than memories, and they assume an almost religious significance. While waiting on the aircraft carrier before the final fight seen, for example, Maverick looks at them and touches them very gently. We have to presume that he's probably thinking about his friend, and how weird it is to be on the deck of an aircraft carrier without him.

    In the second to last scene of the film, Maverick throws Goose's tags out into the ocean. For most of the film, Maverick has had a problem letting go of the past, and Goose's death haunts him for the last quarter of the film. This final gesture from Maverick symbolizes the fact that he has made peace with the past, and has finally accepted Goose's death. He can move forward without the tremendous weight and guilt of that death haunting him.

  • Maverick's Motorcycle

    Maverick likes to live dangerously. He likes fast jets, chasing girls into their bathrooms, and… motorcycles. Of course.

    Maverick's motorcycle shows up throughout the film, and it's sort of like his land-based jet. It's sleek, fast, and dangerous, just like Maverick. Here's another thing: Maverick never wears a helmet when he's on his motorcycle, and it always looks like he's going way faster than he's supposed to. (Never mind the fact that California has a very strict helmet law that has been in effect since 1985, thank you very much.)

    We see Maverick's motorcycle when he first arrives at Top Gun, when he's racing to Charlie's house for his first date with her, and shortly after he, Goose, and their girls party it up at a bar. We even see Maverick and Charlie making out on Maverick's motorcycle.

    Exactly What You're Expecting

    The motorcycle symbolizes speed, danger, and sexiness, plain and simple. Maverick is the only male character in the film who's seen driving anything other than a jet, and this is for good reason. He's an unconventional dude, and the fact that he insists on riding a motorcycle at high speeds with no helmet reiterates that fact.

    In addition, the motorcycle is fast, sleek, and sexy, and it's meant to make Maverick seem appealing in a very dangerous way. He's the kind of guy who's a little rough around the edges, but still all kinds of desirable, and his motorcycle reinforces that image.

  • Bomber jackets with patches, aviators, flight suits, toy jets—Top Gun has all of these things and more.

    Like the dog tags, all this other stuff is meant to evoke Navy culture—to give the viewer a sense of what the world of the naval aviators is like. Everybody in the film can be seen with some or all of this different swag at one point or another: Maverick has his jacket, as does Charlie. Sunglasses are everywhere. Slider is playing with a toy jet in the scene where Charlie invites Maverick over for dinner. The room in which the first Top Gun lesson takes place is full of toy jets, patches, and the like.

    The Top Gun pilots are naval aviators, and they're proud of it. It's almost like they're a part of a major college football team or something like that, and feel the need to represent their "school" (the United States Navy) every chance they get. This is exactly what the writers wanted. They wanted Top Gun to be, essentially, a sports movie, with aerial combat the sport.

  • Sweat

    Everybody is always sweating in Top Gun.


    Okay, so during the volleyball scene they probably were using sun tan lotion or oil, and sometimes the boys have just got done showering, but you could fill an Olympic swimming pool with all the sweat in this film. Stinger's bald head looks like he just dunked it in a tub when he's yelling at Maverick and Goose, the boys are always sweaty after their flights, and the guys in the air control tower on the aircraft carrier always have beads of sweat on their heads.

    So what's with all the sweat? A few things.

    First, flying a jet is an incredibly exhausting and athletic activity. Seriously. When you're flying a plane that can dive, go upside down, and pull more G's than you ever thought possible, you're definitely gonna sweat a little bit. We're guessing those cockpits don't have AC, and when throw in a bunch of heavy flight gear, a helmet, and an oxygen mask, you have a recipe for one wet ride.

    So sweat equals exertion. What else? Well, sweat is sexy, sort of. It makes us think of passion, performance at the highest level (in the air and in other places). It's no secret that the cast of Top Gun is full of lot of good-looking dudes. Good looking guys sweating all the time and walking around with their shirts off—yeah, that was definitely Tony Scott and Co.'s bid for female viewership and their attempt to give the film a gritty and edgy sexiness.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    Maverick's ordinary world is a lot of guys' fantasy world: flying at supersonic speeds in a 30 million dollar jet. Yep, Maverick is a naval aviator, he flies an F-14 Tomcat for a living, and that's where he first meet him.

    Call To Adventure

    Maverick gets really lucky. While he's called into Stinger's office to get yelled at, he's also been called up to the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to go to Top Gun, the Navy's elite fighter weapons school. There, he will compete against the best the Navy has to offer, and maybe learn a thing or two himself.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Okay, so Maverick doesn't exactly "refuse" the once in a lifetime chance to attend Top Gun. But, he doesn't exactly play by the rules at first. He goes below the minimum elevation to shoot down Jester, and, he buzzes the air control tower. It's like he's trying to get kicked out of Top Gun.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Viper first shows up during the first Top Gun class session, and he essentially lets Maverick know he's watching him (he makes it clear that he can hear what Maverick is whispering to Goose). He reminds Maverick shortly thereafter that he better follow the rules, or he'll be history.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Maverick starts playing by the rules. For a guy who's named Maverick, and wants to do things his way, this is definitely a big step. He takes the Top Gun education and training seriously, and he's neck and neck with Iceman throughout.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Iceman badgers Maverick all the time, making snide comments like they're going out of style. Maverick's own past also haunts him, so much so that Goose finally tells him he needs to stop flying as if he's competing with the ghost of his father. This is all in addition to going up against guys like Jester and Viper, who are way better pilots and continually test Maverick's abilities.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Maverick has a great shot at winning the Top Gun trophy. Shortly before Goose's death, he's in second place (Iceman is in first), but just barely. He even almost gets Viper in missile lock, in some of the best flying Jester has seen from Maverick.


    Maverick's plane crashes in a training accident, and Goose dies. Goose is Maverick's only family, and he's absolutely devastated. Maverick finally gets an idea of what other pilots he's abandoned (he often leaves his wingmen) feel like.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Maverick is exonerated by the Navy, and is soon back flying, but he's not the same pilot anymore. At least he can get back in the plane—lots of guys wouldn't be able to do that. If he can get it together, and get back his edge, Goose's death will actually teach him a thing or two about loyalty, the fragility of life, and all that stuff.

    The Road Back

    Maverick has a long road back after Goose's death. First, he quits Top Gun. Then, Viper invites him over to his house on a Sunday and tells him the truth about his father (Duke Mitchell), and that he can still graduate from Top Gun, if he wants to. It is only after Viper's little chat with Maverick that he seems to get back on track.


    Maverick shows up at graduation, and seems to be at peace. The Navy agrees, and orders him into action, along with Hollywood, Wolfman, Iceman, and Slider. He's still a little troubled (he keeps looking at Gooses' dog tags), but we know he's back (he soon proves it).

    Return With The Elixir

    Maverick shoots down three MiG-28's, saves Iceman's life, and cements his reputation as one of the Navy's top guns. The crew of the aircraft carrier are ecstatic, Iceman finally trusts Maverick, and it is clear that Maverick is one skilled pilot.

  • Setting

    Miramar, California, a.k.a. Fightertown, USA

    Most of Top Gun takes place in Miramar, CA, an area just north of San Diego, CA. We know San Diego is awesome and all, but why set the film here? Well, when Top Gun was made (1984-5, released in 1986), Miramar was home to a naval air station (NAS) and to the real Top Gun (then called Fighter Weapons School, now called Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program), i.e. the school for elite naval aviators like Maverick and Goose. There still is an air base in Miramar, but it belongs to the Marines now.

    While it's not always obvious that the fellas are hanging out in Miramar, the movie makes it pretty clear that they are definitely some place where the weather is nice—warm enough to play volleyball without shirts on in the day, but cool enough at night to necessitate a jacket. Setting aside the fact that Miramar is nicknamed Fightertown, USA, and that the real Top Gun used to be there, it would still be great. Where else but southern California would you shoot a film about a bunch of really good-looking, really talented young fighter pilots, most of whom are single?

    While there are a lot of good sunset shots and shots that make you long for the temperate climate of the San Diego area, there are also plenty of shots on the base itself. We see the guys in a hangar, in classrooms, in what appear to be study halls, and even in the locker room. The film's use of both on- and off-base settings really gives us a great idea of what life in the Navy is like for guys in Top Gun: they have duties and responsibilities, but also some freedom to do other things.

    The biggest thing about the Miramar setting is that this is where most of Maverick's drama unfolds. All the scoldings, the relationship issues (he has a few fights with Charlie), and the struggle with his past, and even his eventual coming to terms with his past and a greater understanding of what it means to fly as part of a team—these all take place on land, i.e. not in the air, and not on the aircraft carrier.

    The F-14 Cockpit

    Top Gun is a movie about fighter pilots, so naturally a lot of scenes take place in the tiny confines of the F-14 cockpit. Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Hollywood, Slider, Viper, Jester—we see all of these guys behind the wheel (or the radar) throughout the film. The film crew did its best to give the audience a sense of how difficult flying a plane like the F-14 can be, and how grueling aerial combat, and aerial combat training, are. This is why, for example, the scenes constantly shift between pilots (especially during training), and why sometimes you feel just a little queasy.

    It is also in the cockpit where Maverick makes most of his great, and most of his bad, decisions. He decides to leave his wingmen multiple times while he's flying, he disengages and reengages on numerous occasions, and he talks about doing his "circus-stunt" fly-bys all within the confines of the cockpit, his personal command tower of sorts. The cockpit and the air—this is Maverick's playground, and his battleground. This is the arena where he most excels, but also where he has the most to learn, and the most to lose.

    USS Enterprise (Aircraft Carrier)

    Technically, we're only on the USS Enterprise during two scenes in the movie (the first, and the second to last), but these are important scenes. We get great shots of smoky, jet-exhaust-filled flight decks, and some really great shots of planes taking off and landing. The aircraft carrier is a scary place, and the film does its best to give us a sense of the thrills and dangerous taking off and landing can be (Cougar almost crashes early in the movie, for example).

    Besides the flight deck, a lot goes down in the air control tower, where Stinger is usually shown puffing his cigar and cursing Maverick's unorthodox flying style. While we can usually follow what's going on by listening to the pilots, the shots of the radar dudes in the tower give us a better sense of the overall picture. It is through the tower footage that we see how pilots' missions are directed, and that we see how frustrating it could potentially be for a guy like Stinger to try to control a guy like Maverick with just a radio.

    The Cold War

    In 1986, when Top Gun was released, there were about 40,000 nuclear warheads ready to go, or the equivalent of 1,000,000 atomic bombs of the kind the United Stops dropped on Hiroshima. That's a lot of firepower folks, and people who lived during the Cold War lived in fear of nuclear annihilation on a daily basis. Okay, so maybe the fear wasn't quite as bad as we may think in retrospect, but it was definitely real.

    What's the Cold War, you might ask? A nearly 50-year long conflict between the world's two great super powers (the United States and the Soviet Union) that never really became a full-on war. The actual "war" was fought in other areas, like the arms race (a quest to see who could amass more deadly weapons), the space race (the quest to see who could make it the furthest into space), and in things like the Olympics (the U.S. hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 was a huge deal).

    Top Gun takes place during the Cold War, and the movie is full of references to the conflict. For example, the MiG-28's that Maverick and Co. face have little red stars painted on their tails, an indication that they are from some unnamed communist country (the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was not just about a conflict between nations, but also between communism and capitalism). Furthermore, the Top Gun pilots spend more time training, practicing, and getting ready than actually fighting. This is the perfect depiction of the Cold War, which was all about preparation (think the arms race). Viper says it best during the first Top Gun training session:

    VIPER: Although we are not at war, we must act as though we are.

  • Point of View

    Top Gun is a pretty frenetic film at times. The camera switches from cockpit to cockpit, goes upside down, leaves the cockpit to show us planes zooming by, and so on. The story itself, however, is pretty straightforward. It's more or less a movie about Maverick (you can count on one hand the number of scenes that don't feature him), and it follows his path from an aircraft carrier, to Top Gun and a series of adventures there, and ultimately back to the aircraft carrier.

    Top Gun doesn't play any games with plot or anything like that. There are no confusing flashbacks, no parallel plot lines going on, no glimpses of the future. Things are straight up linear.

  • Genre

    Fasten Your Seatbelts

    Hmm. Let's see. There are fighter jets. Combat sequences. And one slick motorcycle.

    Action much? Okay, so Top Gun isn't the kind of action movie that Michael Bay would make, with CGI'd buildings blowing up right and left and all that kind of stuff. But it's action-packed, to say the least. It's an action movie in the way that real life can be, specifically, real life as a Navy fighter pilot.

    The two encounters with MiG-28's that frame the movie are tense, action-packed sequences, with tons of acrobatic flying, a comic middle finger courtesy of Maverick, and (in the final sequence) several missile-induced explosions. While we're on the topic, let's not forget about all the training exercises at Top Gun. Guys chasing each other in 30 million dollar jets at supersonic speeds? That's action, without question.

    But What About Drama and Romance?

    While the flying portions of Top Gun are action-packed, the stuff that happens on land is a little different. While we're on terra firma, so to speak, we witness Maverick's personal drama and budding romance with his instructor, Charlie. Maverick is at war with his past, he's at war with the rules of Top Gun, he's at war with Iceman. On top of that, he has a major crush on Charlie, his instructor, who dodges him for a while. Heck, they don't have their first kiss until Maverick gets really mad at her for giving him a hard time in front of all his buddies.

    Like lots of other drama and romance films, these problems eventually resolve themselves, but things get worse before they get better. Maverick loses Goose, loses his edge, and loses Top Gun (well, he quits, anyway). He bails on Charlie, too, and when he tries to go back for her, she's already moved out.

    Luckily for Maverick, with a little help from Viper, and maybe from Goose's spirit, he's able to make peace with his past. In another lucky break, Charlie comes back for him, and actually surprises him by playing the song on the jukebox that he once sang to her. The film ends with a happier Maverick, who, we presume, will go on being romantically involved with Charlie for many years to come.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title says it all folks: Top Gun. The film was based on an article called "Top Guns" written by Ehud Yonay and published in California magazine in 1983. Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the article so they could make a movie out of the story and use the title (the article was about fighter pilots at Top Gun).

    But that's not all there is to the story. While on the one hand the title of the film is simply the name of the elite fighter weapons school the pilots attend, it also describes one of the film's major questions: who is the top gun? Is it Maverick? Is it Iceman? Are they both the top guns? Is neither one the top gun?

    By the end of the film it is clear that Maverick really is the top gun. He saves Iceman's life, and he saves the day. He may be impulsive, he may be unorthodox, but he's learned how to harness those forces to be the best in the Navy (or the best that we see).

    In some ways the film is also about who the top gun is on a more global scale: the United States, or the unnamed communist country? The film suggests at the end that it is because of a school like Top Gun that the United States is the top gun when comes to aerial combat.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending of Top Gun is really comprised of three big scenes, which wrap up the central storylines and give us that happy ending we've been craving.

    Ending #1

    First, Maverick and Co. (but mostly Maverick) use their Top Gun training to save Iceman, and save the day. Maverick shoots down several MiGs, and proves that he's the top gun, that he's regained his edge, and that he's learned to stay with his wingman (he even says as much). This part of the ending is as much about Maverick's development as it is about the triumph of good (the United States Navy) over evil (the unnamed communist country).

    Ending #2

    The second movement in the tripartite ending of the film immediately follows Maverick's victory. The Top Gun theme is playing, and Maverick is looking at the ocean from the aircraft carrier. He takes a final look at Goose's dog tags, and then hurls them into the ocean. Why? Well, he knows he has a problem when it comes to holding onto the past, and this is his way of letting go of Goose (like Viper encourages him to do), and giving his buddy a final send off.

    Ending #3

    Finally, Charlie shows up to the bar where Maverick happens to be chilling. We don't see her at first, but when "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" starts playing we have an idea. Maverick goes to investigate, Charlie pops up behind him, and they recreate a chunk of their first dialogue back at the nightclub.

    It's a little cheesy sure, but it's also a sweet, romantic ending to a movie that's mostly about large hunks of metal hurtling through the air. The replay of an earlier scene gives the film a clear coherence, and suggests that Maverick has not only made peace with his past and learned how to be a team player, but that he's also finally learned something about love and male-female relationships. Monogamy could be in his future. And little tiny Maverick Juniors.

  • Shock Rating


    Hmm, PG makes us think of movies like The Lion King and the Little Mermaid, not action-packed, high drama Navy movies. There's no way this movie should be rated "R" (there's a few swear words, but no f-bombs, and no legitimate nudity or violence), but PG may be just a tad tame.

    Some of the film's drama may be a little above the average 10-year-old's head, and a bit inappropriate. Overall, however, things aren't too bad. As we've mentioned, there's not really any sex or violence, and the language is pretty kid friendly—for the most part.