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.
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.