Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is true to his name. He is definitely a maverick (i.e. a guy who plays by his own rules) if there ever was one. For most of the movie he is cocky, self-assured, and, as he himself admits in a locker room showdown with Iceman:
MAVERICK: That's right Ice… man… I am dangerous.
Maverick is notorious for leaving his wingman in the interest of greater glories elsewhere, and he'll also engage in childish pranks (like buzzing the tower) for sport and break the rules of the training exercises at Top Gun (in his first heat at Top Gun, Maverick goes below the mandatory, minimum elevation level). Getting yelled at by Viper and Jester doesn't seem to phase him all that much.
Now, even though Maverick is a little rough around the edges, so to speak, he's a pretty likable guy. He's charming, good-looking, and a whole lot less arrogant than his main rival for the Top Gun trophy: Iceman.
Oh and one more thing: Maverick is an amazing pilot. Seriously, he's really, really good, if unorthodox. Even Viper himself has to remark during a training exercise:
VIPER: Damn this kid's good.
He definitely never says that about Iceman now does he? Both Charlie and Stinger also compliment Maverick's flying, a courtesy they never extend to Iceman.
Okay, so Maverick is a maverick. He marches to the beat of his own drummer, and sometimes he takes things too far. But what really makes him tick?
Oftentimes, the stereotypical story goes, guys that are really, really, really cocky are just trying to cover up a deeply rooted insecurity. What insecurity might that be? Well, for starters, the Mitchell name. Recall that near the beginning of the movie, when Maverick and Goose are being chewed out for breaking protocol and saving Cougar's life, Stinger reminds Maverick that he and everybody else knows that his name:
STINGER: ...ain't the best in the Navy.
If you look closely at Maverick's face when Stinger tells him this, you can kind of see the insecurity, especially in his jaw. Maverick looks totally vulnerable and scared at that moment, a sign that if you really want to make Maverick feel horrible just bring up his family history. This is one of the first signs that "Maverick" might just be a mask or alternate identity for an insecure Pete Mitchell.
Throughout the film we get little snippets of information about Maverick's family history—Goose visits him late at night to talk about their first run-in with Viper, and he mentions that Maverick wasn't admitted to the Naval Academy because he's "Duke Mitchell's kid." Hmm.
Maverick fills in the details during his first date with Charlie. Maverick's father disappeared and/or crashed during the Vietnam War, and the story Maverick has been told is that he disobeyed orders and that he was a failure—which is exactly the line Maverick toes throughout the movie. Maverick's family past haunts him, as Goose says:
GOOSE: It's like you're flying against a ghost.
Viper eventually tells Maverick what actually happened (his father saved several planes even though his plane was already hit), and Maverick is able to lay the ghost to rest, so to speak.
Let's tell it to you straight: Maverick is self-assured, overly confident, aggressive, and a womanizer (the nightclub for him is a "target-rich environment"). Speaking of which, remember the moves he puts on Charlie? He tells her two minutes into the conversation that his chances of sleeping with her are:
MAVERICK: ...looking good so far.
He's so confident, he follows her into the bathroom, then tells her a few day later that she was tempted to ask him to dinner.
Throw into the mix the fact that Maverick more or less denies Charlie when she's all but begging for a kiss, and you can tell we're dealing with a professional player here, a guy who knows to get the ladies chasing him (which Charlie does, in her car, after which she confesses that she's fallen for him).
Let's be fair to the guy. Maverick is also loyal to his closest pals (Goose especially), and willing to break few rules here and there in the interest of winning, saving the day, etc.
He's insecure, sure, but he does love life on the edge. He's a total thrill seeker: he loves fast planes, fast motorcycles, chasing women into women's bathrooms, and flying past air control towers at exorbitant speeds.
Dangerous, yes? The best there is? Probably.
Meet Junior Lieutenant Nick "Goose" Bradshaw, Maverick's fun-loving, laid back radar intercept officer (RIO).
He's also Maverick's best friend, and the perfect counterpart. Maverick is cocky and sure of himself, whereas Goose is a little more go-with-the flow. Sure, Goose displays some of the same arrogance on occasion. For example, while looking at the Top Gun trophy he exclaims:
GOOSE: No no no, there's two o's in Goose boys.
But for the most part he gets along a little better with Iceman and Slider. It's clear during the nightclub scene that he already knows them, and Iceman seems to like him okay, even though he can't stand Maverick.
Unlike Maverick, Goose is a family man (he has a wife and son), and he's a little more grounded. He's a little more worried about getting kicked out of Top Gun than Maverick is. He also doesn't have a lot of control over things. When Maverick decides to buzz the air control tower, for example, or leave his wingmen, there's not a whole lot Goose can do about it other than try to talk him out of it.
Speaking of air control towers and wingmen, Goose is more or less Maverick's conscience. He's like the little angel on Maverick's shoulder, letting him know when he should and shouldn't do things.
After their first day at Top Gun, Goose visits Maverick and basically tells him to stop screwing around. Goose has a family, and he needs to do well at the school. During the first hop that Viper is a part of, Goose keeps telling Maverick not to leave Hollywood (Maverick's wingman), and yet Maverick still does it. Afterwards, in the locker room, Goose looks visibly disappointed, and Maverick knows he made a mistake.
It is because Goose is so important to Maverick that he (Goose) needs to die. That sounds harsh, we know, but Top Gun is a movie about Maverick's development, about his journey from being a maverick to being a wiser, smart pilot, one at peace with his past. Only by working through Goose's death, and learning to keep his demons at bay, can Maverick truly become the top gun.
Charlotte Blackwood, a.k.a. Charlie, is one of Maverick's instructors at Top Gun, and his main squeeze. She's classy, educated (PhD in Astrophysics? That ain't nothing), and knows how to put Maverick in his place, which she does during their first encounter.
Not only does she refuse to go home with him, she doesn't tell him that she works as an instructor at Top Gun. While Maverick will play his own games later, it's Charlie who wins the first few rounds—she gently rebukes him at the nightclub, as we've already mentioned, and she still plays coy when Maverick hits on her again during a study hall session. To say she can hold her own against handsome pilots is an understatement.
A woman in a man's world, Charlie knows just about everything there is to know about aerial combat and the technology behind jet-fighters, MiGs and everything in between. She has a very high level of security clearance, and she does a lot of work for the Pentagon.
Which means she's in the perfect position to teach Maverick a thing or two about flying, even though he's a little hesitant to listen to anybody (he gets mad when she criticizes his flying during a teaching session).What Charlie doesn't have is practical experience of aerial combat, and in this regard she comes just a little short. But that's no matter. The Pentagon trusts her.
Charlie has her own set of rules, one of which is no dating students, and no inviting them over for dinner. Something about Maverick makes her question her resolve, however, and while she acts like she just wants to talk about the MiG, it's clear that she finds something irresistible about him (it's probably his confidence, and the fact that on at least two occasions he refuses to kiss her when she seems to want to be kissed). Apparently, Charlie is a little flexible, and she finally admits that she's fallen for him.
She's also a pretty caring woman who's not afraid to let Maverick have it once in a while (she screams at him on the side of the road to make it clear that her review of his flying was spot on). She's there for him after Goose's death, and she forgives him for trying to quit without saying goodbye, even though he acts like a jerk and shuts her out.
Ultimately, Charlie never gives up. She doesn't give up on the promotion she gets and ultimately takes, and she even comes back for Maverick at the end, surprising him with the song he sang to her when they first met. She knows Maverick is a catch, or at least she thinks he is, and he's worth coming back for. The fact that she talks just like him during that final romantic scene proves that she, too, has learned something from Maverick, much like he has from her.
Anybody with a name like Viper must be one bad dude.
Commander Mike "Viper" Metcalf fits the bill. He's the head honcho at Top Gun, and he was the first guy to win the coveted Top Gun trophy. He's your typical, no nonsense, high-ranking naval aviator. Viper didn't get that far up the food chain without making a name for himself, and the implication is that he made that name during the Vietnam War, where he flew with Maverick's father.
Now Viper knows what it takes to be an A-list fighter pilot, and he knows just which buttons to push, especially when it comes to Maverick. He sees shades of Duke Mitchell (Maverick's father) in Maverick, and tells him so near the end of the film:
VIPER: You're a lot like he [Maverick's father Duke], only better. And worse.
Viper's past history with the Mitchell family means he knows how to get through to Maverick, which is why Maverick ultimately decides to not quit Top Gun, and the Navy. Viper tells him about his father (which could get Viper in a lot of trouble as what he tells him is classified), and he knows that this is what Maverick needs to hear.
Part of the reason Viper is a good commander, a good pilot, and a good instructor is that he doesn't sugarcoat anything. He's gruff and blunt. That's the way to get through the Navy pilots.
For example, during the first Top Gun session he says flat out:
VIPER:This school is about combat. There are no points for second place.
Later, while disciplining Maverick and Goose he tells them that if they don't obey the rules, they'll be "history." Plain and simple.
Lieutenant Tom "Iceman" Kazansky's name says it all: he's an iceman, plain and simple.
What does that mean? Well, for starters, it means he's one cold told. The only time he seems to smile is when he's giving Maverick a hard time. And even when he does smile, it's really more of an arrogant sneer of sorts, the "I know I'm the man" kind of smile.
Even though he's kind of cold, though, he's a textbook pilot, and pretty much the best there is. As Goose says to Maverick at the nightclub:
GOOSE: That's the way he flies, ice cold, no mistakes.
Toss into the mix the fact that Iceman is a decently tall guy, has good hair, a great tan, and a great body, and it becomes clear that he's the guy who could have been a model. Sure Maverick is a good-looking dude, but he's not quite tall enough to be a model.
Iceman doesn't develop too much throughout the movie. He never really makes any big mistakes during training, and he doesn't really seem to need to learn any big emotional lessons like Maverick does. In a lot of ways, there's not a lot of depth to Iceman. He's in the film to be Maverick's antithesis and antagonist-turned-buddy, and he's the perfect fit: he's blond, Maverick is dark-haired; he's taller, Maverick is slightly shorter; he's number 1, Maverick is number 2.
If there's one thing Top Gun wants us to take away about Iceman, it's this: sometimes it may seem like you have everything, but sometimes everything isn't enough. Iceman is the man, there's no question, but he doesn't have the same instincts as Maverick.
It's Maverick that ultimately saves the day. It's Maverick that Viper takes a special interest in, and even volunteers to fly with, should the need arise. If Iceman looks great on paper, he lacks the intangibles. That's what Maverick has, and Iceman finally realizes that by the end of the film. He knows Maverick saved his butt, and that is why he tells Maverick that, even though he's still dangerous, he can be his (Iceman's) wingman anytime.
Junior Lieutenant Ron "Slider" Kerner is Iceman's slimy partner in crime, his radar intercept officer (RIO). What Goose is to Maverick, Slider is to Iceman. He's not in the movie a whole lot, and he's around mostly as a foil.
He talks a little more smack than Iceman (the first thing we hear him say in the film is "Goose you're such a dickhead"), and likes to go out of his way to rub Maverick the wrong way. For example, at one point he thinks Maverick has failed to attract Charlie's attention and says:
SLIDER: Crashed and burned huh Mav?
Little does he know that Maverick has just been invited to dine with Charlie.
Slider is in just about every scene that Iceman is, and he's clearly really good at what he does, even though he may sweat a little more than the other guys. He's got an ego, and he acts like a big shot on the volleyball court, and in other scenes (after the first hop, he reminds Maverick and Goose that there are no points for second place).
If Viper is Maverick's mentor, for the most part, it is Lieutenant Commander "Jester" Heatherly that does a lot of the teaching. He's at the helm during the first day of instruction, and he's usually in front of the class. He's almost always up in the air with the guys as well, and he's also usually the one who provides Maverick with more direct coaching, criticism, and the like (even though Viper is the more important presence).
There isn't a whole lot of depth to Jester, and he doesn't really change too much throughout the film. In a lot of ways, he handles all the day-to-day stuff for Viper and Top Gun, and he's almost reduced to the role of "highest ranking guy who is not actually the head honcho."
He has a deep, imposing voice, which makes him kind of scary, and he's definitely gruff and a man of few words, a true military man. Michael Ironside, the actor who plays Jester, really looked the part. In a famous incident, an actual enlisted member of the Navy was running and stopped short and saluted Ironside (who was in costume), thinking he was an actual officer.
There's a ton of Navy pilots in Top Gun, and a lot of them aren't even given names.
After Maverick, Goose, Iceman, and Slider, the next most important ones are Hollywood and Wolfman, who are probably the third place finishers, though we have no way of knowing that for sure. Hollywood is a pretty good pilot himself. During the final battle scene, for example, it's Hollywood that is sent up as Iceman's wingman (Maverick is just the backup).
In addition to Hollywood and Wolfman, there's Cougar and Merlin (he flies with Maverick during the final battle scene). Cougar is symbolically removed after the film's first sequence to make way for Maverick. He's the best pilot in that squadron, as Stinger reminds Maverick, but Maverick's characterization depends on his "sliding" in to Cougar's spot. Maverick is an awesome pilot, but he's not the best (Cougar is). He has to make a few mistakes, and learn how to be the best before he can, you know, be the best.
There are countless other pilots (such as Sundown) that make appearances in the film, but most of them aren't given names, and they're really there to fill out the cast, so to speak, and to make the Navy community look bigger than 4-6 actors would make it look.