STINGER: Do not fire unless fired upon.
Stinger's warning encapsulates the Cold War backdrop of Top Gun perfectly. Cougar and Maverick are definitely in hot water during this scene, but Stinger knows better than to let them fire the first shot of what certainly would have turned into the most destructive war ever.
VIPER: Although we are not at war, we must always act as though we are.
Viper says it best. Even when there is no actual war, the military has to pretend they are in order to stay sharp. In some ways, the subtext of Viper's comment is this: war is a permanent state of affairs.
ICEMAN: Maverick, it's not your flying, it's your attitude. The enemy's dangerous, but right now you're worse than the enemy. You're dangerous and foolish. You may not like the guys flying with you, they may not like you, but whose side are you on?
The real war isn't with the enemy. Maverick is, essentially, waging war on his fellow pilots (and himself), if only because he's endangering them more than the enemy is, all because of his attitude.
VIPER: In my squadron in Vietnam, we lost eight of 18 aircraft. Ten men. First one dies, you die too. But there will be others. You can count on it. You gotta let him go. You gotta let him go.
Viper describes the reality of being a fighter pilot, and the realities of war. He not only gives Maverick (and us) a history lesson about high death rates in Vietnam, but also points out that jets are almost as dangerous in peacetime as in war.
VIPER: We were in the worst dogfight I ever dreamed of. Bogies like fireflies all over the sky. His F-4 was hit, he was wounded, but he could've made it back. He stayed in it, saved three planes before he bought it… Now that's not something the State Department tells dependents when the battle occurred over the wrong line on some map.
Viper again describes the realities of war with perfect precision. He tells Maverick about his father's heroic, wartime death, and also alludes to the politics of war. Wars are fought over "lines" on maps, and Maverick has grown up believing a lie because of the contours of some dumb boundary.
STINGER: There are MiGs in the area. Tensions are high. If you witness a hostile act you are to return fire.
Stinger finally gives the boys permission to fire because he knows it's his guys or the enemy's guys. Nevertheless, he doesn't exactly give the guys a blank check. They still have to witness a "hostile act," which soon happens as Hollywood is shot down.
VIPER: You think your name is gonna be on that plaque?
MAVERICK: Yes sir.
Maverick bursts out of the gun with an immensely competitive attitude. In a classroom full of A-list pilots, he basically says: "I'm gonna win guys." Viper even calls him arrogant as a result, and he loves it that Maverick is arrogant.
VIPER: Gentlemen this school is about combat. There are no points for second place.
There is only one place at Top Gun, and that's first. How much more competitive could it be? The competitive ethos of Top Gun is simple: you either win the trophy, or you join the hundreds of others in the also-rans category.
VIPER: Remember, when it's over out there, we're all on the same team.
Competition is only so important, says Viper. He wants his pilots to do their best to win the trophy, but he doesn't want the competitive spirit of Top Gun to ruin their team unity.
GOOSE: No, no, no, no, there's two O's in Goose, boys.
Goose's first words to his Top Gun class, and they're unforgettable. This is his way of being competitive: implying that his name is already on the trophy, implying that he and Maverick are so good the trophy is as good as theirs.
GOOSE: Wanna know who the best is? That's him, Iceman, that's the way he flies, ice cold, no mistakes.
In the early days of Top Gun, the pilots are obsessed with the question of who the best pilot is. Viper talks about it, Iceman mentions it in the nightclub, and Goose points out Iceman, their main competitive rival for the trophy.
CHARLIE: Is that why you're always second best up there?
Charlie taps into Maverick's competitiveness, and suggests that maybe he can't be number one because he's too obsessed with his father's legacy. To be truly competitive, she implies, he'll need to get over it, and quick.
GOOSE: Well it's the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied. It's time for the big one.
Iceman and Maverick are neck and neck for the trophy. Goose says it best. Iceman and Maverick are locked in an intense battle for the win, and it's coming down to the wire. Sadly, Goose's death causes Maverick to lose his edge.
JESTER: He can't get back in the saddle, won't engage
VIPER: It's only been a few days
JESTER: You know he just might not make it back.
After Goose's death, Maverick loses his competitive edge—he "won't engage." If he were playing basketball and grabbed a rebound, he'd just drop the ball. Maverick never regains his competitive edge, and effectively gives Iceman the trophy. He does, however, get "back in the saddle" when it counts.
CHARLIE: You're one of the best pilots in the Navy… you've got to go on.
Charlie's comments to Maverick after Goose's death mean two things. One, he needs to stay in the Navy. He's too good. Two, he needs to get back in the game at Top Gun, and remain competitive. Again, he's too good to quit.
STINGER: Let's not bullshit Maverick, your family name ain't the best in the Navy. You need to be doing it better and cleaner than the other guy.
Can we blame Maverick for being obsessed with his family name? Stinger is probably the billionth person to remind Maverick of the Mitchell family history, and to call him out for not redeeming that past by flying better.
GOOSE: But it's like every time we go up there, it's like you're flying against a ghost. It makes me nervous.
The "ghost" Maverick flies against is his father, and his father's reputation. That family past is a huge burden for Maverick, and it makes him one dangerous pilot. It also affects his teammates. He needs to move beyond that past.
MAVERICK: The stink of it was, he screwed up. No way. My old man was a great fighter pilot. But who the hell knows it's classified? It's all classified.
Maverick is really irritated when he tells Charlie this story, and that's because, as we've already figured out, he's hug up on the past. Every time he thinks about it, he gets worked up ("But who the hell knows"), partly because he doesn't know the truth.
VIPER: You gotta let him go.
Viper is worried that Goose's memory will become a huge burden for Maverick, and this is why he tells him that he has to let Goose go. The problem is, he tells Maverick to do this about ten minutes after Goose's death. That's a little unreasonable
STINGER: Your family name ain't the best in the Navy.
Maverick has no family, only a family name that "ain't the best." We learn more as the film goes on, but it's clear early on that somebody in Maverick's family has tarnished the Mitchell name, and made things hard for Maverick.
ICEMAN: Sorry to hear about Cougar. He and I were like brothers in flight school.
Iceman's relationship with Cougar defines the familiar nature of the Navy pilots. They're a team, a group of brothers, a family. Maverick and Iceman, however, don't accept the fact that they're "related" until the end of the film.
GOOSE: Look, man, I know it's gotta be tough for you. They wouldn't let you in the academy because you're Duke Mitchell's kid and you have to live with that reputation.
Family can be a huge burden. Family can even affect your life even when, in reality, you're not at all responsible. Maverick isn't admitted to the Naval academy because of his father. Hey, that's not Maverick's fault.
MAVERICK: You're the only family I've got.
While Maverick takes the Navy-as-family thing seriously (Goose is his family), he's also a loner, a black sheep. The fact that he only considers Goose a family member is part of his problem, and the source of some of his arrogance.
VIPER: You're a lot like he was. Only better, and worse. He was a natural, heroic son of a bitch, that one.
Maverick is defined by his father in more ways than one. Not only does his legacy haunt him, he, apparently, acts and flies just like him, even though he died when Maverick was very young.
STINGER Son your ego is writing checks your body can't cash.
Maverick's "ego" doesn't seem to care at all about rules and consequences. With a word like "body," Stinger clearly means "Maverick's career." The implication is this: he's trying to be as awesome as he can, but it will ultimately damage his career—or maybe even get him killed.
STINGER: You've been busted, lost your qualifications as section leader 3 times, put in HAC twice by me, with a history of high speed passes over 5 air control towers, and one admiral's daughter
Wow, Maverick has done all this, and he's still in the Navy? He must be one hell of a pilot. Stinger's summary of Maverick's discipline record makes it clear: this guy does whatever he wants, and he can't seem to follow the rules for very long.
VIPER: You took it, and broke a major rule of engagement. Then you broke another one with that circus stunt fly-by. The rules of Top Gun exist for your safety and that of your crew. They are not flexible nor am I.
This is the second time Maverick has been yelled at in the film. While maybe Maverick's rule breaking has some purpose (to save Cougar, to get some points towards the Top Gun trophy), it endangers the entire team. Iceman will call Maverick out on this several times in the movie. Not cool, Mav.
JESTER: His fitness report says it all. He's a wild card. Flies by the seat of his pants. Completely unpredictable.
Instead of something like "flies by the rules," or "textbook perfect," Maverick's "fitness report" points to his volatility, and the fact that you never know what rule he's going to break next. He's "unpredictable."
HOLLYWOOD: Don't you leave me, Maverick.
Hollywood knows the rules. Goose does, too, and he reminds Maverick not to leave his wingman. Hollywood and Goose keep reminding Maverick of the unofficial rules of dogfighting, but Maverick is too hotheaded and can't resist going after Viper.
JESTER: You never, never leave your wingman.
Jester reiterates what Hollywood and Goose told Maverick during the previous hop. This has been a recurring problem for Maverick, and this is really the first time he's criticized for leaving his wingman by a superior officer. Busted.
MAVERICK: I'm not leaving my wingman.
Maverick goes from a big time rule breaker to a big rule follower by the end of the film. Merlin keeps telling him to get out of there (it's really hot), but Maverick will not leave his wingman, Iceman, because if he's learned one thing from Top Gun, it's that you never leave your wingman, no matter what.