Credit: Everett Collection

Top Gun has always been more than just an action flick about a cocky young fighter pilot who feels the need for speed. In fact, you could say that over the past 30 years it’s snowballed into a national Rorschach test that tells us how we feel about ’80s cinema. After all, it’s possible to watch the saga of Tom Cruise’s swaggering flyboy Maverick and get swept up in its love story and death-defying aerial dogfights and experience it as nothing more than the rousing, rah-rah Reagan-era smash it was. But it’s also possible to sit through the same film and experience a sense of dread. A sinking feeling that all of the movie’s superficial glitz signaled the beginning of the end — the precise moment when so many of our summer movies became slick, soulless confections. There is no right or wrong here. If anything, I’d argue that what makes Top Gun so lasting and, yes, important is that it’s both. A lot of the credit — and blame — for this goes to the film’s producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, the big-budget Barnum & Bailey of the blockbuster era. That duo first laid the groundwork for today’s MTV-edited, Top 40-soundtracked, Michael Bay-ified summer-movie machine with Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop. But they finally achieved their assembly-line apex when they cast Cruise as Top Gun‘s high-altitude hotshot — a guy whose outsize ego writes checks his body can’t cash, to quote one of the film’s better catchphrases. Watching Top Gun now in its new 25th-anniversary Blu-ray edition (1986, PG, 1 hr., 49 mins.), you can see why Cruise, then a baby-faced 23, became the biggest star of the era. His thousand-watt smile is the film’s best special effect. He’s confident and charismatic, a daredevil riding right into the danger zone, convinced he’s got the right stuff even as a towel-clad Val ”Iceman” Kilmer tosses locker-room insults at him. Cruise is Maverick. And Maverick is America, at least America back in the go-go ’80s. Whether you love Top Gun or hate it — or hate yourself for loving it — the fact is that when it became the top-grossing film of 1986, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom took all of the worst lessons from its success and overlooked what made it so…fun. Which is, sadly, where we find ourselves 30 years down the road. There are still great movies every summer, don’t get me wrong. But let’s face it: Marketing hype and splashy spectacle won, fun got its butt kicked. We still feel the need for speed, but where are all the movies that make us feel like we can soar? B

Top Gun
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes
  • Tony Scott