A propos of nothing, Top Gun

It’s hard to watch Top Gun and not be the guy who says things like “Aha! I see we are exorcising the specter of Vietnam!” but when the movie reveals that Tom Cruise’s dad is the ghost who haunts him and he was killed in 1965, in some ambiguously Vietnam war-adjacent event, and Tom Skerritt says he was actually saving lives and it was a hero but it was hushed up by the government who allowed his reputation to be destroyed (presumably protesters spit on his coffin when it returned from its heroes journey), well, it also takes some of the fun out of pointing it out. “Leaping through an open door,” as I seem to recall Žižek saying constantly—to indicate an aggressive interpretation of something that turns out to be on the surface, explicit—but after googling it, I can only find him using the “knock on an open door” locution, and not in precisely the same way? (It has been ages since I read Žižek, but Top Gun is the kind of movie that will send you into the critical arms of a bonkers Slovenian raccoon.)  

Anyway. This movie is so on the nose. All those scenes where a guy named Maverick is told that he’s a Maverick—“this guy is a maverick!” a bystander remarks, to which another person responds “very much so, he is a maverick”—and the lessons he must learn are spelled out in such an incredibly explicit way as to make you remember watching He-Man cartoons in the 80s. All the homoeroticism, the kind of on-the-nose stuff that makes Achilles and Patroclus seem discreet (Maverick even “sulks in his tent” in his tent, in a sense, after Goose dies). Must I even point out that the only woman in the movie is named “Charlie”? I mean. Everything in Sarah Gailey’s thread.

(It has been observed to me that there is another woman in the movie, Meg Ryan, and while I will grant that is true in a narrow, technical, factual sense—and she is very good in it—her presence in the movie is always as a visitation from another cinematic universe, a crossover event like when Norm and Cliff show up on Wings.)

Is this movie the source of clichés, the origin point for tropes? After all, remember how the scene where Tom Cruise rides his motorcycle past the jet fighters comes back in the bad Star Trek movie, where Kirk rides his motorcycle past the Enterprise being built? That’s a clear and definite reference to the specific film Top Gun. But it’s not like Top Gun was a fresh and original in its time. This movie was born cliched, but lives in the cliché, inhabits it, an absolute caricature of itself and making it work through its resolute, joyous insistence. (This is called Tom Cruising, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully explore; I would refer you to the works of Jane Hu and Jennifer Schnepf,). 

This joy in cliché merges with a more fundamental truth about the movie, which is that it’s a sports movie, structured around a competition for a plaque, for the coach’s approval, and for a victory that is purely symbolic. And the movie helpfully tells you that it’s a sports movie when it boils the conflict between Iceman and Maverick into a volleyball game. “See, this is a nice thing for ladies to watch,” L said, having been ensnared by the sounds of Highway to the Danger Zone echoing down the hallway. But when I observed to her that it’s a sports movie about war, she correctly observed that the really strange thingis that it’s actually the reverse: a war movie about sports. If sports are a continuation of war by other, symbolic means, as is genuinely understood—the peacetime conflict that men use to prepare for war, as your Teddy Roosevelts believed—then how thoroughly the cold war recedes into the background, here, becoming yet another competition among men, without history or stakes beyond personal honor and glory. These pilots are not patriots in any meaningful sense; Tom Cruise’s libidinal attachments are the hot bodies in the room with him, not the memory of his father, much less the grand historical shame that “Vietnam” represents in the neoconservative worldview. He could care less, and so could the movie, and so could you. This is a sports movie.

But let’s keep going: the amazing thing about this movie is that war itself has become the symbolic order, the scoreboard used to describe the real stakes of the conflict: the interpersonal relations of men among men. There is no war, not really, because for there to be a war, there would have to be something at stake beyond whose gun is on top, and there isn’t in this movie; for war to be real, actions would have to have consequences. And despite Goose’s death, it’s very important for the movie to clarify that actions don’t have consequences. It was the jet-wash that killed Goose, and he couldn’t have known or prevented it, despite the clear implication in the scene that competition with Ice Man for victory caused the accident. His culpability is only suggested so that the movie can vindicate him, just like every other time he goes maverick in order for the coaches can yell at him and then promote him to QB1. If the specter of consequences looms over the play, it’s only so that it can be banished.

This is why the truly maddening thing about Top Gun’s cold war is that the real danger, in the final sequence, shouldn’t really be the risk of “losing the engagement.” This is a sports movie in which Maverick and Ice Man have grown to be teammates, and can work together, and so, in the big game, they defeat their opponents and come home to glory (and renewed homoerotic banter about who will be whose “wing man”). This is the sports movie conclusion, the function of sports being to stage conflict and then resolve it, end it. But in the war movie that Top Gun refuses to be, the real danger would have been that an act of war—like shooting down some Soviet jets in non-American airspace—would be regarded as, well, an act of war. In the real world, there would have been consequences! It would have mattered.

But in a way, that might be the most charming thing about Top Gun, the extent to which it doesn’t want to be about war. Most sports movies kind of do, or at least they know that they are; they know that they’re a preparation for the real thing, and so they invest a dull set of symbols and markers with existential significance. But Top Gun is, like Cruise himself, somehow so gloriously in the dark about its true nature that it can be innocent even in its guilt.

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