Thirty years ago today, Top Gun debuted with a star-studded premiere in New York City. Back in 1986, the premiere was an entirely different animal—more casual, for one, and without the preponderance of celebrity stylists, you can see it in the candidness of the photographs: Cruise foppish and brooding, Val Kilmer looking like he’s been waiting for this moment forever, plus denim-and-sneaker wearing celebrities like Aidan Quinn, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Beals, tiny Jon Cryer and freakin’ Andy Warhol.
The cultural climate in ‘86 was ripe for a Top Gun style film to hit: smack dab in the Reagan ‘80s and with Cold War tensions running high, America was still reeling from the Challenger space shuttle explosion, which most of the country watched occur on live television four months before the film’s release. Onboard was Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first school teacher in space and was meant to be a valiant symbol of everyday heroes and American values; the tragedy was deeply felt in a country that was arguably still recovering from the trauma of Vietnam. (For a gauge: Oliver Stone’s Platoon was released later that same year.)
America needed a reason to feel good about itself, to justify its renewed feeling of patriotism. It needed a hero. Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott (RIP), became a stand-in for its raison d’etre and Tom Cruise, by proxy, became its mascot. Its unwavering faith in the military and positioning of young naval aviator trainees as the nation’s true protectors dovetailed perfectly with the militarism Reagan instilled, and for those of us fundamentally uninterested in watching a bunch of dudes fly around in a fucking F-14 and scream “woo” a bunch, well, Cruise was oozing charisma, and Kelly McGillis, as Charlie, was a badass woman flight instructor who sonned Cruise’s Maverick on the regular (up to and including when they boned).
And in the spirit of American camaraderie, it was the ultimate buddy movie, the true love between Maverick and Goose evident and relatable when tragedy struck. There was also the volleyball scene set to Kenny Loggins’s “Playing with the Boys,” arguably the most unintentionally homoerotic scene in a Hollywood film ever.
In the 1986 interview above, Tom Cruise discussed filming Top Gun at sea on an aircraft carrier, a vaguely harrowing experience in which “no one slept”; more mind-blowing, however, are his gray poinsettia sweater and cowboy boots.
In this clip from the same interview, Cruise talked about flying in a jet with a guy named Grizz; pardon my dirty mind, but it, too, sounds like a highly homoerotic experience. Grizz! He gave me a ride! Don’t tell nobody I’m doin’ this for ya, ya hear! Son!
Back then, critics were divided on the film; Roger Ebert liked it all right, but noted the lack of chemistry between McGillis and Cruise. Hmm:
Cruise and McGillis spend a lot of time squinting uneasily at each other and exchanging words as if they were weapons, and when they finally get physical, they look like the stars of one of those sexy new perfume ads. There’s no flesh and blood here, which is remarkable, given the almost palpable physical presence McGillis had in “Witness.” In its other scenes on the ground, the movie seems content to recycle old cliches and conventions out of countless other war movies.
Gene Siskel marveled at the effects, and recognized how its storyline valorized the military:
As a result “Top Gun” makes us idolize jet pilots, and surely that’s one of its goals. If the Navy brass had any brains, they’d have a jet pilot school recruiter in the lobby of every theater where “Top Gun” is playing. . . .
At the Village Voice, J. Hoberman discussed the way the film “reformulates aggression as sex,” which makes note of the way Top Gun glamorized war as a hot, hyper-masculine act of sexing a high-tech flying machine. It worked well for the film—it grossed over $350 million that year worldwide—and defined an era of conservatism. Great job, Tom!