Monday, 5 March 2012
FilmQuest 2012 (11/30): 'Top Gun':
I'm aware this isn't a particularly original thing to say, but 'Top Gun' is very gay, isn't it? And I don't just mean the infamous beach volleyball scene or the fact that Tom Cruise has far more screen chemistry with his wingman (Anthony Edwards AKA "Goose") than with intended love interest Kelly McGillis. The steamy, overtly homoerotic exchanges between the film's team of elite Cold War fighter pilots include such aggressively macho lines as "your dick, my ass: we nailed that bitch!" and the memorable exchange: "This [briefing] gives me a hard on"/"Don't tease me!" Another pilot, during one of a thousand locker room scenes, candidly reveals that a list is as "long and distinguished" as his Johnson.
Later, a pilot compliments Cruises' "Maverick" on an especially risky flight maneuver, saying in a breathy voice "gutsiest move I ever saw, man" - a line that wouldn't be all that gay if it weren't backed up musically with the refrain from the film's love theme, "Take My Breath Away". More subtle, but no less gay, is a rack focus shot which sees "Maverick" in a flight classroom, looking over his shoulder at "Iceman": sizing up Val Kilmer in a way that is reminiscent of the way so many high school romance movies depict the top jock checking out the head cheerleader. Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with this homo-eroticism and nothing inherently hilarious about gayness, until you consider the film's intended devoutly heterosexual male audience.
Writing checks its body most certainly can't cash, 'Top Gun' is the latest entry in my "FilmQuest 2012" column and, produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, it very much establishes the archetype for subsequent action films like 'The Rock', as well as the military recruitment aesthetic of the entire Michael Bay oeuvre. It opens with by now familiar shots of US military personnel doing their duty, with the flight deck of an aircraft carrier shot in slow motion, backed up by triumphant and patriotic sounding music. A poster asking people to consider the "adventure" of joining the US Navy hangs on the locker room wall - and I doubt it's there for the characters (already serviceman). American military tech and jargon are endlessly fetishised, with Tom Cruise draped around fighter jets the way Hollywood stars usually advertise expensive wristwatches.
Feminists would quite rightly object to a film which suggested staying at home and obeying your man were essential to a happy, fulfilled life - and arguably 'Top Gun' is no less problematic. Here men are told: join the US military - it's damn sexy and super cool. It's a fantasy version of military service in which all the discipline is missing, even at an apparently "elite" fighter jet academy for the best of the best. Whenever Cruise breaks a rule he gets a stern talking to, but he's otherwise allowed to act as he pleases. Along with the volleyball, the karaoke, and the driving of high-end sports cars and motorcycles, "Maverick" seduces the driven career gal from the Pentagon (McGillis) and becomes a Cold War hero - whose face, we are told, will be on the front page of every newspaper in the English speaking (and therefore relevant) world.
The aerial photography is pretty outstanding however, with director Tony Scott serving up some really intense dogfight scenes. Even though I'm not usually one to get turned on by machines of war, I'd have to admit the fighter jets are pretty spectacular. The scenes in which they are piloted also seem (as far as I can tell, with no military or flying experience) pretty realistic: few planes, few explosions, and long moments of relative inaction. I mean, aside from the bit where he flies upside down against a Russian cockpit in order to give the guy the finger. "Maverick" and company don't take to the air guns blazing, but instead they get involved in quite drawn out and limited combat missions, usually without permission to fire live ammunition.
This being 1986, with the Cold War still raging, the enemy is vaguely defined. They are at least in league with the Soviet Union, flying MiG jets, but the enemy pilots we see are suited up like Darth Vader (complete with the heavy breathing) and never speak. The combat we see takes place over the Indian Ocean - which means the enemy could come from pretty much anywhere from East Africa to Southeast Asia. But who they are and what they are fighting for is not of any importance to this story. 'Top Gun' positions war as a glamourous, high-stakes backdrop to "Maverick's" personal story. All successes and failures are his own and ultimate victory is his. Even when a close friend dies it is he who is consoled by the widow and told to fly on.
Perhaps this is the crux of why so many American war movies get it wrong: war degradates the individual, taking away their rights and turning them into an expendable cog in a gigantic, terrifying machine. Yet war movies promote conflict as a an arena in which the individual can shine and grow.