' Cinema Romantico: Top Gun Is The Awesomest, Part 224

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Top Gun Is The Awesomest, Part 224

When Tony Scott tragically jumped to his death in 2012, Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times considered Mr. Scott’s distinct pop music sensibilities in conjunction with his filmmaking. He wrote that “Kenny Loggins' ‘Danger Zone’ may be used most often as a punch line today, and the video Scott directed, with Loggins kicking around a bed in the early morning hours, can now be viewed as camp. Yet don't hold time against it. ‘Top Gun’ was a film that celebrated mid-'80s military technology; why shouldn't it also celebrate mid-'80s rock 'n' roll, one of the dominant sounds of the period?” If there was ever a film that does not deserve to have time held against it, it is most assuredly “Top Gun.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, currently editor of Roger Ebert’s page at the Chicago Sun-Times, a fantastic critic, a Pulitzer nominated critic, whom I deeply respect, does not hold time against “Top Gun” because, in fact, he did not care for “Top Gun” at the time of its release. He made this clear in his answer to last week’s Criticwire question which wondered about cases wherein critical consensus was correct the first time around and resistant to re-evaluations. He said: “’Top Gun’ was terrible when it came out and it's still terrible. Every time somebody online tries to stick up for it as some sort of American pop classic, I just roll my eyes. It's a burp from the Reagan era, no more worthy of serious consideration than ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II.’”


So, here’s Nick, right, about to try and stick up for “Top Gun” as some sort of American pop classic? Eh, not quite. Not as an American pop classic. But as an 80’s American pop classic? Oh, most definitely. I think of Rob Sheffield's passage in his memoir “Talking To Girls About Duran Duran” in which he discusses “the truly loathsome opening shot of ‘Top Gun’ with the caption ‘Indian Ocean: Present Day.’ That totally sums up where Hollywood culture was at in 1986: the ruling principle was that the ‘Present Day’ would always look, sound and feel exactly like 1986.” Obviously, Mr. Sheffield meant this as a besmirching of “Top Gun’s” quality and ethos, and more power to him. I, however, read that passage as a backward compliment.

“(Tom) Cruise is Maverick,” wrote Chris Nashawaty on its 25th anniversary. “And Maverick is America, at least America back in the go-go 80’s.” In other words, “Top Gun” was not intended to transcend its time because it was so utterly rooted to its Reagan Era-ness. Consider the moment when Maverick wryly informs Slider he stinks. In that shot, perched on the desk, is Slider's can of Pepsi. It's product placement, sure, but it's definitively 80's product placement. That's what a can of Pepsi looked like in the 80's and that's how Rick Rossovich looked in the 80's and people wore those rickety foam Walkman headphones in the 80's that Rossovich is wearing and no one listened to Kenny Loggins ironically in the 80's. You don’t hold time against it.

Do the "Top Gun" dance. Don't be shy.
Clearly the "Present Day" does not look, sound and feel exactly like 1986, just as the "Present Day" of 2006 or 1996 did not look, sound and feel exactly like 1986. And that, I suspect, is precisely why Mr. Seitz dismisses "Top Gun" as a burp. It had nothing to say beyond the "Present Day". It lived for the moment, which made it so emblematic of the decade in which it was set. If “Top Gun” wasn’t the ultimate evocation of 80’s America, what in God’s name was?

Which I realize is not necessarily a defense of “Top Gun” in its official capacity as a film. Because if it’s not a good film, where does any of the rest get us? But it is good - nay, great. And Lord, spare me the “so bad it’s good” blasphemy. “Top Gun” is too pure in its Tony Scott Maximalism to be so reductively viewed. One term people like to hurl at me when I dismiss some numbing popcorn flick is this: "It's a movie that knows exactly what it is." I often take umbrage with this sentiment because a movie knowing exactly what it is would suggest tonal coherence, and far too few movies that I’m told know exactly what they are manage tonal coherence. They have to be everything to appeal to everyone to ensure first weekend box office. “Top Gun”, however, never loses sense of itself as an 80’s music video adrenaline rush in which action, drama and romance are all handled precisely the same way – with gloss, montages, machismo, and pop music.

In a comprehensive analysis of the film, Tim Brayton writes: “’Top Gun’ is basically perfect, even it is perfect at one of the worst sorts of things a movie can attempt.” I agree with the first part.

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