Decoding Top Gun’s not-so-hidden agendas.
The past year has been so rough on Tom Cruise that you almost have to feel bad for the weird little couch-hopper. His bellowing and shirt-shedding didn’t save the big-screen version of the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages from belly-flopping. Then, the alliance known as TomKat came to a hasty end—and an even hastier divorce settlement. And the poor reception for Jack Reacher, his clunky attempt at a fresh franchise-starter, was compounded by a wave of crappy PR due to the publication of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, the Church of Scientology exposé that delves deep into the mutually beneficial relationship between the star and the organization’s top brass.
The April release of his sci-fi flick Oblivion might restore some of Cruise’s wattage. But if he’d rather bask in former glories, there’s no better option than this week’s reissue of the movie that made him a superstar, even if it’s also a film that continues to fuel a whole other set of rumours he’s worked hard to refute.
Originally released in May 1986, Top Gun returns to the (very) big screen this week in a revamped IMAX 3-D version. This digital refurbishing job was largely done under the supervision of the film’s late director, Tony Scott, whose suicide last year halted plans for a sequel that might’ve revealed whether Cruise’s character, Maverick, had retained his hot-headed ways deep into his Carlsberg years.
Then again, it’s just as well that a 50-year-old Cruise won’t have to compete with memories of his younger Maverick self and his fellow hotshots at an elite academy for young navy pilots. Already on the rise thanks to breakout performances in hits like Risky Business three years before, the Cruise of Top Gun takes every opportunity to demonstrate the defining quality of his star persona: his irrepressible eagerness to win viewers over, and just win in general. Sure, the Cruise of today takes every opportunity he can to remind us he’s still got those rock-hard abs and the toothy grin that can make him seem charming and maniacal at once, but the rude vitality of youth is not something anyone can easily simulate and Top Gun is nothing if not dedicated to the task of showcasing the youthful virility and perfectly chiselled bodies of Cruise and castmates like Val Kilmer. Roman gods would gnash their teeth in envy if they watched these dudes play a sweaty and shirtless round of beach volleyball, strut around locker rooms wearing only towels or tighty-whitey underpants, or jut out their chins at each other in one of the pilots’ many efforts to out-macho each other.
Considering the enduring potency of such scenes, there’s the distinct possibility that the IMAX 3-D revamp will make Top Gun seem even gayer. Indeed, the homoerotic aspects of much of the film’s imagery and character interplay now seem like the most compelling elements of Cruise’s high-flying blockbuster, partially because they were barely acknowledged at the time. With its flattering view of the U.S. military—the navy famously used the film as a recruiting tool—the movie was initially criticized as a slickly packaged piece of Reagan-era war porn. Yet its militarism and jingoism seem almost tame compared to successors like Michael Bay’s Pentagon-vetted Transformers films or last year’s Navy SEAL-fest Act of Valor. Not even Zero Dark Thirty is free of the gung-ho sensibility that Scott’s hit helped restore to screen portrayals of the military after Vietnam War–themed downers like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.
It was Quentin Tarantino who popularized the notion that Top Gun was actually a gay recruitment film rather than the military kind. In the 1994 indie film Sleep With Me, the not-yet-iconic director makes a cameo as a party guest who delivers a rant about the movie’s true nature as the story of “a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.” As his most convincing evidence, he cites the scene in which Maverick’s female love interest (played by Kelly McGillis, who herself came out four years ago) seems to get the pilot’s engines running by wearing male drag.
Given Cruise’s eagerness to quash rumours about his orientation with expensive lawsuits, it’s unsurprising that he would opt for more aggressively straight characters than Maverick in the decades following Top Gun. And though he’s displayed a welcome degree of adventurousness in movies as diverse as Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, and Tropic Thunder, Cruise’s eager-charmer routine has inevitably become something of a trap. Worse yet, his calculated deviations from that persona—his steely villainy in Collateral, his unconvincing Dirty Harry-isms in Jack Reacher—often feel discordant. Maverick’s reappearance shows the freedom and energy that Cruise still had when Hollywood served him up as a prime slice of beefcake.