This is an odd topic for a blog post, I guess. I don’t know how it came up today, but I’ve ranted on this subject for years, and today Kathy, my thoroughly wonderful and I’m guessing long-suffering wife, who’s been listening to my crap on this subject for going on 27 years (!), told me I should write about it here. Maybe she thinks it’ll finally purge the topic from my system.
It was way back in 1986 that the hugely successful action movie Top Gun hit the theatres. It doesn’t seem possible it could have been so long ago. Directed by Tony Scott (Ridley’s brother), and beautifully filmed, with magnificent aerial sequences, it’s a movie I was cracking to see, and should have loved all to pieces. I can remember feeling full of giddy anticipation when I settled into my chair at what was then the grand old Runnymede Theatre, popcorn in hand, happy as a clam. The opening sequence was great, too, filmed in the dim light of the “golden hour”, as was Tony’s wont, and very promising indeed:
Carrier opps! Yeah! The subtle, dangerous, awesome choreography of the flight deck, the massive power of the jets, oh boy oh boy!
But then came the rest of the film, and, well, I didn’t love it. I wasn’t even neutral about it. I flat-out hated it. Passionately. In fact, I’ve never despised a movie so much.
Let me explain why this is surpassing strange. I’m deeply interested in military history. As part of that, I’ve been fascinated since early childhood with military hardware, the way some boys are enthralled by cars, and I have a particular interest in military aircraft. I’m also very keen on navies and naval technology, naturally enough given my upbringing in a navy town, and these two fascinations melded to give me an intense interest in naval aviation and aircraft carriers. Over the years I grew particularly expert on the products of the Grumman aircraft company, the greatest of all naval aviation design houses, whose many “cats” – Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, Tigercat and so on – were for decades the gold standard for naval fighters. Grumman’s aircraft, produced in a facility in Bethpage, New York known as the “Iron Works” for the toughness of its designs, were beyond legendary. They gave aircraft carriers the ability to launch fighters that were better than all comers, from land or sea – which was nigh on impossible, given all the design complications imposed upon aircraft that had to sit out there in the briny toss, being robust enough to both launch and recover from heaving decks, and built rugged to stand up to salt corrosion, while folding up neatly for convenient storage to boot. The F6F Hellcat pretty much won the Pacific campaign all by itself, shooting down over 5,100 enemy planes while boasting a kill ratio of 19:1.
The last, and I think the greatest, in the long line of Grumman cats was the F-14 Tomcat, an extremely powerful and sophisticated fighter interceptor with computer-controlled swing wings, capable of over 1,500 MPH. The Tomcat was armed with unusually large and deadly air-to-air missiles known as “Phoenix”, guided by a weapons system that could launch six at a time. These things travelled at Mach 5 out to ranges over 100 nautical miles, and cost a million bucks a round (and those are great big 1980s bucks). Somehow this twin-engined monster, which weighed over 58,000 pounds even before you loaded it up with weapons, also managed to be highly agile, and a deadly customer in close, visual range combat.
The F-14 Tomcat was, in short, the balls. I loved it. Loved it. Still do. I damn near wept when they took them out of service.
Top Gun is all about Tomcats and Tomcat pilots. It’s stuffed full of footage featuring real F-14s engaged in real air combat maneuvering. How could I hate such a thing?
Well, I’ll tell you.
- It portrayed the Top Gun program as some sort of hormonal adolescent intramural championship. Top Gun is the nickname for a real Navy training program run out of the Fighter Weapons School, which grew out of an analysis of the rather dismal air combat results being experienced in Vietnam. Its goal was to train pilots in close combat against threat aircraft that performed similarly to the MiGs they were encountering over South East Asia, with the aim that when they entered the fray, they would already have, in effect, their first 15 or 20 combat missions under their belts. It was a rip-roaring success. What it most decidedly was not was a frickin bantam football tournament with a cheesy goddam trophy awarded to the champ:
NO NO NO. There is no Top Gun trophy. Top Gun is no contest. It’s no game. It’s a carefully designed training syllabus, like fighter pilot graduate school. It even has classroom work. Besides, nobody would be so utterly insane as to throw a bunch of fighter jocks together and tell them to compete for a frigging trophy, for the love of God. Those guys would do anything to win, and would likely get each other killed. Top Gun is the opposite of a contest, being clinical, sober, and full of safety protocols. Rivalry and competition are assiduously downplayed. You’re there to learn, gentlemen, and rest assured you all have something to learn. Hot shot antics are not allowed, and anyway, by the time the truly shit-hot in-house “aggressor” pilots are through with you, you’ll be nothing but humble.
- It portrayed Naval Aviators as the sort of witless frat boys who’d do something as stupid as “buzz the tower”. It’s one of the most famous scenes in all of action movie history:
It was by all accounts a ball to film, and personnel at Miramar Naval Air Station crowded the apron and took to rooftops to watch it. Why so fun to do? Because no fleet pilot has ever done such a thing. Why so cool to witness? Because nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before. It’s absolutely out of the question. Period. You wouldn’t do it at an air show, let alone in ordinary operations. Yet zoooom, there they go! Wheeeeee!!! The movie even has Maverick deciding to perform the hotshot flyby after the tower has expressly forbidden it, owing to a packed landing pattern. He does it anyway! This would be insanely dangerous, and anybody who would take such a risk for kicks – and such morons would have been weeded out of flight school long before they got to the Tomcat community – might yell “Yeeeee-hawwwwww!” and “Great balls of fire!” like the witless Goose and Maverick do, but upon landing they’d be promptly stripped of their wings, court-martialled, given dishonourable discharges, and might even find themselves invited to spend a few years making little ones out of big ones at Leavenworth. Mere pud-knocking civilians like thee and me can’t even begin to comprehend what it takes to earn those coveted golden wings, or what it means to bask in the special honour of being counted as a Naval Aviator. No such pilot would ever risk losing all that. Not even if he was otherwise the sort of clown who’d take his 70 million dollar national asset at high speed and low level through a crowded landing pattern, which he wouldn’t be, because dickheads like that don’t get to fly Tomcats.
- It gets lots of easy things wrong. I’m willing to concede, I guess, that it’s getting picky to gripe about something like the cockpit radar display as portrayed in the movie:
Fighters, of course, don’t have circular displays with a rotating radar at the center, because fighters don’t have rotating radars. Fighters of that vintage had a flat plate in the nose that scanned back and forth across a pie shaped field of view, and the display in an F-14 looked like this:
And perhaps it’s churlish to note how impossibly stupid this would be:
That’s an image of two aircraft irretrievably on the cusp of a catastrophic mid-air collision. In real life, if the canopies of an F-5 and an F-14 got that close together, the rest of the planes would look like this:
They also get all sorts of terminology wrong – stupidly, aircraft that have long since been clearly identified as aggressive enemy fighters are referred to throughout as “bogeys”, which is actually the term used for unidentified tracks that may or may not be hostile; once identified as enemy aircraft, “bogeys” become “bandits”. They also use the term “go ballistic” like it’s something cool and positive, when it’s really a term for an aircraft that isn’t really flying any more because it’s lost aerodynamic control (perhaps because of stalling) and is now effectively just a length of pipe falling through space according to the same Newtonian physics that govern cannon balls and hurled sets of car keys (a very sticky situation in aircraft of the contemporary generation). And so on. Picky, picky? Fine. But how about this: the arch-nemesis of the F-14, the MiG of all MiGs, is identified in the film as the MiG-28. The MiG-28! Folks, there are no even-numbered MiGs, and never have been! MiGs in the jet age have been numbered 15, 17, 19, 21 and so on, right up to the current MiG-35. Any kid with a passing interest in military aircraft knows this, yet there these dummies were, making the movie within arm’s length of technical advisors from the fleet, and they go and give a MiG an even number!
- It’s full of stupid action movie tropes that bear all the fingerprints of Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer was the producer, and his special variety of bullshit is all over this production. The dialog is stupid, the character’s motivations are clichéd and stupid, everything is stupid. I quote a fellow blogger:
I’m sorry, but what in the fuck? Top Gun is nothing but wall-to-wall male bonding, which would be fine, if there were anything resembling interesting characters, which there isn’t. All you need to know about the main players is in their call signs. Maverick is the rebel who plays by his own rules. Goose is the funny best friend. Ice Man is the one with a stick up his ass. Riveting. Magic Mike XXL is plot-lite bro bonding, too, but at least it has jokes.
Watch one of these instead:
- It features a god-awful song that won a goddam Oscar. Yup, “Take My Breath Away”, by an outfit named Berlin, not only gets its gooey syrup all over what’s supposed to be a war movie, it actually won an Academy Award, proving, were further proof needed, that the Oscars are full of old rope. Here, suffer along with me:
Oy, what a fragrant wedge of runny cheese.
I was stunned, sitting there in the theatre, thinking: the Navy gave its full cooperation so they could make this malodorous heap of dog droppings? Maybe they didn’t read the script. Or maybe they thought that it was bullshit story telling, and wildly inaccurate adolescent propaganda, but good for recruiting, which I guess it was.
Fine. But depicting the Navy’s pilots as a bunch of horny Phi Delta Omega types who’d horse around in their precious aircraft as if there weren’t any rules, all so they could win a stupid-looking trophy that wouldn’t be impressive enough for a peewee baseball tournament, with its ridiculous little gold-plated model F-14 glued on, was a mortal sin. It was just a terrible, terrible mis-characterization, rendering silly a most emphatically not silly group of aviators whose mission is dangerous, technically challenging, physically arduous, deadly serious, and certainly beyond the depicted acumen of beach volleyball jag-offs like Maverick, Goose, and Ice Man.
While it’s perhaps not decent to revile Tony Scott, since he was a troubled man who ended up killing himself in 2012, a pox on all the rest of them.
Also, can anybody stop the release of the sequel, which will be out soon? Haven’t I suffered enough?
Oh, I do feel the need, I surely do. I need you to stop.