I’ve watched Top Gun countless times. Back when the film first came out in 1986 (30 years ago today), I’d just bought myself a large Sony TV and a state-of-the-art Sony VCR and amp, which meant I could watch films in loud, stereo sound. That was a huge thing back in the day. At least for me.
I was the first of my friends to have a system like that, and so when any of them came around to watch a film on my system for the first time, what did I put on? Top Gun. Or, to be more accurate, the first four minutes of it, give or take. Those four minutes were a movie; a beautifully crafted, adrenaline-filled, self-indulgent tribute to the raw speed and power of flying heavy metal. Was it a shameless glorification of the military industrial complex? Absolutely. Does that bother me? Not for the first 3 minutes, 57 seconds of it.
The film begins with the fill over a black screen — the slow tik tik tik beat of a drum machine (in left and right stereo!) taps out the anticipation. Just after we hear the first chime of a tubular bell (which was probably played on Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and sounds suspiciously like it was pulled from the 1984 hit "Do They Know It’s Christmas" by Band Aid) the title card "Paramount Pictures Presents" appears, accompanied by a lone low note which quietly expands into the simple melody of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic anthem.
A Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer Production, A Tony Scott Film, Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis; title cards appear one by one as strings are added into the music mix. By this time my friends would be grinning like a bunch of 10-year-olds in anticipation, especially when the outline of the plot appears on screen in a simple sans serif font.
"On March 3, 1969, the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. It’s purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world."
(The music builds, along with our excitement.)
"Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it:"
(Oh the suspense! Another dramatic dong on the tubular bell — gotta love those tubular bells — and…)
Exactly one minute after it started, we hear the sound of wind blowing and the soft trill of a jet engine as we finally see the first shot of the film: dark silhouettes of men walking through steam as the nose of an F-14A Tomcat moves in from the left. Everything is filmed in slo-mo on a long telephoto lens, flattening the depth of the scene completely.
And it’s really dark. A deep, graduated filter fades from black to a rich tobacco brown like the smoke-stained inside of an old London pub — which is exactly where I like to imagine English director Tony Scott and his American DP Jeffrey Kimball discussing the look and feel for Top Gun. Probably over a pie and a pint of beer.
The shots start to get busier. There are more Tomcats and a few Corsairs, more people, more steam, and even more gratuitous graduated tobacco filters. Men are scurrying around the deck, pulling refueling lines, crouching under planes, and hooking up the steam catapults to undercarriages. Then, at 2:12 into the film (and where my friends and I always assumed was a very clear homage to the Thunderbird Two taking off in Gerry Anderson’s original Thunderbirds), a ramp slowly rises from behind a jet and locks with a reassuringly heavy clunk. A man’s hand then rises into the frame holding two fingers aloft. Cut to the twin engines of a Tomcat glowing red, then white hot as the afterburners kick in just as the steam catapult hurls the F-14A forward and Kenny Loggins "Danger Zone" bursts into an '80s-fueled synthesizer fury. By this time I would have the volume up loud enough to rattle the windows of my small room in a tiny Victorian house — I often worried that I may loose a pane or two.
The style of Top Gun briefly evolves from that of a motion picture into a fully fledged ad for the United States Navy — which is hardly surprising as Tony (along with his brother Ridley) was one of the most influential commercial directors in the history of advertising. The pace picks up. Men are now running at normal-ish "bro-mo" speed, while regular slo-mo is reserved for the incredible shots of the F-14As landing, their arrester hooks catching the heavy cables snaking across the deck of the USS Enterprise. The shots are also tonally lighter: Jeffrey Kimball is still using brown, graduated filters on the telephoto lenses, but they’re less tobacco and more yellow ochre, like the warm color often found covering the walls of restaurants in Tuscany. (Maybe he and Tony once had a creative discussion over an al fresco lunch of gnocchi and chilled glass of rosé in such a place?)
The finale of the set-piece opening is yet another F-14A taking off. But this time, the camera is mounted on the actual plane (remember, this was shot 16 years before GoPros existed), and we’re treated to a few seconds of riding on the underside of the Tomcat as it’s hurled from the deck into a cloud of steam. Then, after the second aerial shot of the Enterprise carrier (with the title card "Indian Ocean. Present Day."), we finally cut to an officer opening the door of a control room below deck, and we’re back into the acting bit of the motion picture proper.
Which is a bit of a shame really. Yes, I know if you stick with the film you get to see Maverick’s blossoming bromance with Goose turn to inconsolable grief as he (SPOILER ALERT) mourns the tragic loss of his friend. Yes, you can squirm at the adolescent sexual tension between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis and wonder why she really puts up with his bullshit. Yes, you can admire Meg Ryan’s fluffy hair at its flickyness. And yes, you can truly cringe as the ensemble cast of pilots sing "You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling," wearing uniforms so white, they are two whole shades brighter than Tom Cruise’s teeth.
But that’s not the Top Gun movie I love to watch. My Top Gun lasts exactly 3 minutes, 57 seconds, and is played with the volume turned all the way up to 11.