As we’re delving into stories, and the elements that create a good story, we were given the task to use a story from the ’80s in either film or another media to demonstrate what we’ve learned.
I decided to go with the story Top Gun, a film from the ’80s. Growing up as a military brat, I was exposed frequently to references, quotes, and an overall love of this film by active-duty members and spouses alike. My father was over the moon to show the film to my brothers and I. At first when I heard the description, I thought ‘that sounds like such a boring movie’; but after the first 5 minutes, I was drawn into it and it quickly became one of my favorite films. The characters, the soundtrack, and the development of the story really stuck with me and (in my opinion) created a strong movie and a strong story to share with an audience.
Top Gun centers on the story of a naval fighter pilot called ‘Maverick’. (pilots in the military go by callsigns that tend to represent their personality, as a way of joining a group. I’ll be referring to the character by their callsigns since that is how they’re addressed in the film.) Maverick is a young, arrogant, rebellious pilot–who is very talented–but has a lot to learn in terms of being a team player and following orders. The story opens with a great example of his character. Maverick, his wingman/best friend Goose (all jets in this movie fly with two airmen; a pilot and a wso. But we’ll just call them wingmen for reading purposes), and another jet are doing some flying when the pilot of the other jet goes into a mental state of shock (by this I mean he basically had a panic attack). Maverick had been acting arrogantly throughout the training, and had been breaking important flight rules; but when his teammate went into a panic, he didn’t hesitate to calm him down and guide him back to the landing strip– even though it meant disobeying direct orders.
This scene sets up the main character, Maverick, very well. Everything you need to know about his character is said without words, only his actions. By the way, he behaves during something like a training assignment versus how he behaves when a fellow airman is in danger shows that he is young and a bit cocky, but he’s willing to risk himself to help someone else. Even though his current attitude isn’t the best to be a team player, by guiding his teammate to a safe landing Maverick demonstrated leadership potential (which is further developed later on).
The title Top Gun is introduced as what the navy pilots call ‘Fighter Weapons School’. Top Gun is a school that only very talented airmen go, so when Maverick and Goose get assigned there, Maverick is beyond stoked–and as you can imagine, so is his ego. This scene sets the plot in motion. Maverick got accepted into the flight school of his dreams, just what he wanted to showcase his talents and impress superiors. This sparks the start of some sweet sweet character development as we follow Maverick’s journey in the academy, competing with fellow pilots.
Very early on, we get introduced to his new rival, nicknamed ‘Iceman’. Maverick and Iceman are always caught in a case of one-upping each other. Iceman and a few others are convinced that Maverick’s recklessness and rebellious behavior is making him a danger to his wingman and to everyone else in the are. Maverick refuses to believe that there is anything wrong with his flight style and instead sees his style as superior to others.
Maverick is painted as the type of character with a personality that isn’t entirely likable, but as the viewer, you still want to root for him because you recognize his passion for flying and that he does care for those around them.
This point in the story is where the “curve” takes a dip. SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN THE MOVIE!!!
During another training excercise, Iceman and Maverick are both attempting to lock onto a target; Iceman is unable to reach it within the limit and retreats. In an effort to one-up his rival and to prove his skill, Maverick tries to lock onto the target and ends up getting his jet (with his wingman, Goose, in it) sucked into a slipstream. The jet loses control and the two are forced to eject. When Goose goes to eject, however, he is shot up into the roof of the cockpit (instead of it detaching and him being launched into the air) and Goose dies. Goose is an important character in the story because he is the down to earth, best friend, who shows the humanity of our main character. He is also one of the only people in the movie that believes in his ability to be a good pilot. Goose and Maverick were best friends, wingmen, and have been through the years together. For Maverick to lose the one person closest to him, and for it to be by something that he caused, was devastating.
The curve dips here; from losing a friend and by seeing the loss impact Goose’s family/Maverick’s friends. Maverick realizes how far the responsibility of his actions causes, as well as the level of danger that is a part of his job. Our main character goes into a depression and quits the academy, as he struggles to cope with the loss of Goose.
After a pep talk from one of his father’s co-pilot from back in the day, Maverick returns to finish school. Shortly after he is called to back to base and is put in the air after another pilot was shot down. This scene is important to show Maverick overcoming his fear of losing another life, and to regain the daredevil characteristics that made him a risky, but skillful flier. In the end, he is successful and begins to regain confidence, though you can tell his character has shifted from where it was before Goose’s death. He is no longer arrogant and a full-on daredevil; now he’s realized that he can harness his abilities without putting others in harm’s way. And even by the end of the movie, it’s not a happily ever after; he and Charlie (a love interest) are still figuring things out, and Maverick is still learning to move on in his life after Goose left. (His dog tags are kept by Maverick as a symbol of his guilt and fear by being the cause of his friend’s death, but when Maverick begins to come to terms with it he throws them into the ocean)
Overall, this movie is a story very well told, and that was just the dialogue. Most of what determines characters in this film are described through their interactions with other characters–something I very much enjoy. This clip below describes what I mean well. A simple word usage like “I” instead of “we” tells a lot about a character. Combine that with what that character prefers to speak about, or what is important to them, and the viewer is able to get a good grasp on what qualities build up the character. Not every moment of the movie is like this, but it does a good job of painting the picture by throwing you into the middle of the action with little backstory.
Other than writing, the soundtrack of the movie is phenomenal! It really grasps the mood of a scene. Whether it’s fun and exhilarating, or tense and uneasy the sounds in the film are spot on. The song choices they use in the film are accurate to fighter pilot culture as well. As a marine and airforce brat, I can attest that classic rock is a staple of active duty culture. For the filmmakers to be able to add this small element–something so small as a few popular songs– and for it to not only accurately represent the community their characters are a part of, but also to reflect the mood of a scene is a great method of storytelling.
This film is actually fairly accurate at depicting the naval air force in general. Terminology is spot on, jet names and models match up, and the fact that the scenes of the jets were REAL JETS being filmed is amazing for the time period. You can tell especially in the opening scene video from the beginning of this article, when Maverick goes inverted to give the birdie to the Russian pilot, the two cockpits look poorly photoshopped; this is because they were unable to actually get those two models to fly that close together in that fashion, so instead they filmed them separately using a wide lens and stitched it together with move magic.
As a summary: the curve of the story goes like this:
The climb being Maverick entering the school of his dreams and flirting with a pretty girl. The beginning of the fall being when he begins to have trouble with the other airmen and when he and Charlie aren’t doing so well. The plummet is when Goose dies and the depression is at the bottom. Not a lot happens until he decides to speak with his dad’s friend and ends up finishing school and reaching out to Charlie. Then we finish with Maverick conquering his fear and coming to terms with his mistakes, as he heads off to spend the rest of his days continuing to grow, though not at the same level as when he started.
I know this was a long post, thank you for bearing with me. I just really love this movie and if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should! It’s a stellar classic from the ’80s that is one of a kind.