In the '80s, my uncle Dennis was a Top Gun pilot in Southern California. This Hollywood actor named Tom Cruise was driving down to the base in Miramar to learn about flying planes – did he mind taking him out for a couple beers? He and the guys did, wing-manning Cruise at a few of their favorite spots and noting that Cruise could still anonymously walk into a bar without back-up, but just famous enough that they had to keep switching joint as soon as the girls got on the pay phones and called their friends.

The next year, Top Gun would make Tom Cruise so famous that he'd never be able to bar hop again. It's the movie that made him a star. Risky Business was a memorable debut, but Ridley Scott's Legend had an expensive whiff. When Top Gun came out in 1986, Cruise hadn't had a hit in three years.


Top Gun gets dismissed as a popcorn blockbuster about a pompous son-of-a-bitch. That's wrong – and worse, that's exactly the movie Cruise worked so hard not to make. We remember the highlights – the volleyball, the thumbs-up, the bitchin' Kenny Loggins soundtrack – but the real movie is darker and more complicated.

Cruise took Top Gun seriously. Not because he liked the original idea – he turned it down three times because the first concept was silly. The original Maverick was cardboard jingoism, a patriotic meathead who fell in love with a gymnast. (Lame.) Cruise insisted on improving the script (for free) before he'd even agree to the part. He did his research. He spent months in Miramar drinking with the pilots, filming the flight deck, and riding in planes. He took classes in aviation physiology and water survival. One afternoon, my aunt A.B., an excellent lifeguard who also served on the base, was told to be on standby in case Cruise failed a Navy physical where he had to dog paddle in a pool wearing full flight gear and a parachute. He didn't have to take the test – he just wanted to Top Gun to feel real. And he passed.

Said the Navy's technical adviser Pete Pettigrew of Cruise, “If he'd decided to be a fighter pilot, he could easily have walked into Top Gun as a student or instructor.”

Cruise added depth to the script. He switched the gymnast girl friend to an astrophysicist, pushed to make it more about competition than war, and gave Maverick an emotional bruise that colors the whole movie: Maverick's dad, a pilot himself, disappeared in Vietnam and now the son must restore the family's pride. That's the key to the whole film: Maverick is insecure. He's not a cocky asshole – he's just pretending to be one. 

It's an important and overdue distinction because Top Gun is the hit that shaped how we see Cruise's career. Before 1986, he'd played a redneck, a fire-starter, a dumb virgin, a capitalist virgin, a jock and a forest sprite. After 1986, no matter what he played, audiences saw him as the confident jerk – an image he's had to fight against for decades.

Sighed Cruise, “People say, 'Oh, you were just a movie star in that role.' But I always thought I was an actor playing a movie star in that role.” Let's watch his performance closely and set the record straight. 

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