As students at the United States Navy’s elite fighter weapons school compete to be best in the class, one daring young pilot learns a few things from a civilian instructor that are not taught in the classroom.
It was followed by a sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, in 2021.
United States Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lieutenant Junior Grade Nick “Goose” Bradshaw are stationed aboard the USS Enterprise, from which they fly the F-14A Tomcat. During an interception with two hostile MiG-28 aircraft, Maverick gets missile lock on one, while the other hostile aircraft locks onto Maverick’s wingman, Cougar. While Maverick drives off the remaining MiG-28, Cougar is too shaken to land, and Maverick, defying orders, shepherds him back to the carrier. Cougar gives up his wings, citing his newborn child that he has never seen. Despite his dislike for Maverick’s recklessness, CAG “Stinger” sends him and Goose to attend TOPGUN, the Naval Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar.
At a bar the day before Topgun starts, Maverick, assisted by Goose, unsuccessfully approaches a woman. Maverick learns the next day that she is Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, an astrophysicist and civilian TOPGUN instructor. Charlie later becomes interested in Maverick upon learning of his inverted manoeuvre with the MiG-28, which disproves US intelligence on the enemy aircraft’s performance.
During Maverick’s first training hop he defeats instructor Lieutenant Commander Rick “Jester” Heatherly but through reckless flying breaks a major rule of engagement and is reprimanded by chief instructor Commander Mike “Viper” Metcalf. Privately, Jester confides that he admires Maverick’s skill, but does not know if he would trust him as a teammate in combat. Maverick also becomes a rival to top student Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, who considers Maverick’s attitude “foolish” and his flying “dangerous” – as Maverick’s tendency to abandon his team and pursue reckless objectives makes him “unsafe” to fly with. In class, Charlie also objects to Maverick’s aggressive tactics but privately admits to him that she admires his flying and omitted it from her reports to hide her feelings for him, and the two begin a romantic relationship.
During another training hop (Hop 19), Maverick abandons his wingman “Hollywood” to chase Viper. Viper admits he is impressed with his flying abilities but Maverick is defeated when Viper manoeuvres Maverick into a position from which his wingman Jester can shoot down Maverick from behind, demonstrating the value of teamwork over individual prowess. Jester publicly tells Maverick that his flying is excellent, but that he should “never leave [his] wingman”.
Maverick and Iceman, now direct competitors for the TOPGUN Trophy, chase an A-4 in a later training engagement (Hop 31). Since part of the scoring in every flight in the course is the time taken for every dogfight to conclude, and after noticing that Iceman is pulling time during his chase after the A-4 so that his total score in the course will remain higher than Maverick’s, Maverick pressures Iceman to break off his engagement with the A-4 they are both chasing so that he can shoot it down himself, but Maverick’s F-14 flies through the jet wash of Iceman’s aircraft and suffers a flameout of both engines, going into an unrecoverable flat spin. Maverick and Goose eject, but Goose hits the jettisoned aircraft canopy head-first and is killed.
Although the board of inquiry clears Maverick of responsibility for Goose’s death, he is overcome by guilt and his flying skill diminishes. Charlie and others attempt to console him, but Maverick considers retiring. He seeks advice from Viper, who reveals that he served with Maverick’s father Duke Mitchell on the USS Oriskany and was in the air battle in which Mitchell was killed. Contrary to official reports which faulted Mitchell, Viper reveals classified information that proves Mitchell died heroically and informs Maverick that he can succeed if he can regain his self-confidence. Maverick chooses to graduate, though Iceman wins the TOPGUN Trophy.
During the graduation party, Viper and Jester call in the newly graduated aviators with the orders to deploy. Iceman, Hollywood, and Maverick are ordered to immediately return to the Enterprise to deal with a “crisis situation”, providing air support for the rescue of a stricken ship that has drifted into hostile waters.
Maverick and Merlin (Cougar’s former RIO) are assigned as back-up for F-14s flown by Iceman and Hollywood, despite Iceman’s reservations over Maverick’s state of mind. The subsequent hostile engagement with six MiGs sees Hollywood shot down; Maverick is scrambled alone due to a catapult failure and nearly retreats after encountering circumstances similar to those that caused Goose’s death. Upon finally rejoining Iceman, the two are still badly outnumbered, but Maverick vocally refuses to leave Iceman without a wingman and manages to shoot down three MiGs. Iceman, shifting to offense, also shoots one down, which forces the other two to flee. Upon their triumphant return to Enterprise, Iceman and Maverick share newfound respect in each other, and Maverick throws Goose’s dog tags overboard.
Offered any assignment he chooses, Maverick decides to return to TOPGUN as an instructor. At a bar in Miramar, Maverick and Charlie reunite.
- Tom Cruise as LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a US Navy pilot.
- Kelly McGillis as Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, instructor of Top Gun and Maverick’s love interest.
- The character is based on a real-life person, Christine Fox, who worked at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
- Val Kilmer as LT Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, one of Top Gun’s students and Maverick’s rival turned wingman.
- Kilmer originally did not want to be in the film but was forced to by contractual obligations, and it became an iconic role in his career.
- Anthony Edwards as LTJG Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, Maverick’s Radar Intercept Officer, and best friend.
- Tom Skerritt as CDR Mike “Viper” Metcalf, commanding officer and instructor of Top Gun.
- A veteran of the Vietnam War who served with Duke Mitchell, Maverick’s father.
- Michael Ironside as LCDR Rick “Jester” Heatherly, a Naval Aviator, and Top Gun instructor.
- John Stockwell as LT Bill “Cougar” Cortell, Maverick’s former wingman.
- Barry Tubb as LTJG Henry “Wolfman” Ruth, Hollywood’s Radar Intercept Officer.
- Rick Rossovich as LTJG Ron “Slider” Kerner, Iceman’s Radar Intercept Officer.
- Tim Robbins as LTJG Sam “Merlin” Wells, Cougar’s Radar Intercept Officer (Later Maverick’s).
- Clarence Gilyard as LTJG Marcus “Sundown” Williams, Chipper’s Radar Intercept Officer (Later Maverick’s).
- Whip Hubley as LT Rick “Hollywood” Neven, a student from Top Gun and Iceman’s wingman during the climax.
- James Tolkan as CDR Tom “Stinger” Jardian, Commander of the USS Enterprise Carrier Air Group.
- Meg Ryan as Carole Bradshaw, Goose’s wife.
- Adrian Pasdar as LT Charles “Chipper” Piper, a Naval Aviator and student of Top Gun.
The primary inspiration for the film was the article “Top Guns” by Ehud Yonay, from the May 1983 issue of California magazine, which featured aerial photography by then-Lieutenant Commander Charles “Heater” Heatley. The article detailed the life of fighter pilots at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, self-nicknamed as “Fightertown USA”. Numerous screenwriters allegedly turned down the project. Bruckheimer and Simpson went on to hire Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr., to write the first draft. The research methods, by Epps, included attendance at several declassified Topgun classes at Miramar and gaining experience by being flown in an F-14. The first draft failed to impress Bruckheimer and Simpson, and is considered to be very different from the final product in numerous ways. Tony Scott was hired to direct on the strength of a commercial he had done for Swedish automaker Saab in the early 1980s, where a Saab 900 turbo is shown racing a Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet.
Actor Matthew Modine turned down the role of Pete Mitchell (that went to Tom Cruise) because he felt the film’s pro-military stance went against his politics. The character of Chipper Piper was created just for Pasdar as Scott loved his performance.
The producers wanted the assistance of the US Navy in the production of the film. The Navy was influential in relation to script approval, which resulted in changes being made. The opening dogfight was moved to international waters as opposed to Cuba, the language was toned down, and a scene that involved a crash on the deck of an aircraft carrier was also scrapped. Maverick’s love interest was also changed from a female enlisted member of the Navy to a civilian contractor with the Navy, due to the US military’s prohibition of fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel. The “Charlie” character also replaced an aerobics instructor from an early draft as a love interest for Maverick after producers were introduced to Christine “Legs” Fox, a civilian mathematician employed by the Centre for Naval Analyses as a specialist in Maritime Air Superiority (MAS), developing tactics for aircraft carrier defence.
Julianne Phillips was in consideration for the role of Charlie, and had been scheduled to perform a screen test opposite Tom Cruise.
Rear Admiral Pete “Viper” Pettigrew, a former Navy aviator, Vietnam War veteran, and Topgun instructor served as a technical advisor on the film, and also made a cameo appearance in the film as a colleague of Charlie’s.
Former Top Gun instructor pilot and Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham claimed to have been the inspiration for Pete Mitchell, although the film’s producers have denied that the character was based on any specific Naval Aviator.
The Navy made several aircraft from F-14 fighter squadron VF-51 “Screaming Eagles” (which Tom Skerritt mentions in the scene at his home) available for the film. Paramount paid as much as US$7,800 per hour (equivalent to $18,500 today) for fuel and other operating costs whenever aircraft were flown outside their normal duties. Shots of the aircraft carrier sequences were filmed aboard USS Enterprise, showing aircraft from F-14 squadrons VF-114 “Aardvarks” and VF-213 “Black Lions”. The majority of the carrier flight deck shots were of normal aircraft operations and the film crew had to take what they could get, save for the occasional flyby which the film crew would request. During filming, director Tony Scott wanted to shoot aircraft landing and taking off, back-lit by the sun. During one particular filming sequence, the ship’s commanding officer changed the ship’s course, thus changing the light. When Scott asked if they could continue on their previous course and speed, he was informed by the commander that it cost US$25,000 (equivalent to $59,000 today) to turn the ship, and to continue on course. Scott wrote the carrier’s captain a US$25,000 check so that the ship could be turned and he could continue shooting for another five minutes.
Future NASA astronaut Scott Altman piloted F-14 aircraft for many of the film’s stunt sequences, having been recently stationed at NAS Miramar at time of filming. Altman was the pilot seen “flipping the bird” in the film’s well-known opening sequence, as well as piloting the aircraft shown “buzzing the tower” throughout the film.
Most of the sequences of the aircraft manoeuvring over land were shot at Naval Air Station Fallon, in Nevada, using ground-mounted cameras. Air-to-air shots were filmed using a Learjet, piloted by Astrovision inventor and legendary pilot Clay Lacy. His name is misspelled in the closing credits, as Clay Lacey. Grumman, manufacturer of the F-14, was commissioned by Paramount Pictures to create camera pods to be placed upon the aircraft that could be pointed toward either the front or rear of the aircraft providing outside shots at high altitude.
In July 1985, Kansas City Barbeque served as a filming location for two scenes. The first scene features Goose and Maverick singing “Great Balls of Fire” while seated at the piano. The final scene, where “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” can be heard on the restaurant’s jukebox, was also filmed at the restaurant. Both scenes were filmed consecutively. After release of the movie, the restaurant went on to collect a significant amount of memorabilia from the motion picture until a kitchen fire on 26 June 2008, destroyed much of the restaurant. Some memorabilia and props, including the original piano used in the film, survived the fire, and the restaurant re-opened in November 2008.
Renowned aerobatic pilot Art Scholl was hired to do in-flight camera work for the film. The original script called for a flat spin, which Scholl was to perform and capture on a camera on the aircraft. The aircraft was observed to spin through its recovery altitude, at which time Scholl radioed “I have a problem… I have a real problem”. He was unable to recover from the spin and crashed his Pitts Special biplane into the Pacific Ocean off the Southern California coast near Carlsbad on 16 September 1985. Neither Scholl’s body nor his aircraft was recovered, leaving the official cause of the accident unknown. Top Gun was dedicated to Scholl’s memory.
The film was shot in the Super 35 format, as anamorphic lenses were too large to fit inside the cockpits of the fighter jets.
Reshoots after Top Gun’s filming wrapped conflicted with Made in Heaven, in which McGillis starred with brown hair. Top Gun’s filmmakers were forced to hide her hair colour, which for example resulted a scene shot in an elevator that featured McGillis in a baseball cap.
The Top Gun soundtrack is one of the most popular soundtracks to date, reaching 9× Platinum certification and No.1 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart for five non-consecutive weeks in the summer and fall of 1986. Harold Faltermeyer, who previously worked with both Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson on Beverly Hills Cop, was sent the script of Top Gun by Bruckheimer before filming began. Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock worked on numerous songs including the Oscar-winning “Take My Breath Away”. Kenny Loggins performed two songs on the soundtrack, “Playing with the Boys”, and “Danger Zone”. Berlin recorded the song “Take My Breath Away”, which would later win numerous awards, sending the band to international acclaim. After the release of Loggins’s single “Danger Zone”, sales of the album exploded, selling 7 million in the United States alone. On the re-release of the soundtrack in 2000, two songs that had been omitted from the original album (and had been released many years before the film was made), “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by The Righteous Brothers, were added. The soundtrack also includes “Top Gun Anthem” and “Memories” by Faltermeyer, with Steve Stevens also performing on the former.
Other artists were considered for the soundtrack project but did not participate. Bryan Adams was considered as a potential candidate but refused to participate because he felt the film glorified war. The band Toto was originally meant to record “Danger Zone”, and had also written and recorded a song “Only You” for the soundtrack. However, there was a dispute between Toto’s lawyers and the producers of the film, paving the way for Loggins to record “Danger Zone” and “Only You” being omitted from the film entirely.
The film’s premiere was held in New York City on 12 May 1986 with another held in San Diego on 15 May.
The film opened in the United States in 1,028 theatres on 16 May 1986.
In addition to its box office success, Top Gun went on to break further records in the then still-developing home video market. It was the first new-release blockbuster on video cassette to be priced as low as $26.95 and, backed by a massive $8 million marketing campaign, including a Top Gun-themed Diet Pepsi commercial, the advance demand was such that the film became the best-selling videocassette in the industry’s history on pre-orders alone, with over 1.9 million units ordered before its launch on 10 March 1987. It eventually sold a record 2.9 million units.
The film was first released in the US on DVD under Paramount Pictures on 21 October 1998 and included the film in both Widescreen (non-anamorphic Univisium 2.00:1) and Full Screen (open matte) versions. Top Gun’s home video success was again reflected by strong DVD sales, which were furthered by a Special Collector’s Edition 2-disc DVD release on 14 December 2004 in both Widescreen (anamorphic 2.39:1) and Full Screen (open matte) versions, that include new bonus features. Special features comprise audio commentary by Bruckheimer, Tony Scott and naval experts, four music videos including the “Top Gun Anthem” and “Take My Breath Away”, a six-part documentary on the making of Top Gun, and vintage gallery with interviews, behind-the-scenes and survival training featurettes.
Subsequently, the film was first released on Blu-ray disc on 29 July 2008 with the same supplemental features as the Collector’s Edition DVD and also as a 2-disc limited edition 3D copy on 19 February 2013. The remastered Blu-ray and Digital Copy version of the film was released on 19 May 2019 on Paramount Movies. Top Gun was released in the US on remastered Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD on 19 May 2020 with two new special features titled The Legacy of Top Gun and On Your Six: Thirty Years of Top Gun, with the remaining bonus features being ported over.
- In addition to its box office success, Top Gun went on to break further records in the then still-developing home video market.
- Backed by a massive US$8 million marketing campaign including a Top Gun-themed Diet Pepsi commercial, the advance demand was such that the film became the best-selling videocassette in the industry’s history on pre-orders alone.
- It was also one of the first video cassette releases in the US$20 price range.
- Top Gun’s home video success was again reflected by strong DVD sales, which were furthered by a special-edition release in 2004.
- Subsequently, the film was released in Blu-ray 3D on 19 February 2013.
IMAX 3D Re-release
Top Gun was re-released in IMAX 3D on 08 February 2013, for six days. A four-minute preview of the conversion, featuring the “Danger Zone” flight sequence, was screened at the 2012 International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
The film quickly became a success and was the highest-grossing film of 1986. It would be six months before its theatre count dropped below that of its opening week. It was number one on its first weekend with a gross of US$8,193,052, and went on to a total domestic gross of US$176,781,728. Internationally it took in an estimated US$177,030,000 for a worldwide box office total of US$353,811,728. The film sold an estimated 47,650,100 tickets in North America in its initial theatrical run.
The film grossed an additional US$3,018,873 in its IMAX re-release in 2013 bringing its domestic gross to US$179,800,601 and its worldwide gross to US$356,830,601.
The film was nominated for and won many awards, most prominently for its sound and effects.
Effect on Military Recruiting
Movie producer John Davis said that Top Gun was a recruiting video for the Navy, that people saw the movie and said, “Wow! I want to be a pilot.” The Navy had recruitment booths in some theatres to attract enthusiastic patrons. After the film’s release, the US Navy stated that the number of young men who joined wanting to be Naval Aviators went up by 500%.
On 23 January 2011, China’s state broadcaster China Central Television published a TV news story about the alleged efficiency of Chinese fighter pilots which incorporated footage from the Top Gun action sequences.
Chinese internet users noticed the plagiarism, whereupon the broadcast was immediately withdrawn.
Ironically, this occurred shorty after the initiation of a Chinese campaign to purge such forged reports; CCTV has declined comments on this incident.
In Popular Culture
- Bomber jacket sales increased and Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses jumped 40%, due to their use by characters in the film.
- Since its initial release, the film has made many top film lists and has been the subject of comedic interpretation.
- The 1991 film Hot Shots! was a comedy spoof of Top Gun.
- The masculine theme of the film has been the subject of humorous examination, with the homoerotic subtext examined in a monologue performed by Quentin Tarantino in the 1994 film Sleep with Me.
- Top Gun is one of many war and action films, especially those by Jerry Bruckheimer, parodied in the 2004 comedy Team America: World Police.
- Top Gun along with A Few Good Men are recognized for being an inspiration for the TV series JAG and for the NCIS franchise in turn.
- The DisneyToon Studios film Planes (2013), pays homage to Top Gun with Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards appearing in the film as part of the voice cast.
- Two Chinese films, 2011’s Jian Shi Chu Ji (“Skyfighters”) and 2017’s Kong Lian Lie (“Skyhunters”), were based on Top Gun.
- The screenplay was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and was inspired by an article titled “Top Guns” published in California magazine three years earlier.
- Upon its release, the film received generally mixed reviews from film critics but many particularly praised the action sequences, the effects, the aerial stunts, and the acting performances with Cruise and McGillis receiving the most praise.
- Four weeks after release, the number of theatres showing it increased by 45%.
- Despite its initial mixed critical reaction, the film was a huge commercial hit grossing US$356 million against a production budget of only US$15 million.
- The film maintained its popularity over the years and earned an IMAX 3D re-release in 2013.
- Additionally, the film won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Take My Breath Away” performed by Berlin.
- In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Production & Filming Details
- Tony Scott.
- Bill Badalato … executive producer.
- Jerry Bruckheimer … producer (produced by).
- Don Simpson … producer (produced by).
- Warren Skaaren … associate producer.
- Jim Cash … (written by).
- Jack Epps Jr. … (written by).
- Ehud Yonay … (magazine article “Top Guns”).
- Warren Skaaren … (screenplay) (uncredited).
- Harold Faltermeyer.
- Jeffrey L. Kimball.
- Chris Lebenzon.
- Billy Weber.
- Paramount Pictures.
- Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
- Paramount Pictures (1986) (US) (Theatrical).
- Release Date: 12 May 1986 (New York), 16 May 1986 (US), and 03 October 1986 (UK).
- Running time: 110 minutes.
- Country: United States.
- Language: English.