Action archetypes dictate the hero must be alone, aloof, and infallible, and while true heroism in a complicated world can be difficult to define, sometimes action films get this so wrong the effect is jarring. The setting is the Cold War, only the good guys of the Capitalist West versus the evil Communists of the East, just to keep things simple. A school for fighter pilots is established that succeeds in training our flying aces to be even more effective at shooting down nobody. After all, there were no smoldering conflicts in which we were engaged in 1985. In any case, this prophylactic training serves to fill our naval air arm with pilots of exceptional skill and predictably high performance.
When Tony Scott released his tribute to the military in Top Gun, it had a character playing a pilot of ideal skill, superlative class, earning the utmost respect of his colleagues and the fear of his enemies. Why then, did he make that pilot, Iceman, the antagonist, while the self-destructive narcissistic sociopath Maverick was the hero? Even by 80’s action standards, this made no sense and betrays the entire theme of pursuit of perfection. For the sake of avoiding repetition, I will not comment on the gay love story between the two, or reference the Vaseline-lensed volleyball game, because that horse is devoid of flesh at this point. One could make an argument that the tiff between the impetuous Maverick and the mature Iceman is a fascinating analysis of a troubled relationship worthy of Scenes From a Marriage, but that would be another review entirely. Iceman is the Misunderstood hero of Top Gun.
To start with, Kilmer is a statuesque God compared to the gargoyle-like appearance of Cruise, not to mention a better actor (an actor, let’s be honest). His is a command presence that never wavers when onscreen, and he is presented as ‘Ice-cold, with no mistakes’. When we meet him, he is in a perpetually good mood, and even his taunts are in the good spirit of competition. “The plaque for the alternates is in the ladies’ room” was the high-water mark for humor for me as a teenager. He has ego to spare, but considering that he is considered one of the best in the world at his job, I would not begrudge him that indulgence. He challenges Maverick with the age-old question “Who is the best?” Fair enough, it is a competitive school. Maverick is dismissive with a guy who would defend his punk ass with his life, but never mind. In combat, he makes few mistakes, taking down his instructors as often as he is taken, but his attitude is that of a learner. He eventually wins the Top Gun trophy, and leads the charge as the United States takes on Stankazzistan to rescue a ship. Not too bad a presentation, but how did he become the asshole here?
Maverick on the other hand is introduced leaving his fellow pilot out to dry while a Mig-28 takes position at point-blank range behind Cougar. Instead of doing something to drive the enemy away, he fucks around with him and takes a Polaroid shot while inverted at a range of four feet, or one Tom Cruise. That this is insanely dangerous goes without saying, and is of little comfort to Cougar, who filled his pants. Cougar was an excellent pilot, but was unprepared for being forced to engage an enemy fighter because his volatile wing man decided to take a vacation. Instead of checking on him, it’s a quick ‘see ya on deck’ and off he goes. If somebody pulled that shit with me, I would feel free to remove their liver with a pair of pliers. Maverick gets no points for coming back to fetch Cougar, because too little too late, and both of their fuel tanks were empty. Endangering his own navigator to fix his fuck-up is a meager criterion for heroism. At Top Gun he flaunts his toxic level of arrogance despite being considered second rate even by the commander who knew him best.
To be fair, though, that guy threatened to assign him to flying cargo planes full of rubber dog shit, which actually sounds like a hoot. In any case, he makes one mistake after another, not as a pupil who can benefit from instruction, but as a jackass who is convinced he knows everything. I get that the hero of an action film must always know everything, always be right, and be capable of superhuman feats, victory simply coming to him every time. Maverick, though, is obnoxious about his fragile ego. The far less interesting version of heroism comes from years of thankless work and sacrifice, and perhaps endless preparation for a time that will never come – but when it does, the hero is ready to do his duty without fear or hesitation. Iceman has the persona of someone who worked for their rarefied greatness, and his arrogance is earned by his accomplishments. Maverick’s arrogance is borne of being unreasonably daring, and a willingness to ignore protocol to prove his awesomeness. Now which one of these pilots would you want protecting you?
In class, Maverick is a dork. His instructors tell him where he erred, and his first response is to retort “There’s no time to think up there.” Oh really? If instinct is all that matters, then there is no point to a fighter school, then. Way to insult everyone in the room, dick-feather. Otherwise, you need to shut the fuck up and pick up some instincts, reflexes, or both of them shits, because you suck at this. Meanwhile, the teacher states “Now let’s look at an example of excellent combat.” She need not name Iceman, we already know he is the best. Naturally, Maverick runs out like a bitch, whining that his instructor won’t give him a break because she digs his umbilicus-like penis. Ice didn’t seem to have that problem, but then he already fucked his instructor.
Maverick is a terrible team player. Iceman picked up on this: “You like to work alone.” This is the popular view of a hero, acting alone, vanquishing the enemy without assistance, nary a scratch to show for the bloodshed. In reality, these assholes die before their glory is realized, since armies tend to include, you know, lots and lots of people acting in unison. Iceman, on the other hand, has no problem working with a team. The one time he loses his cool is after Maverick shoots his mouth off about the awesome MIG episode. You know, the one where he left behind Cougar, who was so shaken by the incident that he retired. “Who was covering Cougar while you were showboating with this MIG?” “Cougar was doing just fine.” The guy nearly died from fear, and this sociopath registers no guilt or concern. In combat training, Iceman’s exploits are not shown, but rest assured they are awesome – we only hear about how well he does. Maverick, meanwhile, makes critical mistakes and learns nothing from them. In one session, Maverick and Hollywood go up against Viper and Jester, and Maverick leaves his wing man. Maverick is shot down. Leaving his wing man was stupid, and he accepts this, but fails to heed Iceman’s advice: “It’s not your flying, it’s your attitude. You are dangerous and foolish. You may not like the guys you are flying with and they may not like you, but whose side are you on?” These are words of caution, but Mav and Goose console each other with “At least Viper got Iceman before he got us.” Yes, that is the lesson here, that your fuck-ups are acceptable as long as someone else is unlucky.
Maverick breaks the hard deck to eliminate Jester in another flight; I have no idea why this is a bad idea, but presumably it is a safety issue, which Maverick was not concerned with. It is a minimum altitude barrier, presumably so fighter pilots in training do not routinely slam into the ground. His move is shown in class to be a bad idea despite winning the encounter, namely that his survival was a matter of luck, and that a more skillful pilot would have escaped rather than stay in combat and lose their plane as well as their life. Naturally, Maverick takes this advice in stride and learns from the experience. Oh wait, he throws a shit fit since nobody on Earth has anything to teach him. The guy who should be the hero intones “You are everyone’s problem. I don’t like you because you are unsafe.” Iceman’s point is well put – when the air speeds exceed Mach2, and weapons of war move faster than brain signals cross synapses, it is calculated precision that matters. Even Jester is not sure if he would want Maverick in battle with him.
Iceman is all class and reserved bravado. In the bar where the pilots contract their next case of gonorrhea, Iceman chats up the ladies with his aloof demeanor, while Maverick puts on a ridiculous show that would, in the real world, end with his eye sockets full of pepper spray. Ice gives credit where it is due, while Maverick pouts about the lack of glory showered on him for being mediocre. One is a stable pilot who is aware of his abilities and limitations, one has no idea what he will do from one moment to the next with his wounded psyche and short man syndrome. Maverick has daddy issues endemic to dumb action films, but Iceman has no such qualms. One is fit for duty, and one is clearly not.
Naturally, a bullshit ending is written so Cruise’s embattled hero actually looks like one, but nothing of what we see leads us to that point. Just before they take off to defend a crippled warship, Iceman expresses his reservations that Maverick is even given an assignment. He is supposed to be an asshole for this, but his concerns are more than justified. The last time Maverick got in a plane, he practically flew into Iceman’s exhaust while whining for Ice to get out of his way, crashed his plane and frapped his friend’s skull. No fucking way that was an unforeseeable accident. Even in combat, while Iceman is engaged by several enemy fighters, Maverick refuses to enter the fray until he overcomes his crushing depression. The time for that was before you enter the cockpit, you idiot. But hey, he has appearances to keep up, even if he endangers the lives of his fellow combatants.
So. Why isn’t Iceman the hero? Perhaps the story of a pilot who is in the learning process is more interesting, but Maverick learns very little and runs screaming from the bounds of maturity. He is that grand illusion of a hero as isolated victor, one who is great not out of a lifetime of work and preparation, but bred as a genius as an informed attribute. It is the lazy method of crafting a heroic character, since a lazy audience prefers the idea of a protagonist who is given all they need, and no actual effort is required over their arc. A true hero is one who spends their entire life perfecting their craft for the opportunity to effect a difference of great import. Such stories can be told well, but it takes some skillful writing and an adult perspective.
Top Gun has none of that, so our hero is a self-obsessed twit who is impulsive, reckless, and ignorant of whom suffers at his hands. But, he breaks the rules and so is more interesting. This assumption is shared by adults living in arrested adolescence and teen-aged girls in high school, and this audience made a massive success out of this terrible film. The story is dull and cliche-ridden, and the capability of our developmentally delayed hero is embellished beyond what good sense should allow. The style of writing is that of a gregarious liar who would routinely punch up mundane situations to make them interesting rather than tell a story in an interesting way. I worked with a guy who would do this uncontrollably. He would see a guy pulled over on the roadside, and by the time he finished his version of events at the water cooler, it was a high-speed chase that ended with the cops getting sucked into jet engines. So this pilot goes to school – and he fucks his instructor! And shoots down his teacher – BAM! And he kills all the bad guys – WHAM! Well, I beg to differ with this nonsense. Iceman is the hero we should want, but Maverick is the hero we deserve.