I start my day with Top Gun

So many different things to talk about. This is more of a grab bag, but I’ll try to relate the different things that show up.

First, I’ll get the most unrelated part of this post out of the way: check out these maps. Kind of cool.

But now back to the titular (someone help me with usage here. Strictly speaking, it seems this word only refers to titles of POSITIONS, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it used to mean just the title of something) theme of this post.

Top Gun is an old movie these days, and in fact, it was old already even when I first saw it.  First time through, I was sad that Goose died, but I didn’t really latch on to much else. Of course, being a young kid, the dogfighting was pretty sweet.

As I’ve grown older though, I really do think the movie actually succeeds at a more complicated level, and for all the complaining I do about pop culture being vacuous and utterly degrading to the spirit of citizenship, self-realization, and free-thinkingness, there are, indisputably, pop cultural phenomenon that go on to deeply mesh with themes and questions floating around in, well, the popular culture. Superman is a prime example (though his time is fading, or is it now that reboot is being contemplated on the order of Batman Begins). Seinfeld (for you younger people, think The Wire) is another case in point. Pop sometimes touches something so deep and so universal that it explodes out of its cliched garbage pit and onto the map of cultural history.

I am not assuming that you already think Top Gun is such a movie, but I will try to convince you that it deserves this praise.

My main argument consists of identifying the way in which this movie succeeds at depicting a certain kind of male camaraderie. Now right off the bat, you might say, what value does such a sexist and retrograde theme have in our progressive society? My answer is that art does not need to be all things at once. There is art that celebrates women, gays (band played on), blacks, and every other group under the sun. Now of course, anytime you have a movie discussing the DOMINANT group in society, you’ve got to be careful. A movie about whiteness would be very troubling, and so a movie about maleness should be seen as suspicion right from the start.

It’s fair to say though that maleness is different than blackness or whiteness. Separate bathrooms for whites and blacks is unacceptable, but separate bathrooms for men and women seems almost required by a variety of reasons. Anyway, I think there is room for a movie about men that treats the subject with care and poignancy.

Immediately, there is the issue of interpreting the movie as homosexual allegory, (click this link, the movie is hilarious and smart) and indeed, there are many ways to read the movie to support this.

However, I reject the reading that Top Gun is only about homosexuality, though I think what it does do is to highlight how close maleness trends toward homosexuality at some points. In point of fact, I think the movie treats the issue of homosexuality in a very sensitive way. As far as I know, there is not a single use of a gay slur or insinuation in the entire movie. Rather remarkable considering the movie is supposed to be pop cultural romp through a seductively misrepresented fighter pilot culture. Instead, I think the movie is about a special type of humor and camaraderie that can most often be found amongst men.

Having grown up attending an all boys prep school, I can really appreciate how well this movie captures the rough and tumble friendships of men in competition with each other. This relates to my point, said many times on this blog, that competition is the social production of excellence. In Top Gun, the movie is about one man (Maverick) who is competing against an enemy that cannot be defeated: the legacy of dead father. No risk is too much to take when the enemy is invincible and so beyond life. Even Iceman is a less dangerous opponent for Maverick.

Goose on the other hand is the representation of the free-wheeling and easygoing humor that greases the tension that arises out of close competition with peers. I know at my high school, the friendly banter, and yes, insults, flew fast and furiously, but it was all cover for the sober business of trying to succeed in an environment of very competent other people. Each kid in my high school (well not quite all) was an achiever. They wanted to do things, and so did everyone else. Finding the niche where one could flourish was not easy, and had to be earned by each person. Goose is the family man who wishes that Maverick would just relax and not take so many risks, but he goes along for the ride no matter what. So, not only does he represent humor, but the spirit of loyalty that pervades friendships formed under stress and tribulation.

In the end though, Maverick does succeed at the highest level, and he does so primarily by being able to move the target of his competition from his dead father onto the actually existing Russians. The final scene of the movie more than anything I think illustrates the respect that develops between two people that are struggling to be the best. I found this patten to be very pervasive at my school. There was one kid who I was in constant competition with. We even had several violent clashes. It would be fair to say that we came as close to hating each other as you can do without actually invoking the emotion of hate. And that’s the beauty, I did not actually hate my opponent, and in time, our competition developed into a powerful and abiding friendship, as well as a healthy dose of respect for the fighting spirit of the other.

These day, fighter pilots in the U.S. military have an enormous advantage over their opponents. The F-22 for example (see my post here) is a technological marvel and as this handy video shows, frees up a lot of the pilot’s brainpower so that he can focus on strategy rather than keeping the plane from ripping itself apart, or running out of fuel, or all the other mentally taxing parts of flying an airplane close to the speed of sound while others are trying to kill you.

Also, with pilotless drones, there may not be a need for the top gun pilots for that much longer. You see, there is no glory in modern warfare (death is dealt so effectively from far away), but there was in dogfighting, the last bastion of one on one combat augmented by obscenely powerful technologies. That era may be coming to a close as well.


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