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Veterans Salute ‘Top Gun’ 30 Years Later

“Platoon.” “Full Metal Jacket.” “Hamburger Hill.” The decade featured some of the grittiest looks at military service, often featuring U.S. soldiers behaving badly.

Then Tom Cruise declared a need for speed.

Cruise’s “Top Gun” celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. The 1986 film did more than cement his superstar status. “Top Gun: 30th Anniversary Steelbook (Limited Edition) [Blu-ray]” flashed impossibly cocky pilots who made Naval Aviation cool. They got the girls, rocked the Karaoke bar and risked their lives for their country.

Reagan’s America got its movie close-up. And the U.S Military’s image enjoyed an overdue Hollywood spit shine. Real-life veterans couldn’t help but take notice. They still salute the movie all these years later.

Dan McClinton was in flight school when “Top Gun” first hit theaters. The film’s cultural impact proved undeniable.

He saw it firsthand.

“We noticed the number of women who came to the officer’s club vastly increased,” says McClinton, a warrant officer Army aviator who served three tours in Iraq.

McClinton was born in 1960. He remembers the pro-military movies of his youth. Think Rock Hudson’s “A Gathering of Eagles” and Jimmy Stewart’s “Strategic Air Command.”

“In a way, [‘Top Gun’] hearkened back to that. It’s a piece of your childhood,” McClinton says.

FAST FACT: The film hit no. 1 on the box office charts on its debut weekend, only to lose it to Sylvester Stallone’s “Cobra” one week later. The film’s staying power wouldn’t be denied. It climbed back to the number one spot four months after its release.

The warriors of “Top Gun” weren’t like those seen in other war films from the era. That heartened McClinton.

“Every soldier wasn’t committing war crimes or smoking dope. I’m not gonna say those things didn’t happen … but people who didn’t know any better see it, and that’s what they take away [from those movies],” he says. “That bugged me.”

RELATED: Top 5 Realistic, Unrealistic War Movies

Retired Air Force Colonel Skip Johnson applauded “Top Gun’s” timing given the crush of Vietnam War movies flooding theaters.

“It was fun to see another light shined on the military,” Johnson says.

That doesn’t mean he could forgive some of the creative license employed by Cruise and co. The kind of “blatant insubordination” flashed by Maverick when he “buzzed the tower” would have grounded him immediately.

“You can understand the producers wanting to portray a free spirit and loose cannon,” Johnson says. “It would only take one incident like that and you’d be done flying.” Even the muscular moves portrayed in the film beggar belief.

“You’re not gonna role upside down and fly next to a MiG,” Johnson says.

FAST FACT: For a list of factual inconsistencies in the film, visit WeAreTheMighty.com’s list.

Yet the story did capture the camaraderie of pilots, and their need to succeed, in a way veterans could appreciate.

“Everybody wants to be the best pilot … and your reputation is based on your flying abilities,” he says.

Retired Marine Dale Dye remembers how curious veterans were about the movie when it first hit theaters.

“Then the word started getting out. “You gotta see this,” says Dye, an actor and novelist who routinely serves as a military consultant on Hollywood productions like “Platoon.”

“[Director] Tony Scott spent money like a madmen to get that thing made. The Navy went along,” says Dye, who would later act with “Top Gun” star Kelly McGillis in the 2015 film “Blue.”

Naval aviation enlistment spiked after the movie’s initial release. It was pretty obvious why.

“How cool it would be to be Tom Cruise or [co-star] Val Kilmer and do all that neat stuff that very few get to do in uniform?” says Dye, whose newest novel “Havana File (The Shake Davis Series) (Volume 6)” came out earlier this month. “It was a great boost and a great boon to naval aviation.”

Dye does note a downside from the movie’s popularity.

A few years later, more than 100 Navy and Marine aviation officers were accused of sexually assaulting women in Las Vegas during the annual Tailhook Association Symposium.

“There were all kinds of references to ‘Top Gun’ connected to that,” Dye says. “My ears pricked up at that point. Were these guys trying to emulate Cruise and Kilmer? There might be something in that.”

FAST FACT: Tom Cruise initially turned down the role of Maverick. What changed his mind? Producer Jerry Bruckheimer arranged for him to fly with the legendary Blue Angels pilots.

Laura Millett, co-founder of the GI Film Festival, says “Top Gun’s” arrival impacted the nation more than most blockbusters.

“It really did change the thought pattern in America. You could be in the military and be cool … be winners,” says Millett, who served in the Army and Army Reserves for 14 years.

“Top Gun” made the pilots challenging Cruise’s Maverick a nebulous enemy, but Millett says it wasn’t a mystery to movie goers.

“We all knew they were the Russians, and [Maverick and his fellow pilots] were winning,” she says.

Millett’s film festival kicks off its 10th year May 21st. She says she’d “absolutely” program “Top Gun” into the annual event had it come out today, not in 1986. The story isn’t based on actual events, but showing service members with respect is a key mission of the festival.

In a way, the film’s legacy extends well into the 21st century.

When the GI Film Festival began, its programming lineup countered a Hollywood image set by movies like “Redacted” and “In the Valley of Elah.” Those films showcased a negative look at the U.S. Military.

Now, 30 years after “Top Gun,” there’s a new wave of military-based stories hitting theaters. “American Sniper.” “Lone Survivor.” And audiences are lining up to see them.top-gun-veterans-poster

“Right now, supporting the military is a hot item. Both political parties can get around it,” she says.

“Top Gun” is officially three decades old, but Johnson insists the movie still matters.

“It’s kind of ageless. I know people who say, ‘let’s plug in ‘Top Gun’ and watch it.’ It has good legs,” Johnson says.

He isn’t so sure making a sequel, which both Cruise and producer Jerry Bruckheimer insist is in the works, is a good idea.

The nation is still at war in Afghanistan, and hostilities in Iraq are heating up anew.

“After 13, 14 years of war … I don’t think [a sequel] would have the same impact or grip [as the original],” Johnson says.

Dye disagrees.

Our nation is still threatened by terrorists who would love nothing more than to land more body blows against the United States,” Dye says.

“I think any time that a nation is threatened, and we certainly are … the public silently screams for heroes who, in the face of all that adversity and danger, emerge victorious,” Dye says.

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7 Comments

  1. Great piece, Christian!

    I loved this movie and still do. Will watch it any time it comes on television, despite the fact that Tom Cruise is certifiable. I just try to remember him as he once was: young and naive instead of old and crazy.

  2. Funny. I was stationed on the USS Midway (CV-41) for two years and saw most every aspect of carrier flight ops, including emergency landings in foam or with the barricade rigged, and one combat plane that lost thrust during catapult. When the afterburners should have kicked in, the engine died instead. Splash!

    There were plenty of other hairy things that happened, but after two years on the Midway I had absolutely no interest in seeing Top Gun, which had just been released in the US. I still haven’t seen it. I find that selective taste in film is also common among veterans. Ex-Special Forces people I work with now have no love for Lone Survivor (which I love), and my late father, a Normandy veteran, didn’t think too much of Saving Private Ryan (which I also love). “If the Army wanted to find you, they found you.” That was all he said.

    Not to say Top Gun isn’t a great film, especially for those to whom an aircraft carrier is a novelty item and not a grueling longtime workplace. But in the end, any film that promotes core American miltary values and heart can’t be bad.

  3. I still have a very vivid memory of seeing this in the theaters when I was 7 years old. It blew me away. The guys were impossibly cool, the flying stunts were amazing, and the “flat spin” scene freaked me out beyond belief. (Still does.) Of course now, in the hip, ironic 21st century, we’re not allowed to enjoy this kind of stuff – we have to laugh at it as cheesy and dated – but I’ll take the slick fun and sincerity of this film over hipster snark any day of the week.

  4. “You’re not gonna role upside down and fly next to a MiG,” Johnson says.

    Check your facts, Col. Johnson.
    That scene is based on a real dogfight that occured during the Viet Nam war with then-pilot “Duke” Cunningham.

  5. “Then Tom Cruise declared a need for speed.”

    Both Platoon and Hamburger Hill came out after Top Gun.
    Plus, Hamburger Hill was actually a pro-military, pro-GI film showing Viet Nam veterans in a good light. As opposed to the disillusioned, dope-smoking, all-inclusive, open-minded clique of “grunts” against the redneck, racist, suck-ups and war criminals we find in Stone’s Platoon.

    I still can’t figure out why Stone made the black power character, “Junior,” a slacker weasel “bad guy” instead of his hero! Maybe he was trying to fool us?

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