Movies

A Scene-By-Scene Breakdown Of The Basically Perfect First 30 Minutes Of The Original ‘Top Gun’

It has been my position for a number of years now that the opening 30 minutes of the original Top Gun are about as good as you can possibly do from a filmmaking standpoint. The rest of the movie is pretty great, too. There’s a scene around the midpoint of the movie where Tom Cruise shows up at Kelly McGillis’s house for some sort of date/debriefing situation (or something else) after playing beach volleyball with jeans on in 95-degree San Diego sunshine and asks if he can take a shower. That’s… I mean, it’s kind of funny. But also kind of perfect. The movie does such a good job of telling you exactly who this character is and what he’s about that huge chunks of the back half can just be planes going WHOOOOOSH and missiles going VRRRSHH and pilots going WHOAAA and it still advances the plot in a meaningful way. It’s cool.

The key to that is the foundation laid down in the first 30 minutes, which stretches out over five scenes. Each of these scenes attempts to drive home two very important points about Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in different ways. These points are:

  • He’s a loose cannon
  • But dammit, he gets results and/or is the best there is

You’ve seen this kind of character before. A lot, probably. But there’s a good reason for that: these characters, when done correctly, are awesome. Top Gun does it correctly. It structures the entire movie around it. It structures an entire legacy sequel around it, too. And it all comes back to that opening 30 minutes of the original, which, again, are basically perfect. I would stop here to say a word or two about director Tony Scott and how sometimes his work on the movie gets lost in the Tom Cruise of it all, but he put this shot in the opening of the whole thing…

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… so I think he knows he did something special. You don’t put your own name over an image of a firing jet engine if you’re not proud of what’s ahead. Good for him.

The point I’m getting at: Let’s take a few minutes to go through this half-hour of movie magic scene-by-scene. It’s informative and fun and it allowed me to make a GIF of Tom Cruise doing a fist pump at an airplane. There is no bad news here. Away we go.

I. The Cougar Situation

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The action, summarized

Maverick and Goose are up flying around with a few other pilots, one of whom is named Cougar. They encounter an enemy plane — a MiG — and things get dicey. Cougar has a panic attack in the sky. It’s not ideal.

Is Maverick a loose cannon?

Consider:

  • While zipping and zooming through the sky with an enemy in a possibly superior aircraft, Maverick and Goose take the opportunity to go upside down and inverted to give the MiG’s pilot the middle finger and snap a picture of it
  • Maverick disregards a direct order to land his plane so he can go back up and help the frazzled Cougar get back to the aircraft carrier

Yes. An extremely loose cannon. One of the loosest you’ll ever see.

Does he get results, dammit?

Does he ever. Everyone gets home safely and he gets to show off some of his fancy flying skills. And we got to see that, while he has the reputation of being a hotshot flyboy, he also cares and will not leave anyone behind, no matter what some cigar-chomping superior in a sweaty control room says. This brings us to…

II. The Best Scene In Any Movie Ever

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The action, summarized

A few things are happening here:

  • Cougar is still skittish after the encounter and turns in his wings, which is… like, not something I’m sure you can just do in the military
  • Maverick and Goose are called in next to get yelled at for various stunts and shenanigans and also to be informed that, with Cougar out, they get to go to Top Gun in his place
  • The whole thing is maybe the best version of the “I’m sick of your live wire antics”/“The mayor is gonna have my ass for this” scene in any movie ever, complete with shouting and smirking and sweating and, at one point, as I have screencapped above, the sentence “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”

It’s a perfect scene. I could watch it every day.

Is Maverick a loose cannon?

YOUR
EGO
IS
WRITING
CHECKS
YOUR
BODY
CAN’T
CASH

Does he get results, dammit?

Let’s just go straight to the screencaps for this one.

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I am not joking even a little when I tell you I let out an involuntary and audible “yesssss” when these lines were delivered during my 500th rewatch last week. The lessons here are as follows: Top Gun rules; James Tolkan, the actor who plays the shouting authority figure, was extremely good at this particular thing, and Jon Hamm is pretty good at it in the sequel; and I am kind of an idiot.

Moving on.

III. Iceman, Viper, Etc.

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The action, summarized

We are now at Top Gun. A guy named Viper, who is one of the best to ever do it and is played by Tom Skerritt and his immaculate mustache, is handling the introductions. Maverick is being kind of a wiseass the whole time. We get our first glimpse of Iceman, which I have GIFed above, in part because it’s such a cool way to introduce a semi-antagonist and in part because Val Kilmer is the best. It’s a really fun scene, way more fun than any classroom scene in an airplane movie has any right to be.

Is Maverick a loose cannon?

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Does he get results, dammit?

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So, yes, that’s settled. And I’m glad I was able to settle it so quickly because it gives me more room to plop in the GIF I mentioned earlier where Tom Cruise pumps his first at an airplane.

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The point of this shot, as far as I can tell, is to add a brief but important third character trait to Maverick, in addition to being a loose cannon who gets results: He freaking loves airplanes so much. Holy crap. Look at him. I like to picture him doing this every time he sees an airplane take off anywhere. I kind of wonder if Tom Cruise does it, too. Every time. In real life. Even today.

You could see it. Don’t lie.

IV. Shoutout To The Righteous Brothers

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The action, summarized

Maverick and the other pilots go to a bar in their fancy Navy uniforms. Maverick sees a pretty lady and leads the entire establishment in serenading her with the song “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers. It’s a famous scene. You know all of this.

Is Maverick a loose cannon?

Well, when the singing does not immediately provide the resolution he wanted, he follows her into the women’s bathroom, which is a risky move that I would not advise anyone to do, ever, unless you are a hotshot fighter pilot in a movie that came out in 1986. And even then… maybe not.

Does he get results, dammit?

I mean, sure, eventually. There’s a whole love scene set to the song “Take My Breath Away” after the volleyball thing. Which you are free to talk about on your own. I can’t concentrate on anything right now. I’m stuck on this except from the Wikipedia page for The Righteous Brothers, who are two unrelated white guys named Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield.

According to Medley, they then adopted the name The Righteous Brothers for the duo because black Marines from the El Toro Marine base started calling them “righteous brothers”. At the end of a performance, a black U.S. Marine in the audience would shout, “That was righteous, brothers!”, and would greet them with “Hey righteous brothers, how you doin’?” on meeting them.

I have been thinking about this anecdote for about three days now. I can’t stop thinking about it. And the main reason I can’t stop thinking about is because I…

… like…

I do not think that actually happened?

Yeah, I really do not.

Which makes it all extremely funny to me.

The Righteous Brothers.

Sure thing, buddy.

Try to hear any song by them without thinking about this.

I’m sorry.

Kind of.

V. “So You’re The One”

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The action, summarized

Everyone is back in another class-type session, this time outside, which allows Maverick to wear his sunglasses for a little bit, which is important. Their instructor is introduced and she walks in and turns around and yuuuuuuup it’s Kelly McGillis from the bar. Perfect. Incredible. Look at Maverick’s face in that GIF. It’s almost like this isn’t the first time this exact thing has happened to him.

Is Maverick a loose cannon?

One last round of bullet points to lay this out:

  • Maverick continues being a wiseass
  • He interrupts to point out that her information on the MiG is inaccurate
  • They have a little semi-playful back and forth over who has more information about what specific classified information
  • Maverick tells her the thing about flipping the bird to the pilot while upside-down

Which brings us to…

Does he get results, dammit?

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This is just a powerfully efficient piece of business. The Matrix took longer to establish Keanu Reeves as The One and that’s the entire point of that series. Add it to the other action we’ve seen and it creates a sturdy framework to build everything else in the movie around. And it’s a blast. And Tom Cruise pumps his fist at an airplane.

Top Gun is a good movie.

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