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Top Gun and Faith Alone


To us children of the early 1980s, one only thing was clear: We were all going to die in a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Looking back on our history, we see a straight line of Cold War paranoia from the ’50s to the ’80s, but we soon forget that the bad guys in mid-1970s American films about spies and international intrigue were Americans. The Russians didn’t kill Robert Redford’s colleagues in Three Days of the Condorwe did. But after Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and Reagan took the presidency in 1981, Cold War culture was back and hotter than ever.

A couple of films really encapsulate this era. The most obvious example is Rocky IV, where an old, tiny, ethnic American boxer goes head-to-head with a soulless, blond super-machine from the Soviet Union. (There’s no way that Rocky can win, or can he?).

Decent white people will save the world

The other movie is Top Gun, where Tom Cruise plays a short F-14 fighter pilot with the good Christian name of Pete Mitchell. His call name is “Maverick” because this bad boy doesn’t play by the rules. And no one can seem to discipline him too strictly, because he’s such a goddamn great pilot. (Just like his “old man.”) This guy is all results and no process.

Eastern Europeans ethnics cannot win the war for America.

The Russians are the film’s ultimate villains, but they only bookend the story, so the ersatz enemy is Val Kilmer’s character Iceman. From the start, we hate this guy because he is tall, blond, and has a vaguely Polish last name. The name “Iceman”? This cat flies “ice cold” — no mistakes — and there is nothing more un-American than Perfectionism. Okay, he’s kind of a dickhead and is a bit cocky, but Iceman is not so much a “bad guy” as extremely skeptical about Maverick’s unreliable and risky piloting. In fact, his concerns seem perfectly legitimate.

At the end of the film, textbook-flier Iceman wins the “Top Gun” trophy, but the tide turns when an international incident inconveniently erupts minutes into their graduation party. Mr. Perfect Iceman finds himself in a lot of trouble with five MIG fighters, and he is only saved by Maverick’s maverick flying.

The moral of the story goes back to that Protestant belief that following rules is ultimately unimportant compared to “faith” and “talent.” Maverick may not do “what’s right” (orthopraxy) but he and God know that he’s a goddamn good pilot at the end of the day (orthodoxy). The East — whether that be the Russians or the Japanese — may have scientific precision on their sides, but God’s U.S. of A. has got the heart. And who wins the Cold War sports match of Top Gun? Goddamn Maverick.

A side note:

1) Is Kelly McGillis really that hot? My nine year-old friends were convinced as such, but I never understood it. Does it only take blond hair to be “hot”? Do we already understand that at age nine?

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

15 Responses

  1. dzima Says:

    Kelly McGillis in Top Gun vs. Elizabeth Shue in Back to the Future II. Who wins?

  2. Momus Says:

    I flicked through American TV the other day. My TV here has over 800 channels, I’m not kidding, but there’s nothing I would consider “watchable” in the way I consider my beloved European government channel Arte watchable. Everything is repeats, or very stupid, or has too many edits and zooms per second, or is some turgid melodrama, or is a sales channel, and everything is interrupted incessantly by commercials.

    Themes in the dramas seemed deeply authoritarian to me. Family values were underscored constantly (even a documentary about the gay quilt was full of people asserting that being gay was a “family value”), heroes wore military uniform, and singers sang misty-eyed songs about the patriotic values their fathers inculcated in them. On lots of channels people were trying to convince the viewer of something (to buy something, to embrace God, to donate money), and the viewer felt bullied by smooth, slick unrelentingly positive rhetoric. Suddenly I longed for all those Japanese food programmes. They seemed healthy and, well, very democratic in comparison.

  3. josh Says:

    oh good lord… anything but more food programs. Give me celebu’s and talento humiliating each other for yucks any day (well actually they’re on EVERY day), but please… no more food programs.

  4. marxy Says:

    Momus, I get the sense that you strongly dislike America and love Japan.

  5. marxy Says:

    Elizabeth Shue by ten points.

  6. rio Says:

    Had the unfortunate experience of taking an undergrad film class with one of the writers of Top Gun and he said that Kelly McGillis was the biggest mistake of the movie. Apparently she wasn’t hot enough. I think Elizabeth Shue is not an accidental comparison. Both are often shunned for not being hot but the problem seems to be that they’re too big: impeding the masculinity of smaller-framed men, whether it’s stocky Tom Cruise in Top Gun or delicate Ralph Macchio in Karate Kid.

  7. marxy Says:

    Now I feel like a dick for reaffirming stereotypes that “big” women can’t be hot. I just thought it was interesting that my 9-10 year old friends, however, immediately went for the blond hair and overlooked body frame issues. I’ve never really heard much anti-Kelly McGillis backlash before, so I guess they suceeded at some level, despite the screenwriter’s opinion.

  8. Chris_B Says:

    I’m really begining to wonder if momus really exists or not. Although some claim to have met him, I suspect his net presense to be some phantom entity like that of Serjik Ardor’s presense on Usenet back in the dawn of time.

  9. rio Says:

    Two things:

    1) You are no dick, Marxy.

    2) Momus does exist. I saw him in real-life on stage with Kahimi Karie (love her!) in Philadelphia in the late-1990s. Surprisingly (or not?), he appealed to this hyper-hetero frat-boy audience. Hmmm.

  10. ndkent Says:

    As for New York TV

    WNYE (broadcast channel 25) tends to have pretty good programming. Mostly local NYC or foreign broadcasts…. umm …. known to play my stuff now and again. In general the 2nd or 3rd string public TV station in a given market deals less with fundraising and fat wallet appeal.

    Cartoon network tends to play a couple interesting things past 11pm, then play them over and over every 3 hours.

    The History Channel is pretty good during the obscure hours.

    That said I use the TV to watch rental by mail DVDs most of the time.

    As for Rocky IV – it made money but not enough to make another film a desirable business deal. I could see the Russian angle as simply an upping the ante from the last one. You can’t have someone down a rung from Mr. T now can you?

    At the time I thought surely a Rocky vs. some sort of nasty E.T. was destined for the next installment (well every single Science Fiction show since the 60s had that episode).

  11. Gideon Strauss Says:

    Erm, I think many Lutherans, especially those who take large doses of Kierkegaard, would go with your characterization of us Protestants. But both Anabaptists and Calvinists (for different reasons) would probably want to nuance things a bit …

  12. marxy Says:


    You are missing the point. Everything on American TV is bad – even with 800 channels – and everything on Japanese TV is good – with just 8 channels (maybe 40 if you have cable).

  13. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: you need a sarchasm emoticon

  14. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:


  15. tim Says:

    She’s a Shue in.