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 Condor — we 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?