The opening shot of Top Gun—after that somewhat superfluous text—is the deck of the USS Enterprise. (Seen in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home later the same year). There’s fog, or I guess it’s exhaust, blowing across the deck. We see men, but not in detail. We see fighter jets, but also not in detail. The music is low energy, and when it transitions into “Danger Zone” the light comes up a little; the planes are a little more visible, the men a little more visible. Then, we’re introduced to the leads as they come up, inexplicably, against two MiG 28s. This—in the Indian Ocean, where everything should be fine and dandy. An exchange of fire and this would be like Tonkin all over again. But, this time for real. And, involving planes instead of boats.
The reference is important because, like the other movies this past month, Vietnam hangs like a shadow over the whole thing. It’s not as obvious as Rambo or Commando or even Lethal Weapon. It’s not as deliberately left behind as Die Hard—remember how much of a punchline Johnson and Johnson are, thinking they can race in with their helicopters and save the day. But, Vietnam is still there. Maverick’s father was killed in Vietnam... well, that isn’t technically true. He was killed during the Vietnam War, but judging by Viper’s story, he was not actually in the airspace over Vietnam but, I guess, Laos.
I’ve argued before that Vietnam—and especially our loss there—drove us into the action movies of the 1980s. Hegemonic decline meant we had to puff out our chests and show off how macho we are. Our damaged soldiers (John Rambo, Martin Riggs) come back from the war and learn to get past their damage to kill some bad guys again. Our soldiers who have retired to the quiet life (John Matrix) can easily come out of retirement to kill the bad guys again, too.
(It is worth mentioning, as well, in regards to Top Gun‘s success, the Challenger accident had happened just a few months before this film was released. A national tragedy to fuel interest in making the country great again, plus it drew attention to aviation. Top Gun made that interest and that attention bigger.)
Commando begins with Matrix’s unit being killed one-by-one, and Rambo rants about his dead friends at the end of First Blood,. Some soldiers didn’t come home from Vietnam. It’s obvious, but it’s also important. Many young men, some of them fathers like Duke Mitchell, went off to war—voluntarily or drafted—and died in country. Left behind were family members, parents, siblings, wives, girlfriends, children. Maverick’s father was a great pilot. If we follow the logic of Rambo’s view on the war, Duke Mitchell wasn’t allowed to win. His disappearance was just another piece of the loss in Vietnam. And his little boy not only had his pilot’s jacket to fill (and may literally be wearing it; Maverick’s jacket has on the back a “fart East Cruise 63-4” patch on it.) but a war to fight... or refight, along with James Braddock and John Rambo and Jason Rhodes (and his recruits), and in a less literal fashion Martin Riggs.
As Viper explains early in the film, they don’t set policy at TOPGUN, civilians set policy and the naval aviators are just tools of the policy. Tools of the war... and the Cold war meant a perpetual war. Kids like Pete Mitchell grew up with the idea that there was an enemy out there. Andrew O’Hehir (2015) argues, “Some people claim we can recapture our lost glory by ignoring history and embracing some obviously counterfactual propaganda narrative...” That is to say, we Americans love a good story, what O’Hehir calls a “rah-rah, gung-ho war movie.” That is what Rambo is. What Commando is. What Missing in Action is. What Uncommon Valor is (though that one is not as “rah-rah” about it). And, in less obvious and less literal ways, that is what Lethal Weapon is and what Die Hard is. And, the important detail today is that, though there is no war in this movie, Top Gun very much is that kind of movie as well. The Mitchell bloodline is the American bloodline. A piece of it died in Vietnam, now what’s left over is trying to claw its way to the top. As Viper suggests, Maverick is trying to prove something.
Works CitedO’Hehir, A. (2015, January 31). The “American Sniper” cultural moment: How Iraq became the new Vietnam. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/01/31/the_american_sniper_cultural_moment_how_iraq_became_the_new_vietnam/