by the end of vietnam...

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 Cited

O’Hehir, A. (2015, January 31). The “American Sniper” cultural moment: How Iraq became the new Vietnam. Salon. Retrieved from


  1. I have to admit that your "I want some butts, I want them now" line led to some Beavis and Butthead giggling between me and the other guy in my office on Friday. Maybe the movie is just about male bonding and we live in an unfortunately sex-obsessed era? Or maybe the only way you can get away with the male bonding being so blatant is to acknowledge a homoerotic subtext, since everybody is going to see one anyway?

    I suppose you might be right about the loss in Vietnam leading to the action movies of the eighties. But there has been a glut of anti-Vietnam movies, too. Michael Medved is (I'm guessing) not one of your heroes, but he asks in his book Hollywood vs. America why the war that America most conspicously lost is the one featured most in American movies. Yeats asked: "Does the imagination dwell the most/Upon a woman won or woman lost?". It kind of answers itself.

    I think conservative Americans tend to see the Vietnam war as the point where things went wrong and America started to hate itself, question its own ideals, etc. That could be why it is refought imaginatively so much?

    As for myself, conservative as I am, I stood by the memorial wall in Washington D.C. and I find it impossible to believe the war was worth the loss-- even if the 'domino theory' was true. Indeed, I live with the fallout of the Vietnam War every day in my own life, though in a rather roundabout way and not one I want to expand on.

    That escalated quickly.

    1. I think a few details are important: 1980s America was pushing forward so much with money that the film industry was pumping out product (and it's pretty much only increased since... I'd have to check the numbers to see how consistently). the idea that Vietnam is the war we put into film most may just come from the fact that we were making more movies and action movies proved financially viable. but, there is also a thematic distinction between Vietnam movies that came out in the late 70s--Coming Home, The Deer Hunter--versus those that came out in the 80s--those I've watched this month, plus the Missing in Action movies and a few less famous ones; Once Reagan was in and we had ourselves a nice conservative upswing, Vietnam was no longer strictly a national failure but something we could correct, even if only symbolically.

      As for the sex-obsessed thing, yeah, we can sexualize anything. In fact, it's one of the simplest (American) ways to make something exciting, even while we overprotect our children from overt displays of nudity or sex, we allow them almost constant access--I certainly had constant access, growing up--to displays of violence, many of them eroticized. Was Top Gun MEANT to be homoerotic? Probably not, but how else do you excite the young male mind but to grab onto his hormones and blow some stuff up in front of him?

      Medved is fine, by the way. I am a) partial to Ebert, and b) would like to, for the most part, leave film critics out of this blog, preferring criticism and commentary from other fields.

    2. Ah, OK. I see the virtue of that decision-- it's so easy to get sucked into the vortex of a particular 'discourse'. I'm also a big Ebert fan.

  2. And as though I hadn't been pretentious enough already....I once encountered a theory that the 1968 riots in France (or most notably in France) were a kind of delayed after-effect of the Resistance against the Nazis. The theory is that the 'soixante-huitards' grew up hearing heroic tales of the Resistance and wanted to relive them. Perhaps twenty years is the time it takes for the horrors of war to be forgotten and its heroics idealised by a new generation?

    1. You must keep in mind, though, that 1968 was a place for violence and unrest all over the world, timed better in relation to the end of the colonial period than World War II specifically. But, the latter certainly would have played its part.


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