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The untold truth of Top Gun

Top Gun is one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, making a mark with everything from its memorable soundtrack to its role in the development of Tom Cruise as one of Hollywood's most bankable movie stars. Inspired by a 1983 article in California MagazineTop Gun is a fictional story based on life at the real US Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego County, CA, which until 1996 was the home of the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, nicknamed TOPGUN. As in the film, TOPGUN was where the top 1% of US naval aviators were sent to train in the most advanced and intense aerial combat maneuvers, making it one of the most spectacular collections of piloting talent — and egos — in the world.

Using the California article and extensive on-base research as their guide, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, director Tony Scott, and screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. crafted the story of Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, a hotshot naval aviator who's driven to prove himself as the best pilot alive. Part military drama, part sports film, and part romance, Top Gun captured the attention of filmgoing audiences worldwide, and for better or worse, it launched a new era in the American war film. As with any movie this big, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes melodrama to explore, enough that even avid fans of the film might not know the whole story.

The US Navy was involved with Top Gun from the very beginning

It's no secret that Top Gun was produced in close cooperation with the United States Navy. Hollywood studios have collaborated with the United States Department of Defense since the birth of the movie business, but Top Gun is one of the most obvious products of that relationship. Most of the film was shot on location at Naval Air Station Miramar in California, home of the real-life TOPGUN program. According to Time, the production got to shoot using real F-14 Tomcats, four actual aircraft carriers, and some of the most skilled combat pilots in the world. The Navy offered access to these resources essentially at the cost of fuel and pilot hours, charging only $1.8 million total. (Top Gun's total budget was $15 million.)

What's less well-known is that the US Navy was involved in Top Gun before there was even a script. Producer Don Simpson had recently been involved in the production of 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman, to which the US Navy refused access to facilities, costing the production millions. Simpson was determined not to have this happen on his next project, so he and Jerry Bruckheimer visited Navy headquarters in Washington to gauge their interest in a TOPGUN movie before even commissioning the screenplay. In fact, the duo hadn't worked out the story yet, and they had to improvise one on the spot. After receiving their enthusiastic approval, they worked closely with the Navy's Information Office throughout the production.

The Navy rewrote Goose's death

Securing the cooperation of the US Department of Defense (DoD) for a film involving the military can save a production millions of dollars, but it comes with strings attached. The DoD will only cooperate with productions that portray the military favorably and may aid recruiting efforts, and it will insist on revisions to the script in order to bring it in line with the image it wants to project. This can include omitting or revising historically accurate depictions that the Pentagon finds distasteful. Productions that refuse to make the required edits – such as Tom Cruise's military drama Born on the Fourth of July – must make do without those resources, which can significantly inflate their production costs.

Since Top Gun was written with pleasing the Navy in mind to begin with, the film's Navy-selected technical advisor and retired TOPGUN instructor Pete "Viper" Pettigrew had to request relatively few substantive changes to the script. Most of Pettigrew's revisions were in regard to the accuracy of the aerial combat maneuvers or life at Naval Air Station Miramar.

But one story change that the Navy insisted upon was the death of Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), who would've perished as the result of a mid-air collision between two F-14s. According to the official documentary Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun, Pettigrew had to devise another realistic cause for Goose's deadly crash that would involve only one aircraft, which is the version that was filmed.

The real Charlie is a big deal

Top Gun's romantic subplot went through a number of revisions during the writing process, with Maverick's romantic foil changing several times between drafts. According to the making-of documentary Danger Zone, a later draft had a love story between Maverick and a Navy non-commissioned officer serving on base with him, but the real-life Miramar base commander refused to allow filming to commence unless this was changed, since fraternization within Naval ranks is against regulations. When Jerry Bruckheimer asked for plausible alternatives, the commander suggested a civilian instructor and analyst, introducing Bruckheimer to Christine Fox, a mathematician and civilian contractor with the Center for Naval Analyses.

According to People, Fox became the direct inspiration for Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood, Top Gun's romantic lead portrayed by Kelly McGillis. Like Charlie, Fox was an air superiority analyst who worked at Naval Air Station Miramar and took part in evaluating and training aviators in the TOPGUN program. Fox also socialized — though never romantically — with TOPGUN aviators at the Officer's Club, where Charlie first meets Maverick in the film. (Fox's opinion of the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" is not a matter of public record.)

In the decades following her assignment at Miramar, Christine Fox rose up the ranks at the US Department of Defense, and for a period of six months between 2013 and 2014, she served as acting deputy secretary of defense, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Pentagon.

Top Gun's flying is more dangerous than the real thing

Like any Hollywood movie, Top Gun's commitment to accuracy has its limits. Some of Top Gun's storytelling liberties are about creating character stakes — for instance, there is not, nor has there ever been, a TOPGUN trophy. The trophy is an invention of screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., created to give Maverick and rival aviator Iceman (Val Kilmer) something to compete over, establishing sports-style stakes for a war film without a war. In the Danger Zone documentary, former TOPGUN instructor Pete Pettigrew recounts explaining to the screenwriters that if a trophy really existed, "No one would ever graduate. You don't understand the intensity of these guys. ... Everybody would die."

Oddly enough, Top Gun did inspire more dangerous flying than would normally be conducted at Miramar, not because of competition but because of cinematography. As explained in Danger Zone, the aerial combat maneuvers captured in the film were performed at closer range and at much lower altitude than normal. The lower altitude kept the nearby mountain range in frame, giving the aircraft a sense of speed that would be lost against a plain sky blue background. Planes flew far closer together than necessary for modern dogfighting, since using more realistic ranges would almost never allow two planes to be in frame at the same time, draining the scenes of any drama. TOPGUN's pilots were up to the task, but these maneuvers fell well outside their usual rules of engagement.

Val Kilmer didn't want to be in Top Gun

Val Kilmer's performance as Lt. Tom "Iceman" Kazansky is as memorable as Tom Cruise's Maverick, and it helped to transform him into a legitimate movie star. But according to his 2020 memoir I'm Your Huckleberry, Kilmer had no interest in the role or in the script, and he only met with director Tony Scott out of pressure from his agent, who told him that Scott was "absolutely obsessed with [him]." Kilmer did everything he could to make a bad first impression at the meeting in the hopes of getting out of the gig, deliberately dressing awkwardly and sandbagging his line readings. It didn't work — Scott overwhelmed Kilmer with his enthusiasm for his acting and for the project, and Kilmer came on board.

The character of Iceman didn't give Kilmer a lot to work with, but he came up with a few ideas of his own to chew on — including the literal ice chips he's seen crunching in the film, an improvisation on this part. To give Iceman an inner life upon which to draw for his performance, Kilmer invented a Shakespearian backstory for Iceman, involving a cold and distant father who expected perfection from his son.

Kilmer changed his tune about Top Gun when he finally saw the film for the first time and saw how it all came together. Kilmer came to respect the work that went into making Top Gun into such a massive hit, and he recalls the experience fondly.

Rick Rossovich was booted off the Enterprise

According to the making-of documentary Danger Zone, the beginning and ending of Top Gun were shot aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), a fully manned and in-service nuclear aircraft carrier. Despite the presence of the film's cast and crew, normal operations continued aboard the Enterprise, to the extent that the cast wasn't allowed to know what the real Naval crew was up to or even the ship's exact location. For much of the film crew's five-day stay aboard the Enterprise, they simply shot the sailors and aviators going about their duties (though Tony Scott did essentially rent the Enterprise for about five mines— costing him $25,000 — to keep the captain from steering her out of ideal lighting).

During their stay, the cast and crew was allotted space in the crew quarters, and Rick Rossovich, who plays LTJG Ron "Slider" Kerner, was uncomfortable with his sleeping arrangements. Rossovich's bunk was positioned near a cautionary sign regarding the Enterprise's nuclear reactor, which spooked Rossovich into leaving his assigned area and crashing in someone else's. (In fact, Rossovich was in no danger of radiation exposure.) When the bunk's proper resident — an officer — arrived to find a Hollywood actor sleeping in his bed, Rossovich refused to vacate. Rossovich was sent to the captain for a talking to, which apparently didn't do the trick, as Rossovich's attitude got him choppered off of the ship a day ahead of the rest of the production.

Kenny Loggins lucked into singing 'Danger Zone'

The soundtrack album to Top Gun was a massive hit, going certified Platinum nine times over. Competition to participate in the soundtrack was fierce. Paramount set up a "cattle call," inviting established hitmakers to screen a rough cut of the film and indicating particular scenes in which they wanted to place music. Singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins, who'd already contributed a smash single for the film Footloose, attended one such screening and was intimidated by the wealth of Top 40 talent in the room. Rather than try to go head to head with the other heavy hitters, Loggins and producer Peter Wolf chose, as Loggins puts it in the making-of documentary Danger Zone, "the path of least resistance" and wrote a song for the scene they thought there would be the least competition for — the now-iconic beach volleyball scene.

The decision worked out better than he could've imagined. Standing out against the more than 300 submitted songs, Loggins' "Playing with the Boys" successfully won its place in the film. Not only that, but when negotiations fell through with several other Columbia Records artists to perform "Danger Zone," the song written by Giorgio Moroder and lyricist Tom Whitlock to close out the film, Loggins was approached at the 11th hour to record the lead vocal since he was already involved in the soundtrack. Loggins' "Danger Zone" would reach #2 on the Billboard charts and become one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s.

'Take My Breath Away' broke up Berlin

The biggest hit off the Top Gun soundtrack was "Take My Breath Away," written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock and performed by American new wave band Berlin. Berlin, centered around singer Terri Nunn and songwriter John Crawford, was already an established major label act that had recently broken into the Billboard Top 20 with their 1984 single "No More Words," produced by Moroder. Having been impressed with Terri Nunn's vocals during their earlier session, Moroder invited Terri Nunn to record the vocals for "Take My Breath Away." Nunn jumped at the chance to record with Moroder again, but John Crawford was uneasy about the proposition of recording a high-profile song written by someone else.

Both Nunn's enthusiasm and Crawford's cynicism were vindicated. "Take My Breath Away" launched Berlin suddenly into the stratosphere, as the single reached #1 in six countries and won an Academy Award. The flipside of this good fortune was that the popularity of "Take My Breath Away" outshined all their previous recordings, and it became the definitive Berlin song to most audiences, which frustrated Crawford and other band members since they had little interest in a song they would now be expected to play at every show for as long as the band existed. This created a creative schism in the band that Nunn believes was the catalyst for their breakup in 1987.

Attempts at a Top Gun sequel stalled several times

Top Gun was the biggest box office hit of 1986, so it's no surprise that Paramount was interested in a sequel. First, Paramount considered a fast and cheap path to making Top Gun II, reusing footage shot for the first film. In Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun, editor Billy Weber describes a phone call from a Paramount executive asking for him to provide all the unused airplane footage left over from the making of Top Gun for use in a hypothetical Top Gun II. Weber explained that there was no leftover footage. The first film had included every usable frame of the hours of aerial combat maneuvers that were shot.

Navy Maj. David Georgi has also revealed (via Operation Hollywood) that Paramount pitched the Navy a Top Gun sequel in the early 1990s, and that this time, the Navy wasn't interested, as the criminal conduct of real TOPGUN aviators at a 1991 pilot convention had brought such public shame to the Navy that it led the secretary of the Navy to resign. According to Maj. Georgi, TOPGUN was "not something the Navy wanted to brag about" at the time.

Development on a sequel resumed in 2010, with plans to reunite producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, and star Tom Cruise, but it stalled again after Scott's death in 2013. The eventual sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, finally began shooting in 2018 with director Joseph Kosinski at the helm, once again utilizing real US Navy hardware.

After Top Gun, the military went Hollywood for good and vice versa

The impact of Top Gun can't be measured only in terms of its box office success. The release of Top Gun also correlated to a sizable boost in Navy recruitment, and these two factors combined led to a massive increase in the number of films being considered and approved to receive military assets in exchange for script approval. This trend has only increased. Hundreds films and television shows have been produced under this arrangement since Top Gun, and as Hollywood studios have become more dependent on military support, the military has gained more leverage over studios to cave to their conditions. According to Mace Neufeld, producer of 1990's The Hunt for Red October, the unwritten rule for Hollywood movies depicting the military is either get military cooperation "or forget about making the picture."

For Hollywood, cooperation with the Pentagon is an opportunity to show off stunning visuals of expensive military assets in their films and trailers without having to break the bank on props, sets, and CGI. For the Pentagon, cooperation with Hollywood is cheap advertising, the chance to curate a favorable impression of military service for generations of viewers. It's mutually profitable for the two entities — whether or not it's any good for the state of art or the viewing public is a matter for further debate.

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