Thursday, August 6, 2009

Top Gun -- arrogance, recklessness and rules

Director: Tony Scott, 1986.

Some movies stand the test of time well, and are classics. Think of Casablanca or It's A Wonderful Life from the 40s. Or, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner from the 80s, and The Matrix from the 90s. In contrast, Top Gun looks dated and its dialog is cheesy throughout. But it has fabulous aerial sequences of dogfights, and a tight 80s soundtrack. And this made Tom Cruise a star and a stud. (It's also a great example of classic plot-development, since it is so formulaic, and this has been pointed out in an earlier summary of film and faith, which includes spoilers.)

Cruise plays Maverick, a hot shot navy fighter pilot with an attitude, teamed with radar officer Goose (Anthony Edwards). When he and another pilot encounter a pir of MiGs while on a standard mission, his actions earn him a place at the Navy's elite dogfight academy, Fighter Weapons School in Southern California, known affectionately as Top Gun.

Tony Scott (Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), brother of Ridley (Blade Runner), has made a testosterone-fueled homage to these ace flyers. He throws in a superficial romance with Charlie (Kelly McGillis), one of the instructors at the school. A Ph.D. in astrophysics, she is the prettiest and least likely teacher for these egotistical jocks. Indeed, the scene where Maverick meets Charlie in abar filled with servicemen, crooning "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'," highlights the macho confidence that permeates this film.

Only the best of the best, the top 1%, get to Top Gun. And the very best gets his name on the trophy. When Viper (Tom Skerritt), the commanding officer, asks him, "Do you think your name will be on that plaque?" Maverick replies, "Yes, sir." Viper puts his finger on one aspect of Maverick's attitude, "That's pretty arrogant, considering the company you're in."

Arrogance was an attractive aspect of a fighter pilot's persona. Viper wanted to see this in his students. They needed to strive to be the best but flaunted it to others. But what place does arrogance have in the Christian's life? Is it attractive? Is it appropriate? The Bible is full of commands to God-seekers and followers to be humble (Eph. 4:2; 1 Pet. 5:6). Humility is the attitude of choice. And this is a polar opposite to arrogance. We may be the best, but we should not flaunt it in a Maverick-like manner.

Maverick's chief opponent is Iceman (Val Kilmer), a cool-as-a-cucumber flyer who makes no mistakes. Their mutual dislike is apparent to all. Iceman sees Maverick as a cowboy: "You're everyone's problem. That's because every time you go up in the air, you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous." This is so true. Maverick is reckless, with a disregard for safety. He is not a team player. He is a maverick who feels "the need for speed."

More than this, Maverick has no regard for the rules. Although Viper tells him, "Top Gun rules of engagement are written for your safety and for that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I." Yet, Maverick wants to push himself and his plane to the limit and beyond, not caring for bureaucratic rules. He wants to write his own set.

Maverick is almost a poster child for how a follower of Jesus should not live. We may take risks with our own lives but we need to have a compassionate care and concern for those on our team and around us. And we need to be respectful of those in authority over us, as Paul told the Roman church (Rom. 13:1). There might be times when we must bend the rules and seek forgiveness instead of permission, but deliberately disregarding denied permission, as Maverick does so often, is anathema to gospel-centered living.

As the movie moves through act 2, Maverick comes face-to-face with disaster. Like Striker in Airplane!, the earlier disaster-spoof, Maverick loses his confidence and must face his fears. But flying is where he finds his identity. Viper asks him, rhetorically, "Is that why you fly the way you do? Trying to prove something?" He was trying to prove his value for the memory of his father, a wartime flyer. His identity is performance oriented.

Once more, Maverick gets it all wrong. We must not find our identity in our jobs, or our performances, though we sometimes try. Or we might look for it in our relationships, our families, even our hobbies. But all of these offer false identity. When the relationships fade, when the hobbies disappear, when the jobs get terminated, we are still the same people we were before. As followers of Jesus, our fundamental identity is found in our relationship to our God. In Jesus we are adopted into the family of God (Eph. 1:5), we become children of the Creator (Jn. 1:12). He has prepared us (Jer. 1:5), he has prepared works for us (Eph. 2:10), and he is working in us to prepare us to be fully Christ-like in the life to come (Rom. 8:29).

Top Gun is a fun movie to watch or rewatch. But Maverick is a bad role model to imitate.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs


  1. Martin,

    I write to clarify your conclusion that Maverick is a bad role model to imitate. You say that Maverick's tendency to deliberately disregard denied permission is anathema to gospel-living. Yet, this is viewing Maverick at the beginning of the movie. And yes, I would agree, as explained below, that we should not imitate Maverick as we see him at the beginning of Top Gun.

    However, there are "three" Mavericks in Top Gun. Throughout the course of the movie he changes and displays three different characteristics. The movie is asking us which one of these three Mavericks should we imitate?

    Remember that most stories are about how the main character changes over the course of the story. To say that Maverick is recklessly arrogant and so we shouldn't imitate him misses the point of the story. Maverick is not recklessly arrogant throughout the entire movie. He changes throughout the story. Again, the real question is which of the "three" Mavericks should we imitate?

    The question of the movie is: what character quality is best for a Top Gun pilot as shown through the character of Maverick?

    No doubt that when we are first introduced to Maverick he is extremely arrogant. Question: is this the quality that we want in Top Gun pilots? Maverick wants us to think so but the movie gives us hints that he might be wrong. His superiors sure aren't happy with his arrogance.

    Eventually his arrogance leads to a tragic accident which kills his flying partner. Maverick then swings the pendulum to the other extreme. He is no longer arrogant - far from it. He is now the opposite of arrogant. I don't think humility is the other characteristic the writers are contrasting here. I think the opposite of arrogance in Top Gun is defeatism. Maverick is ready to throw in the towel and quit. Is that what we want in Top Gun pilots? No.

    So if arrogance and defeatism aren't the qualities we want in Top Gun pilots, then what is? The answer: confidence. The belief that you are good at what you do without having to tell people you're the best.

    And this is how we see Maverick at the end of the movie. He is not a quitter and avoids the battle but he is not arrogant either trying to do everything on his terms. He has a healthy confidence that he is a great fighter pilot; if not the best.

    So we come back to the question: should we imitate Maverick? I think the movie itself answers that. In his arrogance - no. In his giving up - no. In his healthy confidence - yes. It is the Maverick at the end of the story that the writers are telling us to be like.

  2. Ryan,

    You always offer a considered opinion. I am glad this blog offers opportunity for discussion on movies. You are right that Maverick changes through the film. The quality we want is quiet confidence. But more than this, Jesus values humility, and I don't see Maverick coming even close to this. So, with due respect, I still stand by my initial opinion, but somewhat modified by your position.


  3. I think we are saying pretty much the same thing here Martin. I say healthy confidence and you say quiet confidence. Close enough for me. Again, the movie asks the question: what quality do we want Top Gun pilots to have? Now, whether that is the quality that you and I should display in our everyday lives is a different question. I think we may have stumbled upon a question that could be the basis for another movie: can you be confident and humble at the same time?

  4. Ryan, time for you come back to movie group in the fall! We miss your valued participation.