Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise on poster for ‘Top Gun’ (Paramount)
The poster for 1986’s Top Gun (which celebrates its 30th anniversary on Monday) shows the film’s upstart fighter pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) being embraced by his flight school instructor and love interest Charlie (Kelly McGillis). Maverick may be the hero of the film, but only Charlie was based on a real-life hero: Christine Fox, a tactical advisor for the Navy who became the highest-ranking woman ever to work at the Pentagon.
Here’s how a fictional version of Fox entered the highest-grossing picture of 1986. When production began on the Tony Scott-directed film, about an elite academy for fighter pilots, producers spent time at the actual Naval Fighter Weapons School (nicknamed “TOPGUN”) and consulted on the script with U.S. military officials. According to a 1985 People magazine story, producers originally intended for Maverick’s love interest to be a gymnast or “groupie.” But Kelly McGillis, hot off her Golden Globe-nominated role in Witness, wanted the character to have more authority. During a meeting with producers, Admiral Tom Cassidy (who has a cameo in the film) strategically called Fox into the room, and Charlie’s occupation suddenly came into focus.
Christine Fox in her official Department of Defense portrait (Dept. of Defense)
Like the Top Gun character she inspired, Fox was an attractive blonde, 6 feet tall (Cruise wore high-heeled cowboy boots to match McGillis’s height in love scenes), and the only woman in the halls of an elite military center. A civilian employee with a master’s degree in applied mathematics, she developed tactics for aircraft carrier defense at the Center for Naval Analyses, across the street from TOPGUN. Her brilliance in a traditionally male field inspired such backhanded compliments as this one, from a commanding officer to People: “She’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met. I like women for a lot of things and being smart isn’t usually one of them.” (“I make fun of them for being macho creeps sometimes,” Fox told the magazine of her interactions with aviators.)
Unlike her onscreen alter ego, Fox made a point of never dating pilots (as the People article took pains to point out). She also, presumably, didn’t inspire strains of “Take My Breath Away” to play whenever she walked into a room. And she wasn’t so happy about the ultra-sexualized version of her job that appeared in the movie. Speaking to NPR in 2013, Fox said of her Top Gun participation, “The truth is I had no choice in it and I wasn’t thrilled.” She added that McGillis fought, unsuccessfully, for more accuracy in the role, confronting producers about details like the black-seamed stockings in Charlie’s wardrobe. “She said, ‘I’ll bet you would never wear these to work here!’… She was on my side,” Fox told NPR.
Ultimately, Top Gun became just a minor footnote in Fox’s career. In 2009, she was employed by the Department of Defense as a budget strategist. Within five years, Fox was promoted to acting deputy secretary of defense, the No. 2 position at the Pentagon and the highest ever held by a woman. “She’s among the Pentagon’s most brilliant strategic thinkers, and, having broken many barriers, she serves as a role model for women throughout the national security and foreign policy arena,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote in 2013. Fox retired from that position in 2014 and now continues to advise on national security as the assistant director of policy and analysis at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Sure, complex mathematics and strategy aren’t as celluloid-friendly as dogfights and shirtless volleyball games. But even if Fox’s real-life achievements are excluded from the upcoming Top Gun sequel, they’re enough to take your breath away.