When Top Gun was released 30 years ago today, most of the reviews were not glowing. In fact, if audiences had followed the guidance provided by most critics — who tended to praise the movie’s aerial sequences but deem its story too pedestrian — Top Gun would not have become what it did: the biggest hit of 1986, the vehicle that Tom Cruise rode into the Hollywood stratosphere, and a film with the staying power to spawn a sequel three decades later.
In honor of today’s anniversary, let’s look back at some of the reviews it received when it was brand-new: the good, the bad, and the mixed.
Walter Goodman in The New York Times acknowledged that “Top Gun fires off as spectacular a show of state-of-the-art jet battle as the movies have given us,” but he added that once Top Gun “gets back to earth” it’s “as clunky as a big land-bound bird.” As for Cruise, he “brings little but a good build to the role of Maverick.”
Watch the boys take flight in a clip from ‘Top Gun’:
Paul Attanasio of the Washington Post presented an astute but mixed review that can be found in a Lexis-Nexis search but, unfortunately, is not generally available online. “If Top Gun succeeds, it’s on the surface, where it’s a pure projection of swagger, a kind of mad, gorgeous hymn to testosterone,” Attanasio wrote. He then identified that “The real romance in Top Gun is between the men and the men, the men and the planes, and the camera with both.” The word homoeroticism does not appear in the review, but it’s there, between the lines.
David Denby of New York magazine tapped a similar vein, noting that Top Gun “may well be the most brazenly eroticized recruiting poster in the history of warfare.”
Michael Wilmington in the Los Angeles Times also acknowledged the movie’s glossy sensuality: “Even though it’s an irresponsible movie (but one that has ‘hit’ written all over it), it’s hard to get offended. The deepest impulses behind Top Gun are not political but sexual: You can tell by the number of scenes set in the shower.”
Watch a clip of Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise from ‘Top Gun’:
Several reviews noted the quality of the supporting performances, including the one delivered by Anthony Edwards as Goose. But not everyone was impressed by Cruise, including Bill Cosford of the Miami Herald: “Tom’s on Cruise Control: smile a while, frown a while. The one interesting performance is a small one by Meg Ryan, as the wife of Maverick’s navigator.” (This review also does not exist online, probably much to the relief of Tom Cruise and the rest of the Top Gun cast.)
Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune gave Top Gun a quite positive review, even though he characterizes its love story as “silly” and “sexist.” “Top Gun is going to be the hit that The Right Stuff should have been,” he wrote. “They are not in the same class of films, but this much must be said: The aerial sequences in Top Gun are as thrilling—while remaining coherent—as any ever put on film.”
And Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times basically summarized the gist of all the reviews in one single review, in that way that only Roger Ebert could. “Movies like Top Gun are hard to review because the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless. The dogfights are absolutely the best since Clint Eastwood’s electrifying aerial scenes in Firefox. But look out for the scenes where the people talk to one another.”
If you want to watch Siskel and Ebert review the movie together on a 1986 episode of At the Movies — giving it one thumb-up and one thumb-down — click over to this clip, and forward to 10:58.