“Talk to me Goose,” the world renowned fighter pilot known as “Maverick” says as his F-14 Tomcat tears across the floor to ceiling screen during the remastered release of “Top Gun” on the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The Red Baron and I eagerly don our 3D glasses, giddily as if we are seeing the film for the first time. Quite a fake out, though, since at last count I’d seen the movie easily thirty plus times. I know, I know…cut me some slack, the film was released a month before I left for flight school.
Apparently the thirty-first time is a charm. Call me crazy or an author (in some circles they are synonymous) because mid-way through the heated Top Gun Trophy race, I realized there was more to the action flick than smooth flying, serenading, and tanned, muscular larger-than-life Naval aviator’s with six pack abs. Blame it on getting older or more likely my second career choice, but as I watched the seemingly bubblegum plot spooled up with fantastic flying footage, I began to listen inbetween the rounds of testosterone bantering and discovered a universal story that just about anyone could relate to.
Not buying it? I understand, it’s taken me some time to develop an eye to block out the enhanced afterburners and delve into the films deep undercurrents. Indulge me, if only for argument’s sake, and see if this interpretation at all fits. Real life versus the big screen.
Life: A talented young man is fortunate enough to find his true gift, his passion, and pursues it with a vengeance. The movie: Maverick, the main character is a young, intuitive fighter pilot, considered one of the best in the Navy.
But not unlike most things in life, if talent or skill comes too easily, we, being human, generally don’t honor it–Maverick’s exceptional abilities as a pilot, make him cocky, strong-headed and unable to be a team player.
Life: Invincible and arrogant we may even abuse our gifts. Movie: First day of combat training, Mav disobeys orders and flies an unauthorized high speed pass jolting the control tower.
Reality has proven we may even allow ego to put our opportunities and lives at risk–In the film the character Tom Cruise plays misses an approach to an aircraft carrier. Short on fuel he risks the safety of his crew to rescue a struggling friend. Afterwards, his commanding officer tells him, “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” Sound familiar?
History proves that we tend to make these sort of decisions because we aren’t secure in ourselves and our abilities, feeling like we have something to prove–Maverick is always trying to make up for an alleged mistake his father made during a combat mission.
In life as in the movie, this “the rules apply to everyone else” attitude never works out and eventually the forces of the universe nudge and lend a small opportunity to learn a life lesson. And if we are smart, or even remotely paying attention, we have a chance to stop from stepping into a much bigger ego hole–During a group practice maneuver, Maverick is covering the wing of a fellow aviator and despite a firm warning from his reel ,Goose, “Don’t leave Hollywood, you’re his wing man Mav”, he decides to abandon his responsibility to protect the group and pursue the allusive Top Gun instructor “Viper” in search of another kill notch in his fighter belt.
Similar to many of us, the lug nut aviator doesn’t get the universe’s whack on the head on the first try. Embarrassed, Mav apologizes to his reel and promises that any reckless decisions while flying will never happen again. But it does. The lesson much bigger and more painful this time. Another side-effect of being human I guess. It seems that until we truly confront and resolve the fears and motivations behind our actions, we never really gain the insight we need to move forward and progress.
Mid-way through the film, an inadvertent wake turbulence encounter while flying in formation sends Maverick and Goose into an unrecoverable flat spin that takes the life of not only Mav’s flying partner but his best friend.
Again, paralleling reality, loss is the only knife sharp enough to cut through cocky facades, allowing a bright light to shine on insecurities and lack of true self awareness–After Goose’s death, Maverick loses his “best-of-the-best swagger” unable to engage in the very thing he was destined to do.
Then, finally, we hit bottom, inevitably become aware of exactly what we are searching for. Oddly enough the answers were always in front of us, but we were far to busy being caught up in our own pressure suits. Near the end of movie, Maverick learns that the ghost he has been flying against, his father’s tainted reputation, was created from misinformation, buried beneath a classified designation. Turns out, his father did “do it right”, flew with integrity and precision and Mav never really had any responsibility except to be an exceptional pilot.
As after any life lesson claimed mastered, there inevitably is a test. A pop quiz via the universe in order to check our level of competence–Even though Maverick is exonerated from any responsibility in Goose’s death and set-free from the rumors surrounding his father’s flying career, he needs to be tested. Go back up in the air to prove he can make a mistake, get knocked down, and still step up to the supersonic plate. And he does. Not without doubts, however, his flying not even close to perfect. But at the end of the day, when his final exam came, Maverick put ego aside and confronted his worst fear. Then, and only then, did he find a sense of confidence he only claimed to have before.
As we left the theater, I noticed the audience’s expressions full of courage and optimism. It was almost as if the fact that someone who ejected out of a crashing jet only to loose his best friend can fight back against impossible odds and persevere, then perhaps anyone can. They beamed with courage.
So the theme of the story is: Man lives carefree until challenged by other men. Struggles, fails, bottoms out, and then is tested. Fights back, only to realize the essence of who he really is.
A time-tested story. The journey to self-actualization. A creative challenge put in front of every storyteller and if met, is guaranteed to forever impact.
E.L. Chappel author of Risk/Spirit Dance/Storm Chasers
Clearing the exhaust smoke from my eyes
aka The Glamorous Wife