This weekend sees the release of Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited follow-up to the 1986 blockbuster, and while the movie did not necessarily need (the need for speed!) a sequel, I am ready. The original Top Gun is about a bunch of people who know how to fly very sophisticated fighter jets but have not yet determined that they can wipe sweat off their own faces with even ordinary paper towels. Top Gun blew all the hell up in the summer of ’86 for a variety of reasons: the Reagan-era jingoism, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” the absolute incandescence of a young Tom Cruise. It was a big, sweaty phenomenon.
But Top Gun holds an entirely separate place in some of our hearts. A few of us walked into that multiplex and found ourselves excited in ways our peers may not have been. Some of us witnessed a moment that stayed in our hearts forever.
I speak, of course, of the beach volleyball scene, a one minute and forty second sequence in which a shirtless Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, and Rick Rossovich (plus a wisely shirtful Anthony Edwards) face off in a high-stakes pickup game to the sound of Kenny Loggins’ “Playing With The Boys.” My brother, ten years older, married with four kids now, took me to see Top Gun in the summer of 1986. We left the theater exhilarated. “Man,” he said, “they oughta have a recruitment table outside the theater.” “They really should,” I said, knowing down deep we were talking about very different recruitment tables.
If you were a certain kind of teenage boy in 1986, the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun spoke directly to you. And what it said was: “You’re gay now. Good luck.”
Let’s watch it.
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It holds up, right?
Immediately, a sweatier-than-usual Tom Cruise spins a volleyball on his finger— you know, the way nobody does—yells “Let’s go,” and your chest says “Yes, Tom, let’s.” And right away, we see that these boys play beach volleyball with the same steely-eyed intensity that they bring to showering. The stakes are high, because these are proud and sweaty men. They are being watched by their flight-school peers, who are as into it as they are, as into it as you are, though maybe for different reasons, but maybe not, the movie never really makes it clear.
The grunts are ADR and the fake sweat budget is high as the game goes on, and we learn that on this sweltering San Diego day, three-fourths of these guys are playing beach volleyball in long pants. Is it hard to be a bad-ass in shorts, or were even these guys skipping leg day? Here again, there are no clear answers. All we know for sure is that it works, and that in 1986, Tom Cruise was about 60 percent trapezius muscle.
At 40 seconds, Rick Rossovich flexes. We don’t know why. The director, Tony Scott, does not know why. Rick Rossovich does not know why. But he does, and they left it in, in fact they made it slow-motion, and that’s why this was the summer we invented “the gym.”
Tony Scott selected a lesser Kenny Loggins track for this scene, a song more angular, almost a Loggins’ toss in the direction of new wave. A song whose chorus reminds us we are playin’ with the boys, and then comes at us with the glissando of high-pitched sighs we’re already hearing from our own souls. “Playing With The Boys” makes no sense outside of this scene. I just asked my Alexa to play it, and she said, “On its own, with no visual? I’m sorry, I can’t do that, Dave.” Artificial intelligence knows what’s up. “Playing With The Boys” was not released as a single, but it did come out to its parents later that year.
So anyway, Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards win, and the other guys want to keep playing, and the rest of the crowd is happy just to watch. But Tom Cruise has other plans. He puts on a pristine white t-shirt and a bomber jacket and leaves on his motorcycle and while he’s on the road he sees a fighter jet flying right alongside him and he yells at it excitedly because even then Tom Cruise was someone who felt like he could help planes stay in the air by yelling excitedly at them. And then he goes to Kelly McGillis’ house and eventually they kiss all tongue-y and have silhouette sex in front of billowing curtains, and then Anthony Edwards dies in a door accident and Tom Cruise loses the will to fly and Val Kilmer wins Best New Airplane Guy and then Tom Cruise has to come back and they get the Russian MiG on target lock and they shoot it down and everyone is happy and then later that summer the Church of Scientology is like “Hey, Tom Cruise, are you free for brunch,” and now here we are. It’s a great movie. It’s impossible to know how many actors are in it, aside from the ones I’ve mentioned, but film historians have placed the number as high as three.
Now, I have heard the volleyball scene in Top Gun referred to as “homoerotic.” The volleyball scene is not homoerotic. The volleyball scene is homosexual. The volleyball scene is what circuit parties have been trying to be ever since. (Or at least that’s what I’m told. I’ve never been to one, as I am a lifelong Anthony Edwards.) To have watched all of this unfold, on the big screen, right in the middle of puberty, was simply not fair. I was outmatched. I knew which way my sexuality was going already, this scene was far from my first inkling, but it confirmed the whole situation in a way that was terrifying and thrilling all at once. Every gay man within ten years of my age will tell you the same thing. It didn’t corrupt us; in fact, the volleyball scene is the best argument against the whole “grooming” conversation we’re having. If other boys my age saw this movie and ended up straight, as I understand literally dozens have, then sexual orientation is undeniably an immutable characteristic.
The volleyball scene didn’t make us gay. It did make us do pushups.
Top Gun: Maverick will be released worldwide on May 27. Give the teenage boy in your life the time and space to process it in his own way.
Dave Holmes appears in every print issue of Esquire. Subscribe here.
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