The complete screenplay of Top Gun with script notes.
Top Gun probably wouldn't be found on many film critics' lists of the best films of all time, which is understandable, but it's a very fine example of its own genre of film. Top Gun is, essentially, a propaganda movie. It follows the triumph and tragedy of a fighter pilot both in and out of the cockpit. It's an intrinsically watchable environment because of the fast jets and wonderful photography, something few films have done better, but here we focus on the screenplay.
The script we have here is not the final form as presented in the film, as anyone who watches the film will easily spot. Plenty of the scenes are quite different, including some of the most memorable moments in the film. On the other hand, the film contains much less explanation of the technical jargon used by pilots, presumably the director feeling that it was perfectly acceptable to have Charlie (though in the script it's Viper) tell Maverick that he should have selected 'Zone 5'to escape combat without mentioning at any point in the film that Zone 5 means maximum afterburner. Many of the jokes and most of the relationship between the two romantic leads are presented quite differently, though the core elements of the story are retained.
In the plot, Maverick, a pilot who definitely lives up to his nickname, earns a coveted spot at the Navy Weapons School known as 'Top Gun'. He recklessly throws himself and his plane into danger despite the gentle admonishment of his passenger, or 'RIO', Goose. His competitive instincts are driven by competition with another pilot in the school, 'Ice-Man', and the fact that his father was a pilot who made a mistake, killing himself, through arrogance. In the film he's later told that his father was innocent of error, but in the script it's clear he was at fault. In this area the script is definitely stronger. Acting foolishly during a training exercise he loses control of his plane and, during the ejection process, Goose is killed. The actual reason for Goose's death is also much better explored in the script than in the film.
After going through a depression, and with the help of the love he feels for a civilian instructor, 'Charlie', Maverick returns to flight duty. In a wonderfully described (and shot) scene; Maverick proves himself both competent and reasonable by rescuing his rival Ice-Man from a swarm of enemy fighters during an engagement over the ocean. Maverick and Ice-Man become allies once more, their differences put aside, Maverick chooses to return to Top-Gun as an instructor and rekindles his relationship with Charlie.
Structurally, the film is extremely simple. The third act decision is his choice to return to flight duty rather than quit after losing his friend but the tools he brings to the denouement aren't so much to do with his flying, but his attitude; during the second act he's been taught humilty through his mistakes and given a reason to want to live by forming a relationship.
The film has two moments of really bad presentation. The first is when Viper asks Jester if he'd choose to fly with Maverick and Jester, fantastically too quickly, responds that he doesn't know. In the script this simply doesn't happen, not only is there a moment while Jester looks around the office before responding, more importantly, his response is 'Yep'. This was a very poor choice to change from the script.
The other terrible moment is the wildly uncomfortable scene on the deck at the end when Maverick and Ice-Man tell each other they can be their wingman. This does appear in the script, though it might not be so obviously strained until you see it performed.
There are several scenes in the script that would probably have played very well in the film but, and this is completely reasonable, they have been dropped for pacing. In the script there's no scene where Goose's wife forgives Maverick, nor where she tells Charlie that Maverick is falling in love with her, both of wich are memorable moments in the film. Equally, the lovely scene where Maverick and Charlie play the game on the beach, one of the best moments in the script, is completely dropped in the film. There's no moment in the script where Maverick sings to Charlie in the bar and the return to Top-Gun is entirely different.
Overall, the film is less morally inquisitive than the script, less descriptive, shallower and more upbeat. On balance this was probably the right choice, for the tone of the film, but it does rob it of some of the potential drama. In overview the reasons for this are:
- Goose is more critical of Maverick in the script, so Maverick has been warned more tellingly about his recklessness.
- Maverick is forgiven by Goose's wife in the film, in the script it doesn't happen.
- Charlie is much more critical of Maverick's behaviour in the script and much more analytical.
- Maverick's father was reckless and killed himself in an accident in the script, in the film Maverick has been told his father was reckless but is unsure whether he believes it to be true, this doubt being resolved by Viper who confirms what Maverick wanted to believe, that his father didn't do anything wrong.
- Viper is critical of Maverick's choices in training missions even though he admires arrogance in a pilot, implying that Maverick is more extreme in his conduct than even an understanding pilot would support. In the film those criticisms come from Charlie who we know is a 'by the book' person anyway so they carry less weight.
- Jester is a wild pilot too in the script, so when he criticises Maverick it carries more weight, in the film he too is more 'by the book'.
- In the script both Charlie and Viper make it clear they know Maverick is to blame for Goose's death, despite him being cleared by the Navy. In the film they both try to convince him that he wasn't at fault, at least not entirely.
These changes make Maverick more sympathetic, robbing the story of much of its drama. In fact, though, the remaining drama produced by the astonishing aircraft filming and air-combat is easily enough to keep us hooked and Maverick is still just troubled enough to make the plot work, even if it's a close run thing.
We'll never know if the original script would have produced a superior film or a weaker one, not for certain. What we can say with confidence is that the finished film is a wonderfully watchable adventure in the skies with a cracking, if shallow, love story and some brilliant moments of humour and life. Watch the film, read this script and make up your own mind.