May 25, 2022

There are certain movies that become so entrenched with the time they were made that they become the epitome of that period. One such movie is the 1986 action blockbuster Top Gun. Directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise as Captain Pete Mitchell, better known to the movie world as Maverick. The film is deeply rooted within 1980s popular culture thanks to its cast of memorable characters, non-CGI action sequences, classic love story and iconic soundtrack.

However, for true fans of the film there is one scene that continues to resonate over thirty years later…the beach volleyball scene.

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One of the most iconic and slightly bewildering scenes in film history, the beach volleyball sequence has taken on a life of its own over the years. For those who need a quick refresh, for a reason that remains a mystery, Cruise’s Maverick teams up with his best friend Goose (Anthony Edwards) to battle their heated rivals Iceman (Val Kilmer) and Slider (Rick Rossovich) in an impromptu beach volleyball game. Everyone but Goose is shirtless, lathered up in oil and surrounded by other shirtless men who are cheering them on. To add to the overall 80s cheesiness, Kenny Loggins song “Playing with the Boys” can be heard in the background. The scene has nothing to do with the plot of the movie except for the idea that it heightens the tension between the rivals (maybe?) and further develops the bond between the pilots (maybe?).

The idea that his scene is just randomly placed in the movie without any real purpose besides showing off the muscle-built bodies of the film’s stars has been the subject of online chatter for years. Tony Scott has commented on the significance of the scene, saying that he essentially created the scene for exactly what it appeared to be, eye candy. This may seem like a superficial response but when you put the film in context with what was happening in 1986 America, there is more to the scene than Tom Cruise playing beach volleyball in jeans.

To truly understand the scene’s place in 80s lexicon, there needs to be a familiarity with the time period. The 1980s were a time of “Reaganomics”, a term coined by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, that essentially cut taxes and decreased social spending. It further isolated the rich from the poor and created a boom period for a certain younger population of people who were obsessed with financial success and the glamour that comes from a wealthy lifestyle.

While they may seem unrelated, there is a correlation between what people were thinking at this time and the scene. Due to the conservative thinking at the time, many groups of people were isolated from the mainstream. The scene became an iconic one for the gay community and placed the lens of the camera directly at the male body.

Action films from this decade were full of beefed-up heroes, whose physicality was enough to get the job done. The female characters in these movies were often used as the archetypical damsels in distress or simply as eye candy for the male characters to look upon. Female characters were often hyper sexualized in all genres of film, think 1978’s Animal House or Meatballs, a year later. The Top Gun beach volleyball scene does the exact opposite. It gazes on the male body to exploit it – something that can be viewed as modern for the time.

Parodied in television shows like American Dad, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the beach volley scene in Top Gun may appear to be throwaway sequence to show off the muscles of the film’s stars and appeal to a wider audience. But it is also a symbol of a decade of excess, where thoughts towards what to expect in a blockbuster movie were slowly changing and progressing. The question still remains, why was Tom Cruise playing beach volleyball in jeans?

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