This time around, I take a break from comic book coverage to look at another book and film about the Vietnam War, Born on the Fourth of July. I start by looking at Ron Kovic’s autobiography about his time in Vietnam as well as his recovery from the injuries that paralyzed him and journey toward being an antiwar activist. Then, I take a quick look at the first movie that was inspired by Kovic’s story, 1978’s Coming Home, which stars Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, and Bruce Dern. Finally, I look at Oliver Stone’s 1989 adaptation of Born on the Fourth of July, which stars Tom Cruise.
Last week, a Facebook post as going around that recognized the 30th anniversary of the death of a naval aviator named Nick Bradshaw. As with many dead soldier post, its creator told us never to forget and dared us to re-post it, saying that he was sure that nobody would have the sense of patriotism or honor to do so.
In case you aren’t aware, Nick Bradshaw’s call sign was “Goose,” and his death actually didn’t happen because he was a fictional character–the witty sidekick to Tom Cruise’s Maverick in the 1986 movie Top Gun. His death comes about three quarters of the way through the film during a training exercise–while taking evasive action, Maverick is caught in another F-14’s jet wash (the technical term for which is “wake turbulence”) and both of his engines flame out, which results in his plane spinning out to sea. He and Goose manage to eject, but Goose launches into the roof of the cockpit and dies. His death winds up being a character moment for Maverick and becomes something he has to overcome, especially during the combat at the end (and the less said about how U.S. and Soviet diplomats magically managed to not have that incident result in a full scale war, the better).
Now, I think that if you polled people who were kids in 1986, the vast majority of them will tell you that they lost their pop culture innocence that year during Transformers: The Movie when Optimus Prime perished in battle. However, I contest that while Prime’s death was devastating, Goose’s death had a more long-term effect on my generation because whereas the former told us our favorite character could die, the latter told us that the average nice guy will not only never get his moment, but he might die, too.
This does not bode very well for people who look to identify with their favorite characters, and it does put truth to the cliche that “Nice guys finish last.” Maverick, after all, represents coolness to aspire to–he’s the best, dangerously the best pilot and he gets the girl–and Goose represents … well, he represents our reality. He is either who we are or who we will become. Let’s take a look at four reasons why.
1. He’s the class clown. When we’re introduced to Goose at the beginning of the film, it’s during the scene where Cougar and Merlin and Maverick and Goose enounter a couple of enemy MiG 28s and Cougar completely freezes up (this is the incident that eventually leads to both Maverick and Goose heading to Top Gun). While Merlin (played by a then-unknown and virtually unidentifiable Tim Robbins) is quite possibly one of the most neurotic characters in the film, Goose is making wisecracks and even takes a Polaroid of the MiG pilot when Maverick is “keeping up foreign relations … you know … giving him the bird?”
The wisecracks continue through most of the film and Goose is pretty much the guy who provides some levity through most of it and moreover has the confidence to do it. Take, for instance, the first day of instruction at Top Gun. Viper gives his introduction speech–and Tom Skerritt is incredibly intimidating in this movie–and Iceman says, “The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room.” Goose responds with an exaggerated laugh, one that says, “Yeah, you’re not very cool. Leave the jokes to me” but in a more subtle way than calling Iceman a loser (another great example of this in cinematic history is Charles DeMar’s reaction to Roy Stalin’s “You’d better shave her a little closer if you’re going to kiss her goodnight” at the New Year’s Eve dance in Better Off Dead). And that’s Goose’s role–to provide the humor and to be the nice guy that everyone likes (something Iceman awkwardly says in the locker room to Maverick following Goose’s death), whereas the rest of the co-pilots in the film seem to be variations on their pilots’ personalities (Slider’s just as arrogant as Iceman and Wolfman and Hollywood seem to have a thing going). He is, essentially, Robin to Maverick’s Batman and it shows.
2. He’s got his friend’s back. And in the same way that Batman needs Robin because he needs someone to help him out of a jam, Goose is always there to help his friend. Granted, Maverick doesn’t get into jams the way that Batman does, but when he needs help hitting on a woman in a bar because she’s lost that lovin’ feeling.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s this scene and this movie that gave rise to the term “Wingman” in dating parlance–the guy you’ve got with you to help you out.
And while I’m sure that there are a few people out there who are reading this post and thinking that they can fly solo and never need a wingman for “scoring with the ladies,” I say that … a) what are you, 17?; b) you’re also a complete liar; and c) the rest of us have all been the guy behind the guy.
[And a quick side note: this is the second movie in as many years where Anthony Edwards plays a guy who is trying to help get the main character laid and fails–the other is The Sure Thing starring John Cusack]
3. He’s a family man. Maverick is the ladies’ man. Goose, however, is married (to Meg Ryan) and has a kid, which is something that makes his death even more devastating, because this isn’t like Porkins dying during the Death Star attack because his Mountain Dew rolled under his seat and he had to reach down to get it. Here’s a guy who is trying to do right by his family and dies in a random accident, much like so many people. And I know that’s a completely macabre thought, but if you look at Top Gun as the story of Goose, it’s a sad and sometimes dark story that hopefully makes its audience really look at their own lives and feel grateful for what they have.
4. He plays volleyball with his shirt on. There are a lot of famous scenes in Top Gun, but I’m pretty sure that no other has been more inspiring or had a longer-lasting impact than the beach volleyball montage. It inspired an entire movie (Side Out, with C. Thomas Howell, Peter Horton, and Courtney Thorne-Smith) and probably had at least some influence on the montage-tastic syndicated television series Baywatch.
As you watch, you’ll probably notice three things: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, and Rick Rossovich are chisled; Cruise is playing beach volleyball in jeans; and Anthony Edwards is wearing a shirt.
This, in a sense, is my closing argument, because while I’m sure there are plenty of us out there who are in good shape as we approach 40 (I have to endure their goddamn Facebook posts about running on a constant basis, so there definitely are), there are many of us who are not and have come to accept our dad bod. Goose, therefore, is there for all of us. In fact, the way he gets upset when Maverick leaves to go on his date with Charlie (and we hear one of my faovrite lines in the movie: “MOTHER GOOSE YOU PUSSY!”) suggests that he’s that guy who really wants to win games like that and it means more to him than anyone else playing because it gives him more credibility among the cool kids.
I mean, I was totally like that in gym class in high school. I got competitive at times not because I was an insane jock, but because I had a long-standing reputation for being mediocre at most sports and I thought that gym class would be one of those places where I could prove that wrong, so when I lost or when other people weren’t taking it as seriously, I got more annoyed than I probably should have. While Goose gives as well as he takes, you can tell that he has to put up with a lot of bullshit “prove you’re a man” type of stuff from guys like Iceman and Slider, so any small victory is a victory.
There’s a goofy likeability to Goose that makes his character feel real and enduring and it’s why his death had such an impact. May we all fare better and get the chance to fly that cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong.