You're everyone's problem. That's because every time you go up in the air,
you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous.
Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, is a cocky young Us Navy Tomcat pilot aboard the USS Enterprise. Maverick is the son of Duke Mitchell, a fighter pilot shot down during the Vietnam War and listed as missing in action with no details, a mystery which haunts Maverick.
The film begins "somewhere in the Indian Ocean" with Maverick and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) "Goose" (Anthony Edwards) flying wingman to lead pilot "Cougar" and his RIO "Merlin", en route to intercept an unknown inbound aircraft. It turns out to be two hostile MiG 28 aircraft. Though restrained by rules of engagement against pre-emptive fire, and despite Cougar being outflown and trapped almost immediately, Maverick manages to intimidate both "bandits" into withdrawing by playing "chicken" with them—gaining a missile lock on the first and outflying the second by entering an inverted dive with the other pilot, as well as flipping him off. Despite this, Cougar is thoroughly shaken and does not obey return-to-base orders, despite his fighter's dwindling fuel supply. Maverick, also low on fuel, disobeys orders and risks his own plane to guide Cougar home.
Cougar is deeply troubled by the incident, risking his life when he has a family to think about. He realizes he has "lost the edge" and "turns in his wings" (resigns). This is some timing for Maverick and Goose, now the top pilot-RIO team in the squadron, as squadron commander Stinger has been called upon to send his best pilot-RIO team to the Navy's elite "TOPGUN" fighter-pilot school (US Navy Fighter Weapons School) at NAS Miramar in California. With Cougar gone, Stinger must send Maverick and Goose—something he is reluctant to do, not least because of Maverick's attitude.
While testing his instructors' patience with his reckless flying (on his very first day, he outflies an instructor but breaks two major flight-safety rules in the process) and establishing a rivalry with top student Tom "Iceman" Kazanski (Val Kilmer), Maverick falls in love with his beautiful female civilian instructor, Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). Though a talented pilot, Maverick lives up to his name when called upon to be a team player. At one point, flying a mock combat mission with the pilot-RIO team of "Hollywood" and "Wolfman," he abandons his teammates to chase after TOPGUN's chief instructor, Commander Mike "Viper" Metcalf (Tom Skerritt). Though he gives the older pilot a run for his money, Viper's wingman, "Jester" (Michael Ironside), easily defeats first Hollywood and then Maverick himself, proving that teamwork outweighs sheer flying ability.
During the next engagement, Maverick and Iceman, ever competitive, chase the same target, with Maverick tailgating Iceman while the latter attempts to gain a missile lock. When Iceman gives up and pulls out, Maverick gets caught in his jet wash; his F-14's engines flame out, and he enters a flat spin from which he cannot recover. He and Goose are forced to eject Goose hits the cockpit canopy and is killed (in real life though, this would never happen as canopies are specifically designed to blast upwards and behind). Although Maverick is officially exonerated of fault, he is overwhelmed with guilt and subsequently loses his competitive edge, refusing to take risks and engage enemy targets. During one training exercise, Jester deliberately makes himself an easy target and literally begs to be attacked; despite this, Maverick disengages and retreats.
Finally, unsure of his future and having alienated Charlie with his defeatist attitude, Maverick begins to wonder whether he should remain in the Navy. When he goes to Viper for advice, Viper tells him that he served with Maverick's father in Vietnam. During a fierce dogfight, Duke Mitchell's F-4 was hit, but he refused to disengage, saving three Allied pilots before being downed himself. Unfortunately, the engagement took place "over the wrong line on some map," and the State Department, hoping to avoid an international incident, covered up the details. Maverick decides that he will graduate from TOPGUN and remain a pilot.
During the post-graduation party, the best graduating teams — Iceman/Slider, Hollywood/Wolfman and Maverick/the late Goose — are ordered to report to Enterprise. An intelligence-gathering ship has 'broken down' inside hostile waters and the pilots are to fly cover for it until repairs are completed, with the other two teams in the air and Maverick as back-up. While Hollywood and Iceman are on patrol, six MiGs ambush them, downing Hollywood's craft (the crew safely ejects) and damaging Iceman's.
When Maverick reaches the dogfight, he inadvertently flies through a MiG-28's jet wash and starts spinning out of control in circumstances identical to those that caused Goose's death. Though he manages to recover, his confidence is gone and he flees the scene. Clutching Goose's dog tags and begging his friend to speak to him one last time, Maverick finds his courage. He re-engages the enemy and downs three MiGs while covering Iceman, employing both teamwork as well as his signature high-risk flying style. Returning to Enterprise as a hero, Maverick is given his choice of any posting and decides to return to Miramar as an instructor, much to Stinger's amusement.
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