Rob Mayes & Trent Ford in 'Burning Blue' | Courtesy of Lionsgate
Tom Cruise returns to popularity this week with the formula blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow but his deepest influence—maybe inspiration—is felt in the independent movie Burning Blue. This military-set love story about the tentative coming-out of two Navy fighter pilots, dramatizes the complications of the old "don’t ask, don’t tell' (DADT) policy but it feels like a gay dream of Cruise’s 1986 hit Top Gun.
Set in 1995, two years after President Clinton’s DADT compromise, Burning Blue animates the subtext of Top Gun’s fighter pilot rivalry when buddies Daniel Lynch (Trent Ford) and Stephenson (Morgan Spector) share a secret during a mission and their bond is challenged by a new gung-ho pilot, Blackwood (Rob Mayes) nicknamed Ironman. Top Gun’s all-boys fantasy featured treehouse monikers Maverick, Iceman, Goose, Viper, Cougar , Wolfman, Slider, Merlin, Sundown, Stinger, and Hollywood—practically a strokebook mantra. Director D.M.W. Greer visualizes it in pageants of dress whites, khaki green, and dress blues and masculine action onboard littoral combat ships. You don’t have to be Dirk Yeager or Dink Flamingo to get the eroticism of military uniforms—even the women at Stephenson’s wedding to his bride Susan (Tammy Blanchard) are thrilled at the guys with disciplined physiques and their fighting, patriotic trim: Yes, Ford looks much like the young dark-haired, blue-eyed Tom of both Top Gun and A Few Good Men and when he lays furtive eyes on Mayes’ light-haired Ironman, the '80s return as a wet dream: Tom and Mel together at last!
From here (Top Gun meets Air America?), Greer doesn’t need symbolic air drills and flight acrobatics; the tension between men who share vulnerability and unspoken sympathy (“You got a date with Ironman?”) is both high-flying and swoon-worthy. In the subgenre of gay indies (Damion Dietz’s 2008 Dog Tags, for instance) this low-budget romanticism isn’t new but Burning Blue is both more serious and more affecting than most. Greer plots very basic same-sex attraction and the subgenre achieves an ideal emotional progression: Cute meets cute, then sensitive cute meets troubled, complicated cute. When Blackwood takes Daniel to the top of the Empire State building—during Fleet Week—and they stare at the surrounding erect skyscrapers (“No, that’s the Chrysler building!”) it’s hotter than When Harry Met Sally.
Trent Ford in 'Burning Blue' | Courtesy of Lionsgate
Because Tom Cruise is both an action and romantic star, Trent Ford’s resemblance (he also
recalls Gary Lockwood from the '60s TV series The Lieutenant) gives Burning Blue both a practical and idealized effect—imagine a Cruise clone forthrightly addressing the DADT issues of self-acceptance, forthrightness, loyalty, and love. Those also happen to be the basic concerns of Cruise’s most recent screen heroes (Lions for Lambs, Ghost Protocol, Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow) but as those issues become the essence of Burning Blue, Greer goes beyond cheap insinuation and TV-style controversy to address the human side of a military/political topic.
When Daniel and Ironman are investigated after being seen together at a gay bar (“the music’s better and the people are more fun”) and with evidence of a rowdy, half-naked photo (“We’d been to the Sistine Chapel. We were recreating one of the murals we saw painted on the ceiling”), their privacy, discretion and honesty are tested—along with the military’s harsh, enforced discipline. The entire culture of homosocial behavior—and brotherly commitment—is put on trial. From double-entendres (“Stay away from the sliders, they’re like heaven goin’ down but they tear your ass apart going out”) and a Barry White-type song at a birthday party dance (“I’ll never betray this thing you put in me”) to a Navy special agent (Chris Chalk) who confesses “It took years to accept who I was and find my peace, ” The film’s heart is expressed by good ol’ boy William Lee Scott: “All my life I been waitin’ for somebody!”
Burning Blue explores identity in a masculine context—a dated but necessary approach. By comparison, Greer’s directness and sincerity expose that the entire farce of Brokeback Mountain was based on mainstream self-congratulatory guilt and self-pity. (Brokeback Mountain wasn’t good enough to evoke Tom Cruise and this review is meant to salute, not demean, Cruise’s cinematic influence.)
Greer’s epilogue restates Clinton’s "1993 promise,” then praises Obama’s quasi-fairy godfather repeal of DADT in 2011. But Greer’s final image is better: The next generation observes Daniel working out brotherly camaraderie with Stephenson—not knowing the details but seeing and feeling the humane essence. It’s like watching an improved version of Top Gun and A Few Good Men after all.
The film is available on-demand and in select theaters June 6. Watch the full trailer here.