“Believe or not, I didn’t want to do Top Gun at first. I felt the script was silly, and disliked warmongering in film. But I was under contract at the studio, so I didn’t really have a choice.”
In last year’s documentary Val, actor Val Kilmer looked back on his life and career, recalling some of his best-known roles. But when it came time to talk about Top Gun, his most enduring film, he admitted that he wasn’t all that keen on the project. For one thing, he wasn’t impressed with the role of Iceman — “On the page, there was very little to the character,” he says in the film — so he invented a backstory, imagining that the guy had been raised by a dad who didn’t give him the time of day, prompting the young man to transform himself into a cocky perfectionist. Kilmer’s dedication to Iceman’s snideness played out on the set, with him and Tom Cruise, who portrayed Iceman’s rival Maverick, part of two different camps. “But in reality, I’ve always thought of Tom as a friend,” Kilmer says in Val. “And we’ve always supported each other.”
Thirty-six years after the original, Top Gun: Maverick made a massive amount of money this holiday weekend, and plenty of nostalgic viewers got misty about the sequel’s emotional highpoint, which is the onscreen reunion of Iceman and Maverick, former foes who have become close friends. In the film, Iceman (who’s now an Admiral) has been Maverick’s guardian angel in the Navy, shielding him from punishment but also the one guy who can reach this aging hotshot. Their one scene involves Maverick going to Iceman’s house, learning that his cancer has returned, the two men speaking for the last time before his death. Like Iceman, Kilmer had throat cancer, and the man looks frail. Where Cruise seems to be defying the inevitability of bodily decay by looking as good as ever, his scene partner is struggling — the characters sense it, and so do we.
Anyone familiar with Kilmer’s health issues won’t be shocked — he revealed the diagnosis back in 2017 — but not unlike Bruce Willis’ recent announcement he was retiring from acting due to aphasia, it can be jarring to see beloved actors hampered by illness. And yet, the poignancy of that Top Gun: Maverick scene is only amplified if you’ve seen Val, which often movingly examines the now-62-year-old’s ups and downs, both personally and professionally. In a way, it underscores what’s so touching about seeing an ailing Iceman back on the big screen.
The documentary, streaming on Prime Video and available for rent through iTunes, is directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, featuring a script written by Kilmer himself, although there’s a catch. Because Kilmer’s voice was badly damaged by cancer treatments, we don’t actually hear him read his own narration — that’s done by his adult son Jack, who sounds a lot like him. As a result, Val is consistently moving because we know we’re hearing Jack speak his father’s words, giving his dad back his “voice,” you might say. Adding to the poignancy is that much of the film consists of behind-the-scenes footage that Kilmer shot over the course of his career. Val proves to be a visceral trip down memory lane for Kilmer, the images of the young, impossibly handsome actor juxtaposed with our knowledge of his declining health and diminished career.
Val gives Kilmer a chance to revisit some of his standout films, although he can be weirdly dismissive of some of them. (He refers to his great, underrated comedy Top Secret! as “fluff.”) But that attitude is very apt for the Juillard-trained actor, who has always approached his craft with a deep seriousness, constantly battling mixed feelings about stardom. (In Val, he remembers growing up loving Batman, only to deeply dislike the experience of making Batman Forever because of the constricting suit: “I realized my role in the film was just to show up and stand where I was told to.”)
In retrospect, it was perfect that Kilmer and Cruise would play rivals in Top Gun. Both coming up around the same time, Kilmer was versed in Shakespeare and Chekhov, worshiping Marlon Brando, while Cruise was the slicker, more polished performer and the more natural-born movie star. Kilmer was the kind of guy who would be wary of Top Gun’s blockbuster trappings, while Cruise was all-in. To be fair, Cruise was instrumental in getting Kilmer the part as Iceman, but their differing acting styles and career objectives made them ideal onscreen adversaries. Still, Top Gun significantly raised Kilmer’s profile, forever linking the two men: As the actor says in Val, “For the rest of my life, I would be called Iceman by every pilot at every airport I ever went to.”
What’s so melancholy about the documentary is that it lays out what happened to Kilmer afterward. You get some fascinating insights into his work on The Doors, still the best performance of his career, and a lengthy discussion of Tombstone, which is a cult favorite. But Val isn’t especially valedictory: The film is filled with regrets, as Kilmer talks about the implosion of his marriage to fellow actor Joanne Whalley, his financial woes and his inability to sustain a successful film career. (And he’s very honest about the roles he desperately wanted but couldn’t land, including Ray Liotta’s part in Goodfellas.)
As we see Kilmer attending recent fan conventions, he reflects on what might be considered humiliating about “selling, basically, my old self, my old career. For many people, it’s like the lowest thing you can do is talk about your old pictures and sell photographs of when you were Batman.” That Kilmer uses his own weakened voice to express those sentiments is especially crushing — and even though he later declares that he’s more grateful than embarrassed because he gets to meet so many fans, he’s sensitive about the perception of being perceived as a hack, and he admits to feeling blue about finding himself having to do such events at this stage of his career.
In other words, the Kilmer we meet in Val is a far cry from the character he created for Top Gun, that arrogant pilot who was determined to put Maverick in his place, his self-confidence and beauty as bulletproof as that of his rival. One of the ironies that Top Gun: Maverick points out is that Iceman actually won the TOPGUN prize in the first film, and yet Maverick (and Tom Cruise) ended up being the big hero. Kilmer’s had a superb career, including his series of stage performances as Mark Twain, but as Val illustrates, it’s been a series of peaks and valleys, his illness underlining the fragility and unpredictability of a life. The years have wiped away that old Iceman.
Seeing Kilmer and Cruise reunited on screen this Memorial Day weekend, it’s hard not to think about Val, which compassionately connects the dots between Kilmer’s constant, imperfect striving for greatness and the cancer that has taken an obvious toll. (Thankfully, he’s now been cancer-free for several years, working with a tech company to recreate his voice through artificial intelligence.) If you’ve only seen Top Gun: Maverick, you may not fully grasp what’s so heartbreaking about Kilmer’s performance, how it quietly comments on his offscreen struggles. Once you watch Val, though, it all comes together.
In some ways, Cruise’s latest blockbuster is about the challenge of outrunning mortality. Even more piercingly, so is Val.