If you had your choice of ways to get to a party celebrating the opening of "Top Gun," a movie about Navy fighter pilots, you'd come in a fighter plane, right? And you'd just pull up to the door, wouldn't you?
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Denkler and Lt. Dave Pine pointed to an F14 fighter plane parked in the spotlight at National Airport a few feet behind waiters serving drinks to tuxedoed guests.
"That's our plane," Denkler said. "We flew it here."
The planes were the guests of honor last night -- two Navy fighters and an attack plane parked in the spotlight outside a U.S. Air hangar at National Airport and guarded by Navy men.
Tom Cruise, the star of "Top Gun," the dazzlingly photographed movie about fighter pilots at the Navy's elite Fighter Weapons School (known as "Top Gun"), and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman chatted for the cameras in front of the F14.
"We're putting a strong arm on him to sign him up," said Lehman to Cruise's sister Lee Anne, one of a dozen relatives Cruise brought with him to last night's Kennedy Center screening and airport party for his new movie. "Everyone at Miramar the California naval air station says he's a natural."
"Somehow I believe it," said Lee Anne.
Not that Cruise looked like a Navy man any longer -- he was wearing a fashionably loose-fitting version of a tuxedo with string tie and his grandmother's diamond stud earring in one ear ("She gave it to me," he said).
But he was getting rave reviews for his work on the film -- as was the film itself -- among this crowd of military folk, many of them pilots.
"I had a lot of dreams when I was a kid of flying jet planes," Cruise, 24, said later. He spent five months working on this film, he said. "I'm still hoping for my shuttle ride. I'd be first in line."
Lehman said Cruise went through some training so he could "do basic operations of systems." However, all the flight sequences shown in the film were performed by actual pilots -- instructors at Top Gun -- who are credited at the end of the film.
If there were ever a crowd to love a film in love with flight, it was this group assembled in formal dress on a balmy night with the sounds and sights of National's Sunday evening air traffic in the background.
The screening at the Kennedy Center and the party later at the airport were given in honor of the Association of Naval Aviation, commemorating 75 years of naval aviation. At the Kennedy Center earlier in the evening, there were a military band and the pilots of the Navy's Blue Angels as guests.
The Navy gave full cooperation to Paramount Pictures, which made the film. Paramount Chairman Frank Mancuso was present last night along with the two producers, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, director Tony Scott, and one of the film's costars, Val Kilmer, who plays a RIO (radar intercept officer) in the film -- the person who sits in the back seat of a fighter plane and operates the weapons system.
"I was so excited I could hardly stay in my seat," said Lehman. "I think it's going to be a blockbuster, a good old-fashioned rumbumptuous adventure story not cluttered up with a lot of plot." Lehman, himself a pilot, said, "That's the first time a movie has ever caught the real violence of air-to-air maneuvering -- everything going on at once, everyone on the radio at once."
The film got high marks from Navy fliers who good-naturedly accepted some Hollywood touches. "I thought they captured the personality and the flying and the photography was excellent," says Air Force Brig. Gen. Russ Davis of the D.C. Air National Guard. "We don't fly quite that close in combat," he pointed out. "We fly more extended but you couldn't capture that all on one screen."
"I didn't think anything could be louder than the Marines -- but that sound system," chuckled Navy Vice Adm. Bruce Demars, head of the submarine force at the Pentagon. "I have to figure out what to do like this for the 100th anniversary of submarines. We've got 14 more years."
Denkler, who flew the F14 here and is stationed at Oceanic Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, is a real-life RIO and a former instructor at Top Gun. "I wouldn't want to do anything else," said Denkler, 35. "Would you like to fly in the back of one of those things? Yes, you would. It's a unique way to make a living."
Even actress Mimi Rogers, who was there last night as Cruise's date, would have to agree. She's seen the movie three times. "It makes me insane. I'm salivating to get into an F14."