In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the enemy is an unnamed country that threatens our freedoms with a NATO-adjacent nuclear plant and state-of-the-art fighter jets and helicopters. The hero, of course, is Tom Cruise, or possibly the defense contractor Lockheed Martin. While technically an update to the iconic 1980s original, this “Top Gun” hews close to an old-fashioned tradition of soft propaganda for the military-industrial complex dating back to World War II. And while Tom Cruise may think he's immortal, that particular Hollywood institution feels increasingly dated.
While Tom Cruise may think he’s immortal, that particular Hollywood institution feels increasingly dated.
In 1986, theaters in Detroit, Los Angeles and elsewhere allowed the U.S. Navy to set up recruiting stations outside showings of Tony Scott’s original “Top Gun.” The movie was a critical flop but a box office bonanza, and it not only catapulted Cruise to stardom but also apparently boosted recruitment, although not always in ways that pleased the Navy. While the original movie was still playing, Lt. Ray Gray of the Navy’s Officer Programs Department told the Los Angeles Times that he had seen a marked increase in applications from “individuals who have applied in the past and were turned down or dropped out of Aviation Officers Training School, and individuals who are approaching the maximum age limit (to apply).”
To say that Hollywood and the U.S. military have a cozy relationship is an understatement; read enough history of the armed forces on film and it can seem like Hollywood is merely a byproduct of the American war machine. Celebrated director John Ford worked for the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — heading its field photographic division; in 1942 he shot a documentary about the Battle of Midway as a soldier deployed during the battle itself. He was wounded during the filming, but the finished product earned him both a Purple Heart and a special citation among the the first-ever best documentary Oscar-winners “for its magnificent portrayal of the gallantry of our armed forces in battle.” Frank Capra shot instructional films for the Army between the classics “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life;” one of those shorts, too, won an Oscar. Both Donald Duck and Daffy Duck fought for their country in “Donald Gets Drafted” and “Draftee Daffy,” respectively. (Donald’s nightmare about being a Nazi, “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” also won an Oscar). Superman starred in an appallingly racist theatrical short called “The Japoteurs.”
The armed forces were always happy to show the glories of war; its horrors, however, were a different story. Even when dealing with movies made by veterans about their own service, of which they were justifiably proud, the armed forces tightly controlled the narrative. Ford shot footage of D-Day itself; that film stayed in the archives. “Very little was released to the public then,” Ford said of the footage he shot during World War II in an interview with American Legion Magazine in 1964. “Apparently the Government was afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen.” Indeed, some of it stayed hidden until 2014.
Movies like “Top Gun” are also an excellent way to show off the military’s wildly expensive toys. Aside from Cruise, the main draw to “Maverick,” as with the first “Top Gun,” are its cool-looking supersonic airplanes, each of which costs more than one-fourth of the new movie’s reported $170 million budget. Cruise famously likes to do his own stunts, but in both films, the U.S. government’s own planes were flown by Navy pilots paid by the film production. (Cruise’s pilot stand-in from the original “Top Gun” went on to become an astronaut). When director Scott was told it would cost $25,000 to steer an aircraft carrier into the light so he could get the shot he needed for the first film, he famously wrote a check on the spot.
Neither movie would have been possible without the permission of the Navy, and so the Navy gets to veto things it doesn’t like in the script. That means audiences get head-scratching choices like the decision not to name the movie’s foreign adversary.
But the use of that equipment, even at exorbitant rental rates, is essentially priceless from a propaganda perspective.
It’s also catnip for airplane nerds eager for hints of what Lockheed Martin’s long-rumored but as-yet-unreleased SR-72 stealth jet might look like. Lockheed’s Skunk Works design division helped create the (fictional) stealth plane used in “Top Gun’s” opening sequence, producer Jerry Bruckheimer told the press. The mock-up was so realistic, according to Bruckheimer, that Chinese satellites realigned to get a better look at it.
But military control over true-ish stories told to civilians can have a genuinely harmful effect on the popular understanding of important topics. The CIA heavily revised Mark Boal’s script for Kathryn Bigelow’s celebrated counterterrorism drama “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie that recast the agency’s cruel abuse of prisoners as effective intelligence gathering, which it manifestly is not. (Even in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the heroine discovers where Osama bin Laden’s compound is located because of information already contained in dusty CIA files, an entirely true plot point the movie understandably hurries past). In “Maverick,” the heroes are the manufacturers of fighter jets, at loggerheads with the “Drone Ranger,” a Reaper-loving general played by Ed Harris, who wants to take the fight away from our heroic stick jockeys. The Lockheed Martin logo is prominently displayed throughout, though who in the audience Lockheed hopes to sell airplanes to is hard to understand.
The aforementioned decision not to name the enemy in “Maverick” is essential to the project of the contemporary U.S. military.
The aforementioned decision not to name the enemy in “Maverick” is essential to the project of the contemporary U.S. military, which lacks a Third Reich or equivalent nemesis. We’re told this country has “fifth-generation” fighter jets and that our heroes will be hopelessly outclassed if they don’t launch a sneak attack. What country is nuclear, so close to Western Europe that NATO can veto its nuclear power plants, and in possession of better fighter jets than the U.S.? There isn’t one, of course. We’ve all had a good look at the sorry state of Russian military hardware in the last few weeks, and China builds nuclear power plants totally unmolested because it’s on the other side of the globe. At one point in “Maverick,” Hangman (Glen Powell) is said to be the only pilot with four shoot downs — I should hope so, since Powell was born in 1988 and the U.S. has had exactly one air-to-air shoot down in his adult lifetime.
War filmmakers of the 1940s and ’50s could set their films during a time when there was serious doubt about whether the U.S. could really claim to be the most powerful military during an existential conflict. The stakes were high, and even the smallest nuances could be matters of life and death. “Maverick,” with its ridiculous fake adversary, its claims of overwhelming military victories during peacetime, and its ludicrous secrecy, has none of this. It’s a copy of a copy; a blurry Xerox of a historic hero.
The problem of a worthy foe is one reason the American armed forces have had so much more creative success teaming up with Marvel Studios or with Michael Bay on the Transformers flicks. Fictional alien races make much better enemies — and many of them are thinly disguised Nazis, anyway. Without even the hint of a dangerous adversary, an ever-more-expensive military has to just make stuff up. Perhaps the next “Top Gun” can just have an octogenarian Cruise fighting kaiju.