In June, the Army negotiated a first-of-its-kind sponsorship deal with the producers of “X-Men: First Class,” backing it up with ads telling potential recruits that they could live out superhero fantasies on real-life battlefields. Then, in recent days, word leaked that the White House has been working with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow on an election-year film chronicling the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
A country questioning its overall military posture, and a military establishment engaging in a counter-campaign for hearts and minds — if this feels like deja vu, that’s because it’s taking place on the 25th anniversary of the release of “Top Gun.”
That Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, made in collaboration with the Pentagon, came out in the mid-1980s, when polls showed many Americans expressing doubts about the post-Vietnam military and about the constant saber rattling from the White House. But the movie’s celebration of sweat-shined martial machismo generated $344 million at the box office and proved to be a major force in resuscitating the military’s image.
Not only did enlistment spike when “Top Gun” was released, and not only did the Navy set up recruitment tables at theaters playing the movie, but polls soon showed rising confidence in the military. With Ronald Reagan wrapping military adventurism in the flag, with the armed forces scoring low-risk but high-profile victories in Libya and Grenada, America fell in love with Maverick, Iceman and other high-fivin’ silver-screen super-pilots as they traveled Mach 2 while screaming about “the need for speed.”
Today, “Top Gun” lives on in cable reruns, in the American psyche and, most important, in how it turned the Hollywood-Pentagon relationship into a full-on Mav-Goose bromance that ideologically slants films from their inception.
The 1986 movie, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, was the template for a new Military-Entertainment Complex. During production, the Pentagon worked hand-in-hand with the filmmakers, reportedly charging Paramount Pictures just $1.8 million for the use of its warplanes and aircraft carriers. But that taxpayer-subsidized discount came at a price — the filmmakers were required to submit their script to Pentagon brass for meticulous line edits aimed at casting the military in the most positive light. (One example: Time magazine reported that Goose’s death was changed from a midair collision to an ejection scene, because “the Navy complained that too many pilots were crashing.”)
Although “Top Gun” was not the first movie to exchange creative input for Pentagon assistance and resources, its success set that bargain as a standard for other filmmakers, who began deluging the Pentagon with requests for collaboration. By the time the 1991 Persian Gulf War began, Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s liaison to the movie industry, told the Hollywood Reporter that he’d seen a 70 percent increase in the number of requests from filmmakers for assistance — effectively changing the way Hollywood works.