Dust off your Ray-Ban aviators, throw on your bomber jacket and ride into the danger zone. Thirty-six years after “Top Gun,” Tom Cruise is back in the cockpit with “Top Gun: Maverick,” which opens across the country Friday.
“Top Gun: Maverick” received support from the Department of Defense (DOD) in the form of equipment — including jets and aircraft carriers — personnel and technical expertise. This was authorized by the DOD Entertainment Media Office, which assists filmmakers telling military stories.
“We’ve been in existence almost 100 years,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, who leads the office. “We actually assisted the very first movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.” That movie was “Wings,” a 1927 drama about World War I fighter pilots.
But another film about fighter pilots, released in the mid-’80s, would really earn the DOD Entertainment Media Office its stripes. That film was the original “Top Gun.”
“It’s really the first thing people think about when they think about this job,” Roberts said of the 1986 action film, which was “one of the largest projects that the Department of Defense has ever supported.”
“Top Gun” turned out to be so influential it set the blueprint for a new kind of blockbuster — fusing Hollywood star power with the U.S. military’s firepower. Think “Black Hawk Down,” “Transformers” or “American Sniper.” Detractors call this the Military-Entertainment Complex.
But before “Top Gun” could break the pop culture barrier, it first had to become airborne. Steering the yoke were producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who had already created megahits like the dance flick “Flashdance” and the comedy “Beverly Hills Cop.” But for their next collaboration, the moguls set out to deliver maximum action. Their source material: an article in California magazine, which charted the highs and lows of budding pilots at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, known as TOPGUN.
For the director’s chair, Bruckheimer and Simpson hired Tony Scott, who had made his name directing commercials. Meanwhile, for the leading role, they had their sights on a toothy 23-year-old whose career highlight had been prancing in his underwear in a high school comedy. His name: Tom Cruise.
Now they needed military-grade equipment. As Time revealed in 1986, the DOD offered them a sweet deal: For $1.8 million, they would have “the use of Miramar Naval Air Station” as well as “four aircraft carriers and about two dozen F-14 Tomcats, F-5 Tigers and A-4 Skyhawks, some flown by real-life Top Gun pilots.”
In exchange for DOD backing, the producers agreed to let the department make changes to the script. Maverick’s buddy, Goose, no longer perished in a midair collision because, according to the Navy, “too many pilots were crashing.” Meanwhile, Maverick’s love interest, Charlie, went from being a service member to a civilian because Navy regulations forbid officers and enlisted personnel from having relationships.
These days, when collaborating on a movie, the Pentagon can still demand script rewrites out of concern for veracity. But Roberts said he doesn’t meddle in the artistic process. “When I get a script, I don’t change the story,” he said. “I may say this isn’t authentic or this is wrong.”
Roberts said he keeps four criteria in mind: security (the film shouldn’t give away state secrets), accuracy (it should depict training and combat accurately), policy (the characters should adhere to DOD rules), and propriety (the film must protect the privacy of military personnel and their families).
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, you guys, you tell people how to run their movies,’ ” Roberts added. “I would tell you: Good luck telling Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan or Michael Bay how to run their movie! I don’t think that’s going to go over very well.”
Over the years, many Hollywood productions have benefited from the Pentagon’s largesse. For instance, the DOD charged just $1 million for use of an aircraft carrier in 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears” — sequences that producer Mace Neufeld estimated would have cost the filmmakers $3 to 4 million to create on their own.
“Top Gun” came out in May 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term. The specter of Vietnam no longer haunted the nation. Patriotism was hip and “Top Gun” served it in spades.
The film conquered the box office, as well as the hearts and minds of young Americans. Following its release, applications to become Naval Aviators reportedly jumped by 500 percent. To capitalize on the craze, some enterprising Navy recruiters even set up stands outside theaters.
Roberts expects “Top Gun: Maverick” to “inspire a new generation of Americans,” though he said DOD Entertainment Media doesn’t work with military recruiters.
Films like “Top Gun” have also inspired copycats in China. In recent years, Chinese authorities have encouraged the production of similar “patriotic blockbusters.”
For instance, the “Wolf Warrior” franchise chronicles the adventures of Leng Feng, a renegade Special Forces operative who bears more than a passing resemblance to Maverick: He’s slick, intrepid and drops wisecracks under pressure. In one scene, he plays beach soccer shirtless, sweat glistening on his six-pack — an unmistakable homage to the beach volleyball game from “Top Gun.”
“Wolf Warrior” is a way for China to flex its muscles as a superpower. Its tagline says it all: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is.” The propaganda is not exactly subtle.
Similarly, Pentagon-sponsored blockbusters like “Top Gun” have been called out for promoting jingoism. Director Oliver Stone, a critic of American foreign policy and a Bronze-Star Vietnam vet, said in a 1988 Playboy interview (with some additional profanity): “ ‘Top Gun,’ man — it was essentially a fascist movie. It sold the idea that war is clean, war can be won … nobody in the movie ever mentions that he just started World War Three!”
In a 2011 Washington Post op-ed, journalist David Sirota argued “Top Gun” created “the template for a new Military-Entertainment Complex” and “unleashed a flood of pro-war agitprop, from ‘Armageddon’ to ‘Pearl Harbor,’ to ‘Battle Los Angeles.’ ”
Even Cruise told Playboy in 1990, “Some people felt that ‘Top Gun’ was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it. But I want the kids to know that’s not the way war is.” Then he added, without the benefit of a glimpse three decades into the future, “That’s why I didn’t go on and make ‘Top Gun II’ and ‘III’ and ‘IV’ and ‘V.’ That would have been irresponsible.”