"Top Gun: Maverick" Latest Chapter in Love Affair Between Hollywood and PentagonHistorians in the News
tags: film, Hollywood, military history, propaganda, military industrial complex
It came like a bolt from the blue, a gift from the heavens. In 1986, audiences flocked to theaters to see Tony Scott’s Top Gun, starring a fresh-faced Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a hotshot Navy aviator bent on stardom. They kept coming for seven months. When the dust settled, the film had brought in over $176 million. Unlike its protagonist, who came in second at the eponymous elite flight academy, the film ended 1986 the top earner of the year.
But for the Navy, Top Gun was more than just a movie. It was a recruitment bonanza.
Military recruiting stations were set up outside movie theaters, catching wannabe flyboys hopped up on adrenaline and vibes. Others enlisted on their own. Interest in the armed forces, primarily the Navy and the Air Force, rose that year, though it’s unclear just how much. Naval aviator applications were claimed to have increased by a staggering 500 percent.
Hollywood knows how to sell the life of a soldier. Top Gun paints the life of an elite pilot as mostly a real-life video game, with young men competing to top the charts at the academy. (The rankings were a fiction invented for the film, though the school is real.) In a sort of coda to the story, the pilots do engage in real combat — but we never know who the enemy is, barely get an explanation as to the mission, and mostly see them pulling off daring maneuvers to great acclaim. And in 1986, the US wasn’t engaged in a real-life war. Vietnam was becoming a more distant memory for young people. Who wouldn’t want to be a hero?
So Top Gun was more than a gangbusters earner for Paramount; it was a coup for the Pentagon. In exchange for the enlistment bounce and a sexy, exciting perspective on the pilot’s life being presented to the general public, the military lent considerable aid to the production, from locations and equipment to personnel. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has said that Top Gun would not have been made without the military’s assistance.
This is far from an anomaly.
The American movie industry and the American military have had a long, well-documented, and, on the whole, mutually beneficial relationship since before World War II. Certainly, movies about war and its effects have been made without the aid of the military. But the military has often seen opportunity in the movies: for boosting the morale of the public, altering the popular image of wars and soldiers, and encouraging young people to enlist. In a film industry concerned primarily with profits and technology rather than ideology — which is to say, one essentially conservative in orientation — the partnership has often been an ideal match.
But the nature of the collaboration has changed over time, with shifts in the US military’s role in the world as well as Hollywood’s aims. A movie like Top Gun: Maverick enters a very different world from its predecessor, and comes from an industry that has set its sights on raking in profit from not just America, but the whole world. It’s not just entertainment. It’s the apex of a lengthy and complicated history.
What happens when a large group of people immerse themselves in the same metanarrative over time? They begin to be directed by its implications, to see what it tells them as, essentially, true. In the case of the movies — for decades the mode of entertainment in America — that means there was a reality to cinema’s implications about the heroism of soldiers, the reasons for the struggle, the rightness of their cause. That has made Hollywood an attractive and powerful resource to the American military — and vice versa.
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