How the US Army Made ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Possible
“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 cleared by the DOD Entertainment Media Office, which helps filmmakers tell military stories.
“We’ve been around for almost 100 years,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, who heads the office. “We actually helped the very first movie win a Best Picture Oscar.” That movie was “Wings,” a 1927 drama about World War I fighter pilots.
But another fighter pilot movie, released in the mid-’80s, would really earn its stripes at the DOD Entertainment Media Office. This film was the original “Top Gun”.
“It’s really the first thing people think of when they think of this work,” Roberts said of the 1986 action film, which was “one of the biggest projects ever backed by the Department of defense”.
“Top Gun” proved so influential that it set the blueprint for a new kind of blockbuster – fusing Hollywood star power with the firepower of the US military. Think “Black Hawk Down”, “Transformers” or “American Sniper”. Critics call it the military entertainment complex.
But before “Top Gun” could break through the pop culture barrier, it first had to take off. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson helmed the yoke, which had already created mega hits like the dance flick “Flashdance” and the comedy “Beverly Hills Cop.” But for their next collaboration, the moguls have decided to deliver maximum action. Their source: an article in the California magazine, which painted a picture of the ups and downs of aspiring pilots at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, known as TOPGUN.
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For the director’s chair, Bruckheimer and Simpson hired Tony Scott, who had made a name for himself directing commercials. Meanwhile, for the lead role, they had their sights set on a toothy 23-year-old whose career highlight had been prancing around 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 bargain: for $1.8 million they would have “the use of Naval Air Station Miramar” along with “four aircraft carriers and about two dozens of F-14 Tomcats, F-5 Tigers and A-4 Skyhawks, some piloted by real Top Gun pilots.
It is unlikely that the film could have been made without the considerable support of the Pentagon. A single F-14 Tomcat cost around $38 million. The total budget for “Top Gun” was $15 million.
In exchange for DOD support, the producers agreed to let the department make changes to the script. Maverick’s buddy Goose no longer perished in a mid-air collision because, according to the Navy, “too many pilots crashed.” Meanwhile, Maverick’s love interest Charlie is changed from a service member to a civilian because Navy regulations prohibit officers and enlisted personnel from having relationships.
Nowadays, when collaborating on a film, the Pentagon can always demand rewrites of the script for the sake of veracity. But Roberts said he doesn’t interfere in the artistic process. “When I get a script, I don’t change the story,” he said. “I can tell it’s not genuine or it’s fake.”
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Roberts said he keeps four criteria in mind: security (the film must not divulge state secrets), accuracy (it must describe the training and combat accurately), politics (the characters must follow DOD rules) and property (the film must protect the privacy of service members and their families).
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, you guys tell people how to get their movies done,'” Roberts added. “I would say to you: good luck telling Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan or Michael Bay how to direct their film! I don’t think it’s going to go very well. »
Over the years, many Hollywood productions have benefited from Pentagon largesse. For example, the DOD only charged $1 million for the use of an aircraft carrier in 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears” – footage that producer Mace Neufeld said would have cost the filmmakers 3 to $4 million to create on their own.
“Top Gun” was released in May 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second term as President. The specter of Vietnam no longer haunted the nation. Patriotism was hip and “Top Gun” served it up in spades.
The film captured the box office, as well as the hearts and minds of young Americans. After his release, applications to become Naval Aviators reportedly jumped 500%. To capitalize on the craze, some enterprising Navy recruiters even set up booths outside of theaters.
Roberts expects “Top Gun: Maverick” to “inspire a new generation of Americans,” though he said DOD Entertainment Media does not work with military recruiters.
Films like “Top Gun” have also inspired imitators in China. In recent years, Chinese authorities have encouraged the production of similar “patriotic blockbusters”.
For example, the “Wolf Warrior” franchise chronicles the adventures of Leng Feng, a renegade special forces agent who looks more than Maverick: he’s skilled, fearless, and drops wisecracks under pressure. In one scene, he plays shirtless beach soccer, sweat glistening on his six-pack — an unmistakable homage to the beach volleyball game of “Top Gun.”
“Wolf Warrior” is a way for China to flex its muscle as a superpower. Its slogan says it all: “Anyone who offends China will be killed, no matter how far the target is”. The propaganda is not exactly subtle.
Likewise, Pentagon-sponsored blockbusters like “Top Gun” have been exposed for promoting jingoism. Director Oliver Stone, a critic of American foreign policy and a Bronze-Star Vietnam veteran, said in a 1988 Playboy interview (with some added profanity): “‘Top Gun,’ man – it was basically a fascist movie. . He sold the idea that war is clean, war can be won… no one in the movie ever mentions that he just started WWIII!
In a 2011 Washington Post op-ed, journalist David Sirota claimed that “Top Gun” created “the blueprint for a new military entertainment complex” and “ignited a flood of pro-war agitprop, Armageddon” to “Pearl Harbor.” to “Battle Los Angeles.”
Even Cruise told Playboy in 1990, “Some people thought ‘Top Gun’ was a right-wing movie to promote the Navy. And lots of kids loved it. But I want kids to know that war isn’t like that. Then he added, without the benefit of a glimpse three decades into the future, “That’s why I didn’t go on and do ‘Top Gun II’ and ‘III’ and ‘IV’ and ‘V.’ It would have been irresponsible.