Top Gun for Hire: Why Hollywood is the US Army’s Best Sidekick | Top Gun: Maverick

HHere comes Tom Cruise’s Maverick again, breaking the rules, pushing the limits, buzzing around the control tower, then flashing his big smile and getting away with it like it’s still 1986. However, as with its predecessor of great success, there is a set of rules Top Gun: Maverick Scrupulously Obeys: The US Army: Without their fighter jets, bases, aircraft carriers, and total cooperation, the Top Gun movies would never exist.

It’s no secret that the Department of Defense (DoD) willingly and frequently cooperates with the entertainment industry, even lending its most expensive toys. But that cooperation comes at a price, and it’s not just financial. The Department of Defense handles his screen image so carefully that some have suggested he is, in fact, an anonymous co-producer of thousands of movies, to the point that Hollywood is operating as its propaganda machine.

There is very little in Top Gun: Maverick to allay such suspicions. Like its predecessor, it’s an advertisement for the professionalism of the US military, its sophisticated hardware, and its ethos of…let’s call it male camaraderie. Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie of 1986 in the US, and it shone such a good light on the Navy that information tables were set up outside some theaters. According to estimates, recruitment into the US military increased 500% that year.

Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, and Charles 'Buddy' Rogers in Wings, made in 1927.
Top Gun of its day… Richard Arlen, Clara Bow and Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers in Wings, made in 1927. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

The Department of Defense has been working with Hollywood for nearly a century, since 1927’s Oscar-winning Wings, the top gun of your day Each service (army, navy, air force, marines, coast guard) has its own entertainment liaison office in Los Angeles, in addition to the Pentagon’s own office, headed by Glen Roberts, who was 17 when Top Gun came out and names it as an influence. He spent 25 years in the air force, although, like many others, he never got to climb into the cockpit of an F-14.

Roberts says his mission is “to project and protect the image of our military.” They currently work on about 130 entertainment projects a year, he says: a dozen scripted movies, plus TV shows, video games and dozens of documentaries. “Productions love us because we provide authenticity and credibility. And they also get substantial cost savings.”

But there are also conditions on how the military is represented. “We want to make sure that the productions we support align with our core values,” says Roberts. Applicants must submit their completed script for approval and agree to any necessary changes. But red lines include displaying classified or confidential information, going against US government law and policy, basic human dignity (such as depicting wounded or deceased military personnel in real life), and inaccuracy: “If the script says he’s an air force pilot and he’s flying an F-18. Well, that’s a navy plane. It’s more of an art than a science, says Roberts, but he denies the Defense Department plays any kind of proactive role in the process: “The filmmakers are the creative ones. We are not the creative force… our job is to support them, not really impose an agenda on their story.”

Taking sides... Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen by Michael Bay from 2009.
Taking sides… Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen by Michael Bay from 2009. Photography: Paramount/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Some filmmakers have gotten very good at the military game. Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer has collaborated with the Department of Defense on such films as Black Hawk Down, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor. Bruckheimer’s longtime collaborator Michael Bay has gone even further, not only in overtly military-themed films, but also with his extremely militaristic Transformers franchise. Bay once boasted of having “a direct line to the Pentagon.” Roberts’ predecessor, Phil Strub, admitted in 2009 that the Defense Department would make recommendations to Bay. “We could say, ‘Hey, you’ve never shown an X, Y or Z.’ We’ll send them information, we’ll talk about their role. Or they will come back to us and say, ‘We would like to have a C-17. Or how about an aircraft carrier and some F-18s?’” As such, Bay’s Transformers movies became an extended showreel for United States military could – aimed at children.

The same could be said for superhero movies. We have become accustomed, even numb, to seeing military personnel and machinery in the Marvel universe, for example. The first image of the first Iron Man It’s of Tony Stark riding through Afghanistan with a convoy of Army Hummers, rocking out to AC/DC. And like so many Marvel superheroes, he operates in a semi-official capacity, teaming up with fellow soldiers like his friend Rhodey, and fighting alongside US forces as part of the quasi-military Avengers.

Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were made with the cooperation of the Department of Defense, as were many other Wonderful movies, until the relationship reportedly soured with The Avengers depicting the US military launching a nuclear attack on New York. Captain America, whose comic book origins as a propaganda tool for the military were lampooned in The First Avenger, began to take a more critical stance toward his rule in later Marvel films, such as Winter Soldier. But the fences were mended with Captain Marvel, centered around Brie Larson’s exemplary air force pilot. The collaboration went so deep that the air force even launched a linked recruitment campaign targeting women, with the slogan “every hero has an origin story.”

Military involvement now goes far beyond action movies. Other recent recipients of Department of Defense assistance include reality cooking shows, Pitch Perfect 3 (in which, for some reason, the a cappella girl group tours military bases, even performing on stage under camouflage), and climate change satire Don’ Look Up!

By one estimate, the Department of Defense has collaborated on 2,500 movies over the decades, and its involvement is not as transparent as claimed. In his 2004 book Operation Hollywood, journalist David Robb detailed how “the Pentagon has been telling filmmakers what to say and what not to say for decades,” listing examples from Tomorrow Never Dies to Star Trek IV to Lassie. In 2012, British journalist Tom Secker, who runs the culture of espionage website, began filing freedom of information requests for DoD-Hollywood communications, and has amassed tens of thousands of pages of documentation, including annotated drafts of movie scripts, to back up such claims. “They may claim to be relatively open about it, but they’re not,” says Secker. They are open to the extent that they have a stake in Hollywood, but they never willingly released a set of their own script notes. And they have gone to great lengths to try and cover it up.”

Secker has too many examples to list. In the original Iron Man script sent to the Pentagon, for example, Tony Stark was against arms dealers, including his own father, complaining that “the technology I’m trying to save lives with is being transformed into truly destructive weapons.” In the final film, Stark becomes an arms dealer for the US military. In the 2014 version of Godzilla, a Japanese character’s reference to his grandfather surviving Hiroshima was removed: “Whether this is an apology or a questioning of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it will be a success for us,” they say Pentagon notes. Instead, Godzilla, a monster inspired by the US atomic bombing, is revived by a nuclear weapon and rushes into battle alongside US military ships and aircraft.

Independence Day... the Pentagon refused to help Oliver Stone make 1986 Platoon.
Independence Day… the Pentagon refused to help Oliver Stone make 1986 Platoon. Photography: Cinetext/Mgm/Allstar

Scripts that sought to address controversial aspects of military history were heavily altered or denied altogether. In films dealing with institutional racism or sexism, such as 1995’s The Tuskegee Airmen, the stories were altered to make the culprit a single “bad apple”, rather than the institution itself. “They always say something vague, like, ‘Oh, we just need a workable description of military life,’” says Secker. “In practice, what that means is that anything to do with war crimes, sex crimes, mental health issues, military corruption, it just works.”

The filmmakers have confirmed it. Oliver Stone’s requests for assistance with his two Vietnam movies, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, were repeatedly turned down by the Department of Defense. Neither story was flattering for the US military: Platoon depicts cases of drug abuse, racism, and soldiers murdering Vietnamese civilians and each other; Born on the Fourth of July is about post-war PTSD. But both stories were arguably “accurate,” adapted respectively from Stone’s own experiences during the war and those of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovics. “The whole ethos of that office at the Pentagon is that they’re supposed to provide accuracy to filmmakers and they do the opposite,” Stone says in theaters of war, a new documentary about the relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood. “They provide inaccuracies and lies.” Many of cinema’s most powerful anti-war films have renounced Department of Defense terms: The Deerhunter, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Dr Strangelove, Three Kings, Thirteen Days, Jarhead. Stone, by the way, was offered the chance to direct Top Gun. He rejected it.

When the original Top Gun came out, the humiliating defeat of the Vietnam War was still fresh in mind. As such, it worked as a clever corrective: an apolitical story set in peacetime, highlighting cool visuals, carefree youth, and only the briefest of skirmishes with an unspecified foreign adversary. Could the same be said for Top Gun Maverick? Once again, it comes to the end of an era of troubled American military intervention, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And again, it’s a story without political baggage or actual war to kill the vibe.

It almost goes without saying that Navy’s cooperation with the creators of Maverick was as high as it was with the original Top Gun. A “production assistance agreement” between the Department of Defense and Paramount obtained by Secker includes an agreement to “weave together key talking points.” Both the military and entertainment sides seem to be fine with such an arrangement, but civilians are largely in the dark. Traditionally, the role of the military has been to defend the US against evils like state propaganda and cultural control, but today it’s harder to know where to take the fight.

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