Here comes Tom Cruise’s Maverick again, breaking the rules, pushing the limits, buzzing the control tower, then flashing his toothy grin and getting away with it like it’s still 1986. As with its smash-hit predecessor, though, there is one set of rules Top Gun: Maverick scrupulously obeys: those of the US navy – without its fighter planes, bases, aircraft carriers and full-on cooperation the Top Gun movies would never exist.
It is no secret that the Department of Defense (DoD) willingly and frequently collaborates with the entertainment industry, including loaning out its most expensive toys. But that cooperation comes at a price, and it is not just financial. The DoD manages its screen image so carefully, some have suggested it is in effect an unnamed co-producer on thousands of movies, to the extent that Hollywood is operating as its propaganda machine.
There is very little in Top Gun: Maverick to dispel such suspicions. As with its predecessor, it is an advertisement for the US military’s professionalism, its sophisticated hardware and its ethos of … let’s call it masculine camaraderie. Top Gun was 1986’s highest grossing movie in the US, and it cast the navy in such a good light, they set up information tables outside some cinemas. According to estimates, recruitment across the US military jumped by 500% that year.
The DoD has been working with Hollywood for nearly a century, going back to 1927 Oscar-winner Wings – the Top Gun of its 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 made it into the cockpit of an F-14.
Roberts says his mission is to “project and protect the image of our armed forces”. Currently they work on about 130 entertainment projects a year, he says – a dozen or so scripted movies, plus television shows, video games and scores of documentaries. “Productions love us because we provide authenticity and credibility. And also, they get substantial cost savings.”
But there are also conditions about how the military is depicted. “We want to make sure that the productions that we support match our core values,” says Roberts. Applicants must submit their entire script for approval, and accept any changes required. But red lines include showing classified or sensitive information, going against US law and government policy, basic human dignity (such as depicting real-life injured or deceased military members), and inaccuracy: “If the script says he’s an air force pilot and he’s flying an F-18. Well, that’s a navy aeroplane.” It’s more an art than a science, Roberts says, but he denies that the DoD plays any kind of proactive role in the process: “The film-makers are the creatives. We’re not the creative force … our job is to support them, really, not to push an agenda on to their story.”
Some film-makers have become very good at playing the military game. Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer has collaborated with the DoD on movies including Black Hawk Down, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. Bruckheimer’s former collaborator Michael Bay has gone even further, not just in overtly military-themed movies but also with his exhaustingly militaristic Transformers franchise. Bay once boasted of having “a direct line to the Pentagon”. Roberts’ predecessor, Phil Strub, admitted in 2009 that the DoD would make recommendations to Bay. “We might say, ‘Hey, you’ve never shown an X, Y or a Z.’ We’ll send them information, talk about its role. Or they’ll come back to us and say, ‘We’d like to have a C-17. Or what about an aircraft carrier and some F-18s?’” As such, Bay’s Transformers movies became an extended showreel for US military might – aimed at children.
The same could be said of superhero movies. We’ve become accustomed, anaesthetised even, to seeing military personnel and machinery in the Marvel universe, for instance. The very first image of the first Iron Man is 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 military sidekicks such as his buddy Rhodey, and fighting alongside US forces as part of the quasi-military Avengers.
Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were made with DoD cooperation, as were many other Marvel movies, until the relationship reportedly soured over The Avengers depicting the US military launching a nuclear strike on New York. Captain America, whose comic-book origins as a propaganda tool for the military were satirised in The First Avenger, began to take a more critical stance towards his government in subsequent Marvel movies, such as Winter Soldier. But fences were mended with Captain Marvel, focused on Brie Larson’s exemplary air force pilot. The collaboration was so deep, the air force even launched a tie-in recruitment campaign targeted at women, with the slogan “every hero has an origin story”.
Military involvement now goes far beyond simply action movies. Other recent recipients of DoD assistance include reality TV cooking shows, Pitch Perfect 3 (in which, for some reason, the a capella girl group go on a tour of military bases, even performing onstage in camouflage) and the climate-change satire Don’t Look Up!
According to one estimate, the DoD has collaborated on 2,500 movies over the decades, and its involvement is not quite as transparent as claimed. In his 2004 book Operation Hollywood, the journalist David Robb detailed how “the Pentagon has been telling film-makers what to say – and what not to say – for decades”, listing examples from Tomorrow Never Dies to Star Trek IV to Lassie. In 2012, the British journalist Tom Secker, who runs the Spy Culture 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 film scripts, to back up such claims. “They might claim they’re relatively open about this, but they’re not,” says Secker. They’re open in as much as that they have an involvement in Hollywood, but they’ve never ever voluntarily published a set of their own script notes. And they’ve done everything they can to try to cover them up.”
Secker has too many examples to list. In the original Iron Man script submitted to the Pentagon, for example, Tony Stark was against the arms dealers, including his own father, complaining that “the technology I’m trying to save lives with is being twisted into some truly destructive weapons”. In the eventual film, Stark becomes an arms dealer to the US military. In the 2014 version of Godzilla, a Japanese character’s reference to his grandfather surviving Hiroshima was excised: “If this is an apology or questioning of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that will be a showstopper for us,” say the Pentagon’s notes. Instead, Godzilla, a monster inspired by US atomic bombing, is revived by a nuclear weapon and wades into battle alongside US military ships and jets.
Scripts seeking to address contentious aspects of military history were either heavily altered or denied entirely. In movies dealing with institutional racism or sexism, such as 1995’s The Tuskegee Airmen, stories were altered to make the culprit a single “bad apple”, rather than the institution itself. “They always say something vague, like: ‘Oh, it’s just that we need a feasible depiction of military life,’” says Secker. “In practice, what that means is, anything to do with war crimes, sex crimes, mental health problems, military corruption, just goes.”
Film-makers have confirmed this. Oliver Stone’s requests for assistance with his two Vietnam movies, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, were turned down by the DoD several times. Neither story was flattering towards the US military – Platoon depicts instances of drug abuse, racism and soldiers murdering Vietnamese civilians and each other; Born on the Fourth of July deals with postwar PTSD. But both stories were arguably “accurate” – respectively adapted from Stone’s own wartime experiences, and those of Vietnam vet Ron Kovics. “The whole ethos of that office at the Pentagon is they’re supposed to provide accuracy to the film-makers and they do the opposite,” says Stone in Theatres of War, a new documentary on Pentagon-Hollywood relations. “They provide inaccuracy and lies.” Many of cinema’s most powerful anti-war movies have foregone the DoD’s terms – The Deerhunter, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Dr Strangelove, Three Kings, Thirteen Days, Jarhead. Stone, incidentally, was offered the chance to direct Top Gun. He turned it down.
When the original Top Gun came out, the humiliating defeat of the Vietnam war was still fresh in the mind. As such, it functioned as a slick corrective: an apolitical story set in peacetime, foregrounding cool imagery, carefree youth and only the briefest of skirmishes with an unspecified foreign adversary. Could the same be said of Top Gun Maverick? Again, it comes at the tail-end of an era of problematic US military intervention, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And again, it is a story with no political baggage or actual war to kill the vibe.
It almost goes without saying that the navy’s cooperation with the makers of Maverick was just as high as with the original Top Gun. A “production assistance agreement” between the DoD and Paramount obtained by Secker includes an agreement to “weave in key talking points”. Both the military and the entertainment sides seem to be just fine with such an arrangement, but civilians are largely in the dark. Traditionally, the military’s role has been defending the US against such evils as state propaganda and control of culture, but today it’s more difficult to know where to take the fight.