Top Gun Maverick - Your best dose of American propaganda yet

Which 2022 movie pulled nineteen consecutive weekends in the top ten, I hear you ask? And which movie has been running longer in cinemas than the Titanic has? Which movie in the Netherlands is still running five months after its release date? And which movie is the eleventh highest grossing movie EVER, bringing in 1.48 billion dollars? Although I didn’t use to be much of an expert in box office numbers, I am now, because of Top Gun Maverick. It’s this movie that has been extremely successful in cinemas recently and I am proud to announce that this movie is your best dose of American propaganda in a long time. The movie is in the same league as “Wolf Warrior”, China’s impressive attempt in 2018 at melting our hearts for the great benevolent power of the East. Top Gun Maverick is certainly up there, with its gravity defying stunts in F/A18s and general big scale locations.

All of this was reportedly done for the frugal amount of $152 million (which I’ve come to realize is still less than what I spend on my groceries nowadays). Top Gun Maverick is actually a cheap movie on the blockbuster scale. Certainly compared to budgets of other blockbusters this year like Gray Man ($200 million), Black Panther Wakanda Forever ($205 million) and Avatar The Way of Water ($250 million). That makes me wonder about the economics: were my groceries not a bit too pricey then? Or did the Church of Scientology rent out poor Tom Cruise for a single dollar? Actually the explanation is quite logical. You know the saying that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck? Well, that’s exactly the case here. Top Gun Maverick comes off as a beautiful piece of American propaganda and it most definitely is. The film plays around with a bunch of 65 million dollar F/A18 fighter jets that are rented out for $10,000 an hour. The estimated actual cost is $22,000, according to Boss Hunting Australia. That does not include facility costs like the warship crew and the crews of some of the naval bases. After seeing this film you can’t help but thank all of the brave Americans who handed over their tax dollars so the Department of Defense (DoD) could sponsor the creation of  this great movie.

The Navy bears the bulk of the operational costs, which are a “mountain of military hardware.” There are six different fighter jets which are pictured in the movie. For each kind, different jets have been used. In one scene, the Top Gun pilots (named after the elite fighter jet school) gather at a Naval air base between eight rows of F/A18 Super Hornets on the left side and eight rows on the opposite side. These fighter jets were positioned specially for two scenes of the movie and could not be flown while the crew was filming on deck, as the movie wanted to capture the whole fleet. It might have delayed fighter jet exercises for other pilots, consuming valuable time. Then there is the scene where the Top Gun pilots leave the warship for the final mission into hostile territory. Although you can’t tell the difference in the movie, two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers were used for this. Aviation Geek Club made photographs of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Abraham Lincoln as they were harbored at one of the naval bases that Top Gun was allowed to use. Quite some bases were used, but the producers were lucky enough that it was permitted by the Navy to set up camp nearby or even on the bases themselves. That way travel time was reduced. Some of the shooting locations include Naval Base Coronado near San Diego, the Miramar Air Station, Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island, NAS Lemoore, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and NAS Fallon. As Zip Upham from NAS Fallon told the Nevada Appeal: “They [Cruise and the production crew] were very gracious spending the night here. The production teams arranged staying in our older quarters. Proximity was the issue.” The moviemakers were also allowed to paint one of the fighter jets to resemble an enemy plane, they could use a wide variety of helicopters at the base and could borrow an F-14 Tomcat. A wide range of military personnel like ground crew and sailors could be requested and some of the fly-overs were performed by more pilots than just the ones dedicated to the movie. The dedicated pilots came from elite Navy pilot schools to perform these extremely dangerous stunts. No one on the commercial market has access to these kinds of pilots, the reserved air space and the permits to perform these kinds of stunts. 

Even though the movie is not always realistic for Navy personnel, the enthusiasm for the movie shows how internal Top Gun has become to Navy culture. There were thirty special early screenings for Navy service members to attend to, with most of them gathering big crowds. Not only is the movie one big PR stunt by the Navy, but also for the Navy and the armed forces in general. Its popularity among the general public was and remains undefeated. To profit off the spike in popularity, the Navy set up recruiting booths in cinemas all around the US. Just like it did with the original Top Gun movie in 1986. At first it seems a bit dumb that the Department of Defense supports a movie about pilots. Pilots are getting increasingly less important with the latest advancements in military technology. In the movie, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell must compete with a budget for drones. Drones which not only need less manpower but are also a lot cheaper to produce. There is a lot of emphasis on the movie phrase “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” However, this is a genius response to the narrative that the armed forces are getting more automated, by showing that the human factor is more important than drones. Unfortunately they’re not talking about these cute Amazon drones, but actual fighting drones. Nobody in the audience wants to be remembered that “over 90% of the victims of the U.S. drone program, by even its own figures, were civilians” (Scheerpost.com). More subtly said: nothing in the movie reminds us of incidents where “screaming Iranian children [are] picking through the remains of their dead family” after drone strikes went wrong. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 4,126 and 10,076 soldiers and civilians alike were killed by drones in Afghanistan. There is a stark contrast between the reality of war and the glamorization of this ‘victimless war’ narrative that is often used in propaganda.

Americans are actually surprisingly aware of the amount of “failed wars”, or as I like to put it, “not so fun wars,” that have happened in the past. Some wars are big fan favorites, like World War Two and the Cold War, with the latter being preferred by connoisseurs. Still, in this day and age, working for the armed forces doesn’t have the same appeal as it had before. As veteran news site Task&Purpose says: “The movie comes as the Navy is trying to meet FY 2022 recruitment goals–it wants to get 40,000 new enlisted sailors and 3,800 new officers. It’s an issue affecting the entire military.” What doesn’t help there is the DoD’s reputation. Unlike its low Snapchat streaks, the Department of Defense has a high streak of armed conflicts gone awry. It is almost as if unsolicited intervention in other countries tends to make things worse. Take for example the DoD mission statement “to provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security”, seems less and less convincing in recruiting new members after ‘PR’ failures like Iraq and Afghanistan. Deterrence, right. When even the school bully Putin starts to use the word that you came up with, in his attack on Ukraine, you know that something’s gone wrong. The DoD’s response is to create a public relations boost for the Navy with Top Gun Maverick. They are hoping that this will both change the general perception of the armed forces, as well as increase their military and navy recruitments. Essentially hitting two flies in one blow, as the Dutch would proudly say. The movie therefore, conveniently ignores the baggage of past wars and past interventions altogether and helps the DoD’s solve its PR problem.

Another interesting aspect that shows the DoD’s intervention in the movie, is that there is no real enemy in the movie plot. This facilitates the idea of ‘the clean war’ that the DoD likes to portray. The choice to not name the foreign adversary is very likely a consequence of the DoD’s influence “including [the ability to make] changes to the script”(The Drive). The story is actually quite genius in that way. There is a nuclear facility that needs to be sabotaged, but it is from an unknown country, and the only things being destroyed are facilities. Therefore the movie needs to draw its tensions from other conflicts like the man versus machine conflict, Maverick with his blemished reputation versus his military commanders, the opposing interests of getting everyone home safe versus accomplishing the deadly mission. Then there is the conflict of time versus safety, pride versus acceptance and lastly: anger versus forgiveness when it comes to Rooster and Maverick. Lead screenwriter and producer Christopher McQuarrie is probably one of the few people in Hollywood who could have taken a story with an anonymous enemy and made it interesting to watch. The screenplay is therefore a true masterpiece. Any other writer would have produced a script with little emotional tension, in which the viewer would be hardly invested in solving the main problem of the story. The problem is just too abstract. “A nuclear facility needs to be bombed” sounds boring on its own. That the DoD could interfere becomes clear in documents that The War Zone obtained through a Freedom of Information Act. The officer from the DoD “is the sole authority for determination of ensuring on-set dialogue and action scenes are depicted accurately, to appropriately and realistically reflect Naval Aviation.”  It also states that “The Production Company will consult with the DoD and CNAF Project Officers in all phases of pre-production, production and post-production that involves or depicts the U.S. military.” Although some of the elements have made the movie more realistic (like the explanation for Maverick’s rank), it is clear that McQuarrie was able to turn any screenwriting restrictions from the DoD into a successful story.

Looking at the scale and logistics of the movie production, it could not have been made without the DoD. That is what’s really so impressive here: the scale of operation from the side of the Navy and its crews and the guidance of the officers of the DoD. Truly, hats off to the DoD here, and I mean that. Hollywood might be accustomed to working at a massive scale, frequently producing movies with sets located in at least 10 different countries. In contrast, however, the Department of Defense is not a studio, nor is the Navy. So how did they accomplish this then? As it turns out, the US armed forces are great at logistics. Ever since World War II, when fuel supply chains in the Pacific and on D-day got stretched out, the US army has specialized in optimizing supply chains. This has further improved with ‘practice’ in Afghanistan. I think that the Navy supply chain staff has made this movie possible. Calculating when every jet and aircraft carrier will be available, at what bases, the hours necessary and air space slots reserved for the stunts, the radio communication and the stunt retakes, the different mountainous landscapes that needed to be incorporated into the movie, it was quite the undertaking. Maybe that’s what made all of this such a smooth operation: great supply chain logistics.

Top Gun Maverick is impressive. And there are more sides to the propaganda. The whole movie establishes this feeling of American dominance in the air. The characters remain challenged and vulnerable enough for cinema viewers to sympathize with them, but remain dominant in the skies. The real life Top Gun pilots who flew for this movie look like soccer players who dribble past mountains as if they are training cones. America seems undefeated in the air. Of course Navy pilots do not really fly that low. Somehow you are aware of all of this, that it is really propaganda, but it still gets to your head. You become drunk from the military power and the bling-bling that is America. The toxic cocktail that is Hollywood and the Department of Defense. Afterwards, you feel impressed and can’t stop thinking about the military sophistication. To see how much some of the action scenes were over the top, we only have to look at what Kosinsky said. “He [Cruise] was flown by the top pilot in the Navy, a Blue Angel pilot named “Walleye”. He had special permission from the Navy to even attempt it. After we shot it, they landed, and the pilot came to me and said, ‘Did you get it?’ I had just looked at the footage, and I was like, ‘Uh, yeah. It is pretty amazing.’ And he said, ‘Good. Because I’ll never do that again.’” That is why I think Top Gun Maverick is one of the best American propaganda movies of the twenty-first century yet.