The US military’s surprising involvement in the making of ‘Top Gun’

How many young, brave men and women have turned over their lives thanks to a falsified view of what it means to be an American soldier? 

In 1986, Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” was the highest-grossing film of the year. The action-packed military movie maintained its popularity for decades, making Tom Cruise a household-name. Now its sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,”  was released over Memorial Weekend and broke box office records.

Both movies have been monumental successes, so the messages they convey have reached far and wide. There is just one problem. While sexualized soldiers and roaring fighter jets have the romanticization power to re-invigorate the average American’s sense of pride in U.S. military might, the films actually offer a wildly unrealistic depiction of military life

It’s probably not shocking to learn that the Pentagon was involved in the production of both Top Gun movies, providing military gear and general guidance. However, you may be surprised to learn that the Pentagon’s involvement was much more calculated and sinister than simply providing the proper tools to create an accurate and exciting action film.

Basically, the U.S. Defense Department’s Entertainment Media Office allows the use of military assets in exchange for control of scripts. This is true for various Hollywood productions, not just “Top Gun.” 

According to journalist Robert Stahl, his small group of researchers “…acquired 30,000 pages of internal Defense Department documents through  Freedom of Information Act requests and newly available archives at Georgetown University, which show that the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have exercised direct editorial control over more than 2,500 films and television shows.” 

So what’s the military’s involvement in the “Top Gun” series? 

Back in 1986, the Navy intimately guided the original “Top Gun,” and the Pentagon’s involvement wasn’t any secret, either. Department of Defense (DOD) documents show that the Pentagon itself characterized the film as a “…rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam War.” 

Well, rehabilitate the military’s image they did—“Top Gun” is widely and correctly remembered as a massive recruitment tool, with US Navy recruits up 500% just a year after the film’s release. 

Now in 2022, files from the DOD, including the contract signed between the DOD and the producers of “Top Gun: Maverick,” explicitly detail the influence the Pentagon had over the production. The Pentagon played a part in everything from the storyline, character arcs, and choosing which “talking points” would be weaved into the script as well as signing off on the final script.

So, if the Pentagon is quite literally weaving in “talking points” it’s worth wondering how exactly the script was manipulated as a whole. However, when it comes to what exact script changes the military made for “Top Gun: Maverick,” no one is sure. Even though releasing script-change details is generally the norm, including for movies like “Godzilla” or “Fast and Furious 8,” the military continuously blocks Freedom of Information Act requests to access script-change details for the newest Top Gun. 

Journalist Tom Secker, who specializes in Hollywood, propaganda, and censorship, recently remarked in an interview on the Scott Horton Show that scripts are often “deradicalized.” This means that “anything that’s critical or subversive or challenges prevailing assumptions, or essentially just challenges [the military’s] agenda…” is not just “watered down” but “scooped out” completely. 

The Pentagon’s intricate involvement in Hollywood is alarming in and of itself, but its purposeful involvement in movies as impactful and consequential as the “Top Gun” series is an even bigger concern.

The original “Top Gun” worked to re-establish a positive view of the military in the American psyche. But the latest film, “Top Gun: Maverick,” attempts to re-invent the idea of the military itself. You see, “Top Gun: Maverick” is one of the first post-war movies to come out presenting the military without presenting its sole purpose for existence: waging war. 

The producers and the military were able to create an inspiring yet irresponsible story about the military without disclosing the grim consequences of military action. This extremely reckless escapade was condemned by Tom Cruise himself when after the release of the first Top Gun he said

“…I want the kids to know that that’s not the way war is—that Top Gun was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality. That’s why I didn’t go on and make Top Gun II and III and IV and V. That would have been irresponsible.” 

Given that even Cruise acknowledges how unrealistic the film is, it’s concerning that so many people have decided to enlist based on its depictions of military service. It raises the question: How many young, brave men and women turned over their lives for a falsified view of what it means to be an American soldier? 

The damage of this type of propaganda is immeasurable, and like Cruise himself said, truly irresponsible. 

Here we have one of the most popular military sagas in American culture blatantly ignoring and, therefore implicitly invalidating, the reality of veteran suicide and mental illness, as well as sexual assault and racism within the ranks. So, too, it conveniently overlooks the war crimes and torture enacted by the US and, of course, the general bleak reality of combat, death, and injury. 

If our hope is truly to honor the courageous men and women who risk their lives in service of their country, we could start by calling out series like “Top Gun” for exactly what they are—flagrant propaganda. A “Top Gun” which respected veterans and active duty servicemen and women wouldn’t ignore the tragedies and faults of military-life. It would embrace these harsh realities  and depict them as a means to help change minds and hearts towards progress in the armed forces. 

The true art of film can be used  for positive change. But when it comes to military films, the art form has been shamelessly manipulated and exploited by the US government for far too long. 

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Quinn Driggs
Quinn Driggs
Quinn Driggs is a libertarian content creator, Geopolitical Advisor for the American Center for Combatting Extremism and Terrorism, outreach coordinator for The Scott Horton Show, and a former project coordinator for the National Democratic Institute for the Middle East and North Africa based in Amman, Jordan.