Top Gun: Maverick and the relationship of the US military and Hollywood

It came like a bolt from the blue, a gift from the heavens. In 1986, audiences flocked to theaters to see Tony Scott’s Top Gun, starring a fresh-faced Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a hotshot Navy aviator bent on stardom. They kept coming for seven months. When the dust settled, the film had brought in over $176 million. Unlike its protagonist, who came in second at the eponymous elite flight academy, the film ended 1986 the top earner of the year.

But for the Navy, Top Gun was more than just a movie. It was a recruitment bonanza.

Military recruiting stations were set up outside movie theaters, catching wannabe flyboys hopped up on adrenaline and vibes. Others enlisted on their own. Interest in the armed forces, primarily the Navy and the Air Force, rose that year, though it’s unclear just how much. Naval aviator applications were claimed to have increased by a staggering 500 percent.

Hollywood knows how to sell the life of a soldier. Top Gun paints the life of an elite pilot as mostly a real-life video game, with young men competing to top the charts at the academy. (The rankings were a fiction invented for the film, though the school is real.) In a sort of coda to the story, the pilots do engage in real combat — but we never know who the enemy is, barely get an explanation as to the mission, and mostly see them pulling off daring maneuvers to great acclaim. And in 1986, the US wasn’t engaged in a real-life war. Vietnam was becoming a more distant memory for young people. Who wouldn’t want to be a hero?

So Top Gun was more than a gangbusters earner for Paramount; it was a coup for the Pentagon. In exchange for the enlistment bounce and a sexy, exciting perspective on the pilot’s life being presented to the general public, the military lent considerable aid to the production, from locations and equipment to personnel. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has said that Top Gun would not have been made without the military’s assistance.

This is far from an anomaly.

Tom Cruise on a motorcycle; Jennifer Connelly sitting behind him.

Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly in Top Gun: Maverick.
Paramount Pictures

The American movie industry and the American military have had a long, well-documented, and, on the whole, mutually beneficial relationship since before World War II. Certainly, movies about war and its effects have been made without the aid of the military. But the military has often seen opportunity in the movies: for boosting the morale of the public, altering the popular image of wars and soldiers, and encouraging young people to enlist. In a film industry concerned primarily with profits and technology rather than ideology — which is to say, one essentially conservative in orientation — the partnership has often been an ideal match.

But the nature of the collaboration has changed over time, with shifts in the US military’s role in the world as well as Hollywood’s aims. A movie like Top Gun: Maverick enters a very different world from its predecessor, and comes from an industry that has set its sights on raking in profit from not just America, but the whole world. It’s not just entertainment. It’s the apex of a lengthy and complicated history.

The Pentagon and Hollywood go way, way back

What happens when a large group of people immerse themselves in the same metanarrative over time? They begin to be directed by its implications, to see what it tells them as, essentially, true. In the case of the movies — for decades the mode of entertainment in America — that means there was a reality to cinema’s implications about the heroism of soldiers, the reasons for the struggle, the rightness of their cause. That has made Hollywood an attractive and powerful resource to the American military — and vice versa.

The first Academy Award for Best Picture was awarded in 1929 to Wings, a silent war drama directed by World War I combat pilot veteran William Wellman and made with substantial support from the War Department (the Pentagon of its time). Wellman dedicated the film “to those young warriors of the sky whose wings are folded about them forever.” It was a massive hit.

Thus a pattern was set, with filmmakers concerned about authenticity — and hoping to use some authentic equipment — soliciting help from the military.

The relationship became even tighter when World War II began. The War Department needed to sell the war to the public, boost morale, and make the Allies’ case. They realized that Hollywood represented what might be an untapped resource. Mark Harris, a critic and film historian, wrote the book Five Came Back about the contributions that five legendary directors — Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler — made to the WWII propaganda effort at the government’s behest. The work ranged from those intended for troops (like Capra’s Why We Fight series, which was eventually shown to the general public as well) to documentaries made for the general public with the intention of influencing public opinion. It was effective.

That the government was the driving force behind these films — which were called propaganda briefly, before the word took on a pejorative sense — seems, to our ears, pretty sinister. But, as Harris explains, things were a little more complex during that time. The military saw the opportunity to support “morale films” or “educational films” that would help the American public understand what we were fighting for and against. Capra’s Why We Fight “makes the point over and over again that these three entities, Germany, Japan, and Italy, have people in the thrall of lunatic dictators, and that those guys were trying to create a slave world and what we were fighting for was a free world,” Harris explained. So this was an ideological aim, one on which Hollywood and the War Department were largely aligned.

Yet the War Department rarely dictated the exact message they wished the filmmakers to convey — they weren’t “stenographers,” as Harris puts it. That means military support in this era was mostly a handing over of the reins, with relatively little input into the final results. “What they had the ability to do was say to John Ford, ‘We’re going to send you to Midway and we want you to film this battle,’” Harris said. “But they didn’t say, ‘This is exactly what we want you to do. This is the message we want you to get across.’”

That doesn’t mean the military had no interest in the message they were sending. Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light — shot in 1946 and showing soldiers in a hospital living with the trauma of war — was banned by the Army, who feared it would have a demoralizing effect on post-war recruitment. Let There Be Light was suppressed until a belated release in 1980.

A black-and-white image of young veterans in a hospital.

Faces of men in Let There Be Light, John Huston’s 1946 documentary, which was suppressed by the US military until 1980.
U.S. Army Pictorial Services

In the post-War decades, however, ideological harmony between much of Hollywood and the military disappeared. So, you see a pivot, Harris says. “After Vietnam, the Pentagon would never say to Hollywood, ‘We’re all in the same business,’ which was basically the argument that was made during World War II. That came to an end with Vietnam, and what replaced it was this more transactional relationship.”

It’s not that things got bad. They just became about business rather than ideals. The situation, Harris says, went “from the military saying to Hollywood, ‘We need you to help us,’ to the military saying to Hollywood, ‘We’ll help you. We’ll give you access.’”

That transactional relationship is highly evident in the string of Reagan-era blockbusters that aimed to not just turn out audiences, but — implicitly or not — rehabilitate the image of the military in a post-Vietnam time of mistrust. Top Gun might be the most successful in that attempt.

So you want to make a movie

Say you’re a Hollywood filmmaker (or TV creator) who wants to tell a story that involves the military in some manner, even if your movie is about aliens or zombies or superheroes. In some countries, you’d have to submit your script or your movie for approval to the government before it could get made or distributed. But this is America. You can exercise your First Amendment right and tell any story you want.

Except, hang on. Making a movie or a TV show is expensive. One way to get a studio to agree to produce your script is to trim the budget, and you can do that by cutting down on paying for equipment or extras. Maybe you’re concerned with making sure everything looks authentic, or with getting the Army’s response to disciplinary matters correct. Or maybe you just want to make sure you’ve got rank details straight.

So you decide to ask for help. Depending on what you need, you might liaise with the designated entertainment coordinator in a particular branch of the military, or with the Pentagon generally. A tiny number of military personnel spend years, even decades, in the liaison role — reading scripts, working with directors, giving notes, and ultimately deciding if the military will lend its aid to the project.

Todd Breasseale was one of them, a career Army officer who worked as the Army’s motion picture and television entertainment industry liaison for about six years beginning in 2002. He retired from the Army to join the Obama administration in 2014, and is now deputy assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs at the Pentagon. In his liaison capacity, he told me by phone, his duties ranged from reading scripts for accuracy at the request of filmmakers to determining whether the Army would lend equipment, location, or personnel support to productions.

“Sometimes it was entire scene rewrites that they needed help with,” he said. Other times, he might advise Steven Spielberg on technical details for a sequence in War of the Worlds, or work with the Transformers production to access locations that the Army owns.

Often the role of the military comes in making equipment not currently in use available to production companies at cost — “every time you see a piece of military hardware that is not created through CGI, that cost is borne out by the production company,” he said. The company pays about how much it costs to keep a plane in the air hourly, far cheaper than renting commercial aircraft. “Unless a specific training mission was prescheduled and planned to be flown anyway, the production company would pay the hourly rate for that aircraft.”

Soldiers are sometimes used as extras or pilots, too — perhaps if a filmmaker wants to shoot footage of a flyby. “Soldiers are paid anyway,” Breasseale said, because active duty service members receive a 24/7 salary. So the cost to the production company isn’t the union-mandated salary of a professional actor, stunt pilot, or extra; it’s just a per diem. “For instance, we shot a picture up in Canada and we brought in actual soldiers because they needed to be able to fly the Blackhawk helicopters. So they paid for the soldiers’ transportation up there, they paid a rate field cost for the Blackhawks, they paid the hourly rate for the Blackhawks, and then they paid the per diem and hotel expenses for the service members who are on set.”

In other words, the taxpayer isn’t directly paying for the production costs, since the equipment and personnel would be getting paid for either way. The studio, however, gains a huge benefit if a deal is struck.

That said, the trade-offs can be high. Frequently, notes are returned to filmmakers, asking them to change plot points in ways that make the film more palatable to the military, and specifically to the liaison who is working with the production. And the issues with this have been well-documented, perhaps most notably in reporter David L. Robb’s 2004 book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies. Robb documents cases in which prominent filmmakers agreed to substantial rewrites to paint military personnel in a more positive light, or, at times, excise material in historical films that don’t fit the military’s official narrative. As he puts it:

Millions of dollars can be shaved off a film’s budget if the military agrees to lend its equipment and assistance. And all a producer has to do to get that assistance is submit five copies of the script to the Pentagon for approval; make whatever script changes the Pentagon suggests; film the script exactly as approved by the Pentagon; and prescreen the finished product for Pentagon officials before it’s shown to the public.

Some filmmakers refuse to comply with the notes, and they usually end up going their separate ways. But in many prominent cases, they agree, incorporating the military’s suggested changes into the script.

For instance, as Robb writes in his book, the Navy agreed to let the original Top Gun production shoot on a naval base near San Diego, but that meant making some changes. Maverick’s love interest, played in the movie by Kelly McGillis, was originally written as a fellow soldier. But the navy forbids officers and enlisted personnel from fraternizing, so the script was changed in order to gain access to the naval base.

Robb also writes (from 2004) that a sequel to Top Gun was thought to be impossible to make because the Navy feared it might hurt recruiting. The massive Tailhook scandal in 1991, in which navy pilots molested women at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, cast the movie’s womanizing and drinking in a new light. The new film was, of course, eventually made, with considerable involvement from the military — and both drinking and sexual relationships (and the homophobic slurs of the original) are handled far differently. (It’s also very good, the rare and exhilarating sequel that transcends its original and doesn’t seem purely invented to build up excitement for the next installment.)

So is the Pentagon censoring cinema?

Even if you take a dim view, as many do, of the process of adopting military notes into scripts in return for support, it’s part of a long history of Hollywood self-censorship, often aimed at keeping the government from censoring them directly. In 1934, for instance, the major Hollywood studios voluntarily adopted a “Production Code” that banned, among other things, showing interracial marriage, or story lines in which clergy are disparaged or criminals are shown not being punished for their actions. Conformity to the Code lasted into the 1960s, when it was eventually replaced by an early version of the MPA ratings system we’re familiar with today.

You could see productions’ willingness to bend on these matters as a continuation of that tradition. Breasseale, for his part, sees this as a reasonable accommodation to request for productions seeking not just accuracy in storytelling, but an economic advantage. “The rules that I operated when I was out there is that it needed to be plausible,” he said. “So if you’re going to show a soldier committing a war crime, then you’re going to also need to show how the uniform code of military justice deals with that, and the punishment that they would suffer.”

You might reasonably ask why the military even bothers getting involved when they just as reasonably could refuse to ever participate in a film production. Breasseale cited several reasons. The first is recruitment. “If you see positive representations of your military — well, frankly, it doesn’t even have to be positive,” he said. Seeing the military in action, sometimes portrayed as heroes and sometimes portrayed as members of an organization with a strict code of military justice, can be immensely appealing. It sure was for those who saw Top Gun.

There’s another reason, particularly in our time, when despite having been at war for two decades, Breasseale pointed out, a sizable number of Americans haven’t had much contact with the military in real life. “There’s a lot to be said about the necessity to educate the American public about the military they’re paying for,” he said.

In Breasseale’s view, the reason to participate in a production was that it would help provide a “substantive military portrayal.” If, during negotiations with a production, he felt that the studio “just wanted cheap props, essentially, that would typically get rejected out of turn.” He might tell them to work with unions, rather than just trying to get nearly-free soldiers. He’d also reject a production that was asking for the kind of equipment that could imperil “the believability of a picture” if not shown the way the military would use it — that they wanted to “bring a knife to a gun fight.”

The whole process, he says, is reasonable and humane. He started working as the Army liaison in 2002, when “we were just starting a new era of war by politicians who had failed to find other alternatives,” as he puts it. “A lot of the scripts I was receiving at the time, even if they were set in contemporary settings in Iraq or Afghanistan or on a contemporary time period, were really movies about Vietnam. There were no substantive, decent, high-quality movies [about the military] between eras. There was an aura of the broken, crazy military vet who’s just one argument away from snapping and losing his shit.”

“So,” he says, “a lot of what I did was help humanize a military that people have no touch with.”

Robb sees this through a different lens; after all, both Hollywood and the military are selling something. He writes that “in the movies, when companies pay producers to show their products on screen, it’s called ‘product placement.’ But when the government provides incentives to producers to make the military look good in their movies, it’s known by a different name. It’s called ‘propaganda.’”

Brie Larson in uniform.

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel. Her character is an Air Force fighter pilot.
Disney

Furthermore, he argues, “the military’s approval process … isn’t about making movies more authentic, it’s about creating positive images; it’s about making the military look better than it really is; it’s about making the military more attractive to potential recruits, taxpayers, and Congress.”

You can see the point. The most popular movies on the planet currently are those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, produced by Marvel Studios, which was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2009. Disney has a long, long history of working with the Pentagon, stretching back to public information and training cartoons as well as insignia produced during World War II.

From the launch of the MCU, even before its Disney days, the same has often been true. All three Iron Man movies received military support. So did Captain America: The First Avenger. When Captain Marvel arrived in theaters in 2019, featuring a main character who is an Air Force pilot, it had been preceded by a flurry of cross-promotional materials with the Air Force, including an ad in which filmmakers and stars praised their collaboration:

Though the US military plays a prominent role in many MCU films, they haven’t always worked together. Conflict arose, for instance, during production of The Avengers, in which the Pentagon found S.H.I.E.L.D., the shadowy fictional espionage organization that works closely with the Avengers, to be too “unrealistic.” The Avengers went ahead without Pentagon support.

Should we be worried about this partnership? Depends on who you ask.

Whether you agree more with Breasseale’s perspective or Robb’s depends on your answer to a fundamental question. From TV and movies to video games and more, the entertainment industry and the military have long seen one another as partners, ideologically and economically — but should they?

And if your view of the military is generally positive — as it is for most Americans — does this still count as propaganda?

In his foreword to Robb’s book, Jonathan Turley, a public interest law professor at George Washington University Law School, notes that “propaganda denotes a certain product; a packaged news account or film developed by a government or an organization to shape opinion … yet this is not traditional propaganda since the military does not generate the product itself and does not compel others to produce it. Rather, it achieves the same result through indirect influence; securing tailored historical accounts by withholding important resources.”

It’s that “tailored historical accounts” part that troubles me, at least in principle. For many people, movies are their most direct access point to the tales of war and heroism and history; think about World War II, and the images that spring to your mind are almost certainly culled from films. In the future, when those involved have passed away and our cultural relationship to truth has only gotten more corrupted, how will we access the truth about the ethically murky wars of the past several decades? Even if we know the facts and the films differ, will we care?

What does it mean if the military has the financial power to say what version of history gets made?

I ask Breasseale about this. “If I am party to a picture being made that I know presents only the wrong side, but an unfactual version of demonstrably provable events, then that’s propaganda. And so, if you can stay on the right side of those topics, to me, that is simply recruiting, or education. But it’s not propaganda.”

“There have been academics, very serious academics, who’ve written books about this sort of thing, who believe that any support whatsoever to the motion picture industry is necessarily propaganda,” he concludes. “I just can’t get there. I can’t get my head around it, because it is not a black-and-white issue.”

He’s right that it’s not a black-and-white issue — not at all. For one, Turley and Robb both note that some legal minds argue this use of military equipment, even if it’s not at taxpayer expense, is unconstitutional.

Furthermore, at times (as in the case of the 2002 film Windtalkers) the military requires a film about an otherwise marginalized group to run against the established historical record. If a few military officers (who may have variable political agendas) hold that much power with relatively low accountability, how dangerous is the whole collaboration in the long run?

Tom Cruise stands on the wings of a fighter jet, watching two jets streak by in the sky.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick.
Paramount Pictures

Ironically, we may not be asking this question all that much longer. The development of high-quality computer-generated effects and even performers could eventually eliminate or greatly reduce the need on Hollywood’s side to strike a deal with the military to get a picture made. Lower-budget films may find themselves more readily in a place to tell all kinds of stories about history.

Meanwhile, a film like Top Gun: Maverick’s charm comes, in part, from its almost nostalgic feeling, a film about heroism and military prowess that isn’t tethered to a particular war or enemy. But it also feels like the natural endpoint of that military-movie marriage, one that’s graduated from the Reagan-era, post-Vietnam rah-rah of Top Gun and into a geopolitically sticky world in which Hollywood wants to make movies for the whole globe.

The film’s nearly three-year delay between production and distribution gave journalists plenty of time to dig into the ways the military and Paramount had cooperated. We still don’t know who they’re fighting in Top Gun: Maverick, and early reporting noted that the Japanese and Taiwanese flags on Tom Cruise’s iconic leather aviator jacket had been shifted to more generic symbols.

It may just be that Hollywood has moved beyond its desire to work with the US military at all. It’s not that they’re no longer on America’s side; it’s just that they have to be on everyone’s side. And the transactional partnerships that come from that need are what will shape the future of Hollywood.

Top Gun: Maverick premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in the US on May 27.

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