Is Top Gun’s militaristic jingoism still fit for the big screen?

It is high time for Hollywood to end its lucrative partnership with the US military.

Tom Cruise attends the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick
Tom Cruise attends the "Top Gun: Maverick" World Premiere on May 4, 2022 in San Diego, California [Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]

On May 27, after 36 years Tom Cruise’s Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returned to the big screen with “Top Gun: Maverick”.

The sequel to the 1986 blockbuster, Top Gun, proved without any doubt that 59-year-old Cruise is still fit enough to perform the stunts he first perfected nearly 40 years ago. But whether the militaristic jingoism of the Top Gun franchise is still fit for our screens in the 21st century is an entirely different discussion.

Just like the original Top Gun movie, the sequel was clearly designed not only to entertain but also to give an opportunity to the masses to remember the might and celebrate the “successes” – or, perhaps the capacity for destruction – of the American military.

Indeed, as if to further underline this purpose, the $170m movie premiered on USS Midway, a disused US Navy aircraft carrier that had been used in both the first Gulf war and the Vietnam war – in other words, an aircraft carrier that caused very real destruction, in very real wars of aggression, in America’s name.

And at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I witnessed with my own eyes how the film is being overtly marketed as a celebration of American military might – to the dismay of many.

As the film’s cast took to the red carpet at the prestigious film festival, several fighter jets started to roar above us in the sky. Tom Cruise and others in his entourage responded with glee, and the Hollywood star even raised his fist to greet the jet pilots performing in his honour. Having spent time in Iraq during the war against ISIL (ISIS), and being acutely aware of the ongoing war in nearby Ukraine, however, I instinctively thought we were under attack and ducked for cover. The sentiment was shared by Ukrainian filmmakers at the festival, who were reportedly so horrified that they laid on the ground to try and protect themselves when they heard the familiar roar of jets.

When I eventually watched the movie, I saw that this shameless celebration of military power is also present throughout the film itself. The logo of aerospace cooperation Lockheed Martin, which created jets, missiles and weapons systems that caused abject devastation in different geographies across the world over many years, for example, can clearly be seen in multiple scenes. In Top Gun: Maverick, Captain Mitchell also pilots a jet specifically designed by Lockheed Martin for the movie – a jet that no doubt would be indistinguishable in the eyes of Afghans, Yemenis, Iraqis and many others to the ones that destroyed their homes and villages in the not so distant past.

The film’s main premise is that the US has gained credible intelligence that an unnamed country has built a facility capable of developing weapons of mass destruction and an elite fighter jet team is tasked with destroying it. If that sounds familiar, it is because the US used almost exactly the same “intel” to try and justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq – and we all know how accurate that intel turned out to be.

Actually, watching the movie feels like being transformed into an alternative reality where the US military is not only all mighty and indestructible, but also very just and righteous. This makes one wonder whether this Top Gun sequel’s real aim is not just to make money, but also to repair the US military’s reputation, which has been damaged by the Iraq war, Afghanistan withdrawal, and countless other blunders and failures in recent years.

This would not be too big a stretch, as we already know that the original Top Gun was developed in close cooperation with the US military and Department of Defense, at a time when the military was still working hard to repair the damage to its reputation caused by the disaster that was the Vietnam war. And as a propaganda ploy, the film was very successful: It not only led young Americans to develop an interest in the military, with recruitment desks being set up outside movie theatres, it also reportedly led to an increase in US Navy recruitment.

The partnership between the US military industrial complex and Hollywood did not start with Top Gun. The military and intelligence and security agencies have long used Hollywood as a propaganda tool, closely monitoring – and controlling – its output.

Back in the 1940s, during the Second World War, the US Office of War Information established the Bureau of Motion Pictures, which was tasked with reviewing scripts and flagging anything that may appear critical of America. Since 1948, the Pentagon has also had its own Entertainment Liaison Office. Over the last 100 years, the US Department of Defense has supported more than 800 films, including Top Gun, Iron Man, and The Terminator, and more than 1,100 shows including Homeland and 24.

By providing productions with financial backing and other benefits like the use of military equipment, authorities gain significant control over mass appeal projects. For example, we know that the CIA made sure Zero Dark Thirty, the Oscar-winning film detailing the US operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, portrayed brutal (and illegal) interrogation techniques that amount to torture by the US military as highly useful and efficient despite data proving otherwise.

Washington also routinely used Hollywood to promote its foreign policy decisions. The Department of Defense backed TV shows like Homeland and 24, presumably because they helped maintain public support for the so-called “war on terror” with their plot lines and portrayal of the Arab and Muslim “threat”. 

It seems with Top Gun: Maverick, the US military industrial complex and Hollywood are doing what they have always done: pushing out a glitzy, entertaining, high production value blockbuster to repair the image of the US military while making good money for production companies.

But America, and the world, have changed significantly since the release of the first Top Gun in the 1980s. It is a lot harder for Washington to control the narrative surrounding its brutal, unjust, destructive wars and the damage its military, intelligence agencies and security forces inflict at home and across the globe.

The police murder of George Floyd, recorded on video and shared online for everyone to see, for example, reshaped many people’s ideas about American police and led to the questioning of the military industrial complex worldwide. Moviegoers now are much better positioned than they were 40 years ago to identify movies like Top Gun for what they really are: expensive ads for a military desperate to hide its crimes and repair its ruined reputation. While some may enjoy the nostalgia of seeing Tom Cruise return as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell after so many years, it is unlikely that audiences have much appetite left for military propaganda sold as entertainment.

In the last few years, Hollywood did take some steps to acknowledge the change in audiences, with big names from the industry making public commitments to free the big screen of sexism, racism and ageism. It is perhaps also high time for Hollywood to end its lucrative partnership with the military.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.