“You’re talkin’ to the wrong guy. I just got out of the military last week.”
It was the summer of 1991, months after the Gulf War was rolled out like a Hollywood blockbuster. The bartender glared at me, unimpressed with my critique of the movie “Top Gun.”
Flashback to 1980: B-list actor Ronald Reagan becomes president and reportedly has his first attorney general inform Hollywood “there should be no more pictures made with a negative view of American history.”
In 1986, “Top Gun” hit theaters with box office success that mirrored Reagan’s landslide victories. Unlike somber 1970s films like “The Deer Hunter” that grappled with war, “Top Gun” played like a flashy military recruitment video for the MTV generation. Jerry Bruckheimer produced the film in collaboration with the Pentagon. The Navy set up recruitment tables at screenings and reported a spike in enlistees. Polls showed a rising confidence in the military.
In 1989, under the cover of night, President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, cynically named “Operation Just Cause” to preempt critics. Most Americans probably didn’t know what to make of it, but the “bad guy,” Manuel Noriega, was captured, so many read it as a happy ending.
The reality was more complicated and led to an entirely different film: Barbara Trent’s 1992 Oscar-winning documentary “The Panama Deception,” which revealed tragic truths: 20,000 refugees, destroyed neighborhoods, and civilian casualties in mass graves.
If the Panama invasion was a teaser, then the Gulf War was the feature. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Bush administration went into production on a war designed to end America’s “Vietnam syndrome.” Like a movie release date, a Jan. 15, 1991, deadline was set for Saddam to retreat, and the world waited with bated breath for the war to begin.
Once it did, all the public needed was popcorn as the sanitized media coverage made characters like Wolf Blitzer and Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf household names. Victory was declared Feb. 28, the grisly realities of war ignored, and a fervor gripped the nation.
Which brings us to that summer of 1991: To escape the jingoistic displays sure to occur on July 4, I traveled to Canada. I was enjoying a nightclub when I suddenly noticed that video screens were playing sequences from “Top Gun.”
Exasperated, I beelined for the bartender and asked him to turn off the video, arguing that projecting images of combat in a dance bar was, like “Top Gun” itself, desensitizing people to war. My buddy dragged me out the door. It was a futile attempt at political persuasion, but with “Top Gun: Maverick” now breaking box office records, the issues are just as relevant today.
Some may eye-roll at deconstruction of films seen as frivolous entertainment. Maverick and Iceman, “the need for speed,” what’s not to like?
Tom Cruise once said, “‘Top Gun’ was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality.” Indeed, it had a hit soundtrack, feel-good vibes, and an undeniable impact on ‘80s fashion. Critics call “Maverick” a “thrill ride” while shrugging off the militarism.
But these are not simply escapist films that happen to be about fighter pilots. The Pentagon charged just $1.8 million for use of their hardware in “Top Gun,” characterized as a “taxpayer-subsidized discount.” Support for “Maverick” was massive.
The military’s been involved with Hollywood since the 1920s, but ”Top Gun” super-charged the relationship, triggering a 70 percent spike in requests for collaboration. But the Pentagon has its own agenda. As one Navy official explained, the Pentagon won’t “support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way.”
In “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies,” author David Robb notes, “Millions of dollars can be shaved off a film’s budget if the military agrees to lend its equipment and assistance.” By 1990, Variety reported filmmakers were being told to cooperate with the military or “forget about making the picture.”
It’s mutual exploitation: Hollywood gets production help and its films look authentic, the military gets free advertising via films that glorify it.
The most powerful propaganda is that which is not easily distinguished as propaganda. Movies like “Top Gun: Maverick” shape public perception of war, and the military has a hand in crafting these films.
The Military-Entertainment Complex has an oversized role in what we see, and critical thinking is not encouraged. That can have profound consequences for issues of war and peace. Just look at how the sequel to the Gulf War turned out.
Ward Sutton is the 2018 recipient of the Herblock Prize for Editorial Cartooning.