Why Top Gun: Maverick can only make sense in Trump’s America
Captain Bauer: Fudge is not a person. He wasn’t in the war.
Jimmy McGill: Well, neither was Tom Cruise and look what Top Gun did for you.
– Better Call Saul, Season 3, Episode 1, Mabel
It was good news when Val Kilmer donned an Ice Man T-shirt and took to Twitter. Top Gun would be getting a sequel and importantly, he was up for reprising his role.
Hyped as a possibility for years, there were arguably two setbacks for many fans of the blockbuster, those being the death of director Tony Scott and the increase in use of drones by the US military over the past decade.
Cynically, in the case of the former, such a loss was never likely to leave as lucrative an idea as Top Gun 2 in limbo. For the latter, any screenwriter with an ounce of creative thinking could easily use the rise in drone warfare to their advantage and incorporate it into the story, which is exactly what will be done.
Entitled Top Gun: Maverick, named after Tom Cruise’s protagonist, and with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, this reunion will bring joy to many, but none more so than the US Navy itself.
To the general public, Top Gun was just a thrilling theatrical experience. However, for the Navy it was an unprecedented marketing phenomenon and one that they have tried to replicate time and time again in the past thirty-one years to no avail.
When it comes to influential films, Top Gun ranks as high as Citizen Kane or The Godfather. That should not be misconstrued as a sign of quality though. Quality-wise, it is average beyond measure. Remove the Dogfight scenes and what you have are a bunch of fleshy Thunderbirds listing off various PS2 game titles. Top Gun did not leave its mark by inspiring filmmakers. It compelled normal people to reach for an ideal in Reagan-era America. On top of earning $365m at the box office, it saw Navy enlistment numbers rise by 500%.
Released in 1986, of course, the Navy were prohibited from promoting the film since it was a commercial product. However, they could ride on the coat-tails of its success when they noticed, during the first four weeks of the film’s premier the spike in applicants for the naval aviation officer candidate program. Capitalising upon this sudden show of interest, they went right to the source and set up information desks outside movie theatres, where they would entertain questions from cinemagoers.
Interviewed in the LA Times during this period, Lieutenant Ray Gray, who headed the program’s Los Angeles department said the spike was amongst “individuals who have applied in the past and were turned down or [had] dropped out of Aviation Officers Training School, and individuals who are approaching the maximum age limit [to apply].”
“There seems to have been a big rush in those categories that I have attributed to the movie. I’ve asked several of these individuals if they’ve seen the movie and if that’s why they came down to talk to us again and they’ve said ‘yes’.”
The other increase, he noted was among “young men who don’t yet qualify for the program”. Again, he suspected Top Gun was stoking their curiosity. Lieutenant Commander Laura Marlow, who headed recruitment for Arizona and San Diego’s naval officer program added here that 90% of applicants who appeared before her admitted to having seen the film. “Maybe it hadn’t made them call in but they’d been thinking about [joining] and this was just the kicker that put them over the line.”
On top of their decision to exploit the immediate adrenaline rush one gets after a trip to the cinema, recruitment commercials were aired on television shot and edited to resemble the hazy opening take-off scene. Telling viewers to “Live the Adventure” by “[feeling] the confidence and pride of knowing who you are, what you can do”, the irony of this appeal lay in the fact that it was selling something elite to the masses of America. The Navy Fighter Weapons School, aka Top Gun was a scheme devised for “the best of the best”, the top 1% of those in aviation. It would have been like Wall Street acting upon the success of The Big Short by releasing a commercial in which you were told you could be the next Michael Burry or Greg Lippmann (“Think Big, Short the World”).
So what was it about Top Gun that created this phenomenon?
The story of Maverick (Tom Cruise), a spunky fighter pilot aspiring to be the greatest dude in the airborne forces, the plot focused on his attempt at wooing Charlotte (Kelly McGillis), a flight instructor, while also competing with Kilmer’s Ice Man in order to be crowned the Top Gun in the Navy Fighter Weapons School. A good-looking rebel who played by his own rules, Maverick would be classified as a loose-canon were it not for the fact that he got results.
It was the cinematic embodiment of masculinity. It championed arrogance, toughness, virility and a competitive spirit. These were the men you are told you should be like. To use a line from Fight Club, which is the outcasts version of Top Gun, these guys look better than you, fuck better than you and do what they want when they want. Granted, none of those details fit any military slogan or oath, but neither did the finished script go against the Navy’s wishes by depicting the school in any negative or critical fashion. For that reason, Scott and Bruckheimer managed to get the Navy’s full co-operation, receiving additional funding while also getting to play with all of the latest weaponry the Navy had to offer at the time.
That idea of portraying the Navy without a critical eye presented another sentiment in the film’s subtext, which had not been bandied about much for some years: War was okay to like again, war was fun again.
Top Gun was an outright U-Turn on the blurred lines of morality that dominated war-genre movies in the aftermath of Vietnam. With its faceless Soviet villains, that very conservative idea of war as a binary good versus evil was being embraced wholeheartedly once more. Top Gun was unearthing an older tradition of film, the John Wayne movie, which war historians and journalists found to have had a noteworthy influence of grunts being deployed to Vietnam. A John Wayne war was a game of cowboys and Indians, and this approach to the genre while acceptable prior to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had turned stale thereafter once he released the patriotic epic, The Green Berets.
As it soon became clear that Vietnam was as horrific as it was unwinnable, and troops were gradually withdrawn, the States fell into a state of disillusionment, in which it questioned the apparent benevolence of its foreign policy. Referred to as Post-Vietnam syndrome, this was the collective malaise Top Gun was reacting against to, albeit apparently unintentional on the filmmakers’ part.
The film however was not the first in this field. Rather it was a major tipping point towards the end of the Cold War, a moment of triumph after a long and dark journey of collective soul searching. The idea it embodied, New Patriotism, or putting Vietnam in the past had been building and building for slowly for over seven years.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, one of the chief goals communicated by Ronald Reagan during his bid for the presidency had been the abandonment of a post-Vietnam isolationist foreign policy, which he accused the Carter administration of choosing out of cowardice. This had been a narrative forwarded by conservative politicians and commentators alike as they condemned the Democrat’s for, in a sense castrating the American male.
Of course, that idea is symbolic, but not without currency. If what Vietnam veteran and writer, William Broyles Junior says is true when he wrote that war is an integral aspect of the male character, then the catastrophe of said war, the withdrawal, the refusal to combat Communist foes and the notion that American foreign policy was unhinged all contributed towards the conservative notion.
This, Norman Podhoretz attributed to the supposed weakness of ‘New Liberalism’, which had led to the Democratic party’s shift from Eisenhower’s interventionist stance to George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid, with its isolationist slogan of “come home again”. Writing a lengthy critique on April fool’s day in 1976, he suggested that the Democratic Party’s foreign policy was often motivated by aligning themselves with the Soviet Union, as far back as World War II.
Podhoretz’s diatribe was a scathing dismissal of the idea that “nobody was in charge” when it came to maintaining international order. Suggesting either America ought to do it, or the Soviets would expand, at the time, his chief concerns were Vietnam, Nicaragua, Portugal and Chile. The Democrats, he argued enabled such growth. They were ‘Making the World Safe for Communism’ and they were doing this by using Vietnam as their excuse to focus on domestic matters almost exclusively.
So, when Ronald Reagan emerged with a message of nostalgia, built upon conservative values, in which overseas conflicts were not treated as immoral, he connected with a great many voices who felt themselves silenced by the Democratic reordering of a nation’s priorities. This, he conveyed famously during a keynote speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Chicago on the 18th of August, 1980 several months after his election.
Quoting from it at length, Reagan’s words here capture perfectly the United States’ thirst for a newfound patriotism:
“For too long, we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome. Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam. As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home.
“It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.
“There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.”
That final line is crucial to understanding the 1980’s New Patriotism movement and its cinema.
Five years before Top Gun made a splash, First Blood, the first installation in the Rambo franchise turned many heads in its telling of John Rambo’s story. A Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD, his continued torment on the home-front motivates him to kick back in so fierce a manner that were his skin darker, the franchise could only have existed as a series of prequels.
Acting in the most extreme form of self-defence, he brings hell down upon a group of corrupt local officials. Then, towards the climax of his vengeful rampage he is cornered. It is there that is his presented with an ultimatum; fight and die, or surrender and face imprisonment. The former Green Beret crumbles as this news is delivered to him by a former commander, Colonel Sam Trautman, literally written by author David Morrell to represent Uncle Sam
As Sam tells him it is “over”, Rambo cracks up:
“Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off. It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you and I did what I had to do to win, and somebody wouldn’t let us win. And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport protesting me… calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap. Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yelling about.”
“It was a bad time for everyone Rambo”, Trautman fires back in response. “It’s all in the past now.”
“For you!” Rambo screams. “For me civilian life is nothing. In the field we had a code of honour, you watch my back and I watch yours. Back here’s there’s nothing.”
First Blood concludes on this miserable note, the protagonist declaring that the system and the American people betrayed him and his fallen comrades. First Blood Part 2 resumes the story three years later. Released in 1985, it is a fictional representation of the nation’s transition from Vietnam Syndrome to New Patriotism.
Imprisoned, Rambo is approached by Trautman who is now attempting to claim they were always on the same side.
“Hear me out first”, Trautman says to the dismissive Rambo. “A covert operation is being geared up in the Far-East. Your name was dug out of the computer as one of three most able to complete the mission… Recon for POW’s in Nam… If the mission is successful, there may be a Presidential pardon.”
Agreeing to assist in the rescue of these prisoners of war, Rambo asks, “Do we get to win this time?”
“This time it’s up to you”, Trautman says, before walking away.
What those lines inspired can be perfectly summed up in a brief anecdotal lead-in to the journalist Alexander Cockburn’s feature on Top Gun, as he reported from the set:
“The one thing on my mind as I waited for [Jerry] Bruckheimer was the whole Post-Vietnam Syndrome, New Patriotism, Us versus the World fever in its psycho-terminal Rambo phase. I’d just heard an audience in Key West, Florida, shout ‘U-S-A’ for five minutes as Rambo mowed down the yellow man.”
Inevitably, when Cockburn managed to sit down with Bruckheimer, Cruise and Scott, each of them denied that Top Gun was either about war or this new wave of chest-thumping nationalism. Bruckheimer, noting his libertarian political stance refuted even the idea that it was a war movie. Actually, it was a story of love and competition, which just happened to be set in Fighter Town USA.
Cockburn was clearly dissatisfied with these answers. So he tried to pose the question a number of ways. If such a place was to be the location and all the central characters were engaging in combat with faceless Soviet villains then how could it not be a war movie? Plus, given that the script captures the current social climate to a tee, how could this be anything but a film of the New Patriotism ilk?
The filmmakers’ resisted, and merely focused their case around the basic tenants of screenwriting. True, the setting was a naval base, but such an aspect of the film was interchangeable. Top Gun could just have easily been set on a high school football pitch, or a Formula One track, or in a rock stadium. Hypothetically speaking, the role of Maverick could have been a quarterback, or a lead singer. He just needed to be in pursuit of a career that boys and men idealized.
In the end, Cockburn never got the filmmakers to admit anything. The effort was comically drawn-out, but in his failure, he actually proved a point which can be articulated by a man Cockburn once dismissed as incomprehensible: Slavoj Zizek.
Analysing They Live, the John Carpenter sci-fi action-thriller released two years after Top Gun, Zizek honed in on the iconic fight scene between the two protagonists, John Nada and John Armitage. As the former attempts to persuade the latter that aliens have taken control of the earth, Zizek suggests Armitage is reluctant to see the truth, because he enjoys the constraints of his ideology and the illusion of spontaneity that it creates.
“The material force of ideology makes me not see what I’m effectively eating. It’s not only our reality that enslaves us. The tragedy of our predicament, when we are within ideology is that when we think that we escape it into our dreams. At that point we are within ideology.”
For those who have seen They Live, the premise is this: a homeless man finds a pair of sunglasses which serve as a “critique of ideology”. When he puts the glasses on, he can see aliens and their subliminal messages embedded into every area of society. A holiday advertisement actually says “Marry and Reproduce”. Magazines say “No thought”. Dollars say “This is your God”. Top Gun, if it were screened would say for two hours, “Join the Army”.
Bruckheimer, like Armitage put up a show of resistance, because he just wanted to make movies free of politics or ideology. In actuality, he was making a propaganda movie.
Keep that in mind, as you gear up for Top Gun: Maverick. Why is Bruckheimer, after years of speculation returning to this story in an age that could easily be described as the mediocre sequel to Reagan-era America.
Likely, his answer will not have changed in all of that time, and again, that says more than he ever could.