Crave A Good War Movie? Blame 'Top Gun'

A provocative column says martial movie fare helped gloss war's image, then and now

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In anticipation of a new round of big-budget Hollywood action movies centering on war and the American military, David Sirota looks backward, to "Top Gun," which turns 25 this year. That film, like some recent and currently planned war movies, was made at a time of lingering unease about the country's military engagements, and with the cooperation of the Pentagon, Sirota argues this week in The Washington Post.

That Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, made in collaboration with the Pentagon, came out in the mid-1980s, when polls showed many Americans expressing doubts about the post-Vietnam military and about the constant saber rattling from the White House. But the movie’s celebration of sweat-shined martial machismo generated $344 million at the box office and proved to be a major force in resuscitating the military’s image.
Not only did enlistment spike when “Top Gun” was released, and not only did the Navy set up recruitment tables at theaters playing the movie, but polls soon showed rising confidence in the military. With Ronald Reagan wrapping military adventurism in the flag, with the armed forces scoring low-risk but high-profile victories in Libya and Grenada, America fell in love with Maverick, Iceman and other high-fivin’ silver-screen super-pilots as they traveled Mach 2 while screaming about “the need for speed.”
Today, “Top Gun” lives on in cable reruns, in the American psyche and, most important, in how it turned the Hollywood-Pentagon relationship into a full-on Mav-Goose bromance that ideologically slants films from their inception.

Our current climate seems awfully similar to those mid-1980s days, Sirota says. With a number of projects in production that will mingle the star power of Hollywood with the expertise - and desire for positive spin - of the armed forces, Sirota warns of "an entertainment culture rigged to produce relatively few antiwar movies and dozens of blockbusters that glorify the military."

For every “Hurt Locker” — a successful and critical war film made without Pentagon assistance — American moviegoers get a flood of pro-war agitprop, from “Armageddon,” to “Pearl Harbor,” to “Battle Los Angeles” to “X-Men.” And save for filmmakers’ obligatory thank you to the Pentagon in the credits, audiences are rarely aware that they may be watching government-subsidized propaganda.

Of course, many filmmakers will object to that broad-brush characterization, perhaps not least Kathryn Bigelow, who is signed on to direct the film about Osama bin Laden's killing that has Sirota (and others, like Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.) worried. Bigelow also directed "The Hurt Locker," one of Sirota's own examples of a film that stands up to pressure to tell a complex story about war.
Bigelow has fired back at King, for one, who suggested that her film would be used in part to boost the electoral prospects of President Barack Obama, potentially with information that should have been classified. The film required intense research with government agencies, but no access to classified documents, Bigelow and fellow filmmaker Mark Boal said earlier this month.
Of course, the defense against King is a tacit acknowledgement that the government's help has been essential to the bin Laden film project. And that's the prospect that Sirota, at least, considers so worrisome.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.