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‘Top Gun’ Was Made to Rebrand the Military After Vietnam

‘Top Gun’ is the epitome of an ’80s action film, but it was actually a joint effort between Paramount Pictures and the Pentagon. Credit: Empire.

Top Gun is probably one of the most famous military-centered movies in America. Its premise focuses on a hotshot Navy pilot attending a prestigious flight school to become “the best of the best.” Like any good 1980s movie, its biggest selling points are the cutting-edge (for the time) action scenes and the romantic subplot. 

The reason that Top Gun was able to make a splash was at least, in part, due to the Navy equipment and scenery they were allowed to use during filming. In fact, Paramount Pictures paid just $1.8 million for access to real-life warplanes and aircraft carriers. In exchange, the Pentagon worked closely with screenwriters to shape the script, making meticulous line-by-line edits and actually changing huge parts of the movie. 


Military Influence on Film 

The Pentagon has been influencing the film industry since as early as the 1927 film Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Even though many war films are criticized as inaccurate and unrealistic, that was never the goal for Pentagon officials. The goal was to paint the military in a good light; one that would increase public support and recruitment at the same time. 

Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s Hollywood Liaison, said in 1994: “The main criteria we use [for approval] is… how could the proposed production benefit the military… could it help in recruiting [and] is it in sync with present policy?” 

Films like the preceding Red Dawn and 1990’s The Hunt For Red October were made with the same effect in mind: To make the military “cool” in the eyes of millions of Americans. 


Military Influence on Top Gun

Though the Vietnam War ended almost a decade prior to Top Gun’s release, the public still had a sour taste in its mouth from twenty years of devastating and controversial fighting. What’s more, the Cold War was heating up and the threat of the nuclear-powered Soviet Union was all-too-real. 

For those reasons, the Pentagon wanted to portray military service as exciting. Something that was elite, action-packed, and for a greater purpose. While those things may be true to a degree, nothing in real military service quite measures up to Hollywood’s spin on it. 

Tom Cruise as Maverick. Credit: Country Living Magazine.

There was a lot riding on Top Gun’s success. From the ‘50s through the ‘60s, over 200 military movies were released. But in the ‘70s the film industry saw a major drop-off in these kinds of movies, mostly due to the poor image of the military during and after the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration was already working to rehabilitate this, but nothing has quite the same impact as a successful blockbuster. 

And they got their wish: Top Gun was the highest-grossing film of 1986, outperforming Crocodile Dundee by $2 million. It increased Navy recruitment by a staggering 400 percent (some sources even quote it at 500); 90 percent of Navy hopefuls told recruiters they had seen the movie. 

Perhaps the biggest “win” was how it changed public perception in the long-term. Particularly, the perception of young people. Many college-age adults in America had been staunchly opposed to the Vietnam War, and popular music and trends of the time supported this. But Top Gun turned it around for the teen/young adult demographic in the ‘80s. It proved just how effective pro-military movies were and continue to be. 


Top Gun Facts

  • The school is real. The school in Top Gun was based on a real school — the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, or TOPGUN, which used to be at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. Today the school is located in Fallon, Nevada, and they have a strict “No Top Gun” policy; anyone who quotes from the movie is charged $5.
  • Goose’s death scene was changed. Pentagon writers reportedly changed Goose’s death from a midair collision to an ejection-gone-wrong, with his head hitting the aircraft canopy. At the time, a lot of Navy pilots were crashing, and it was seen in poor taste to reflect that in the movie — not to mention the recruiting factor. 
  • The soundtrack went platinum. Four times. By 2000, it had sold a total of nine million copies, featuring hits like Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” 
  • Navy commercials were mirrored after the movie. The 1987 “Join the Navy” commercial included similar visuals and soundtrack as Top Gun, hoping to extend the massive uptick in recruitment. 
  • A sequel is set to be released in 2020. Top Gun: Maverick has a release date of June 26, 2020. Tom Cruise actually helped produce it and also starred in it, as well as a handful of other actors who maintain their same roles from the original. 

Read our list of best military movies ever made.


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