Top Gun: Propaganda

By Anna Hanuska

A true classic, the 1986 movie Top Gun has something for everyone: lots of action, a bit of romance, and a ton of epic fighter jets. The film follows a young Navy pilot, Maverick, as he attends a school for the top fighter pilots in the Navy: Top Gun. It shows the pilot life, lots of flying & drinking and drinking & driving… It’s a bit reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s novel The Right Stuff. However, the same aspects that make the movie so loved–the glamorization of pilot life, the reaffirmation of American exceptionalism, and the idolization of the past–also make Top Gun an excellent and very successful military recruitment propaganda film.

Portraying pilots as carefree and manly, Top Gun glamorizes the life of military men, encouraging young men in the audience to join the military. The pilots continually meet up at bars and drink, sing, and pick up girls, displaying a fast-paced and fun lifestyle. Goose’s wife even jokes about the number of girls Maverick picks up. Additionally, the portrayal of the pilots, particularly Maverick and his nemesis, Iceman, as macho solidifies the idea that manly men join the military. They get into continuous competitions of manliness, from snapping their teeth at each other in the locker room to winning dogfights in the air, trying to prove themselves. Upon hearing about the quitting of a fellow pilot, Cougar, Iceman remarks, “It’s a shame, he was a good man.” Despite the protagonist’s defense of “still is,” Top Gun plants a seed in the mind of the viewer that men are only good, manly men if they are in the military. Even Maverick’s teachers nod to his hypermasculinity. In the first classroom scene, Viper calls Maverick arrogant, yet says “I like that.” Later, Maverick is scolded for his risky behavior in a dogfight, yet behind his back, his superiors state that they admire his bravery, skill, and nerve, showing how much the military values men simply being awesome. However, in what actual branch of the American military is rule breaking and arrogance tolerated? None. As propaganda, Top Gun misleads the audience to believe that joining the military will be fun and consequence-free, preying on the fact that most young men see themselves as immortal. They wouldn’t die in a crash like Goose and they certainly wouldn’t simply quit like Cougar; they see themselves as a perfect save-the-day, get-the-girl character played by a taller version of Tom Cruise. 

Winning the hearts of the audience, the American fighter pilots show their true personalities in the first scene in the movie: a dogfight with Soviet MIG planes over the open ocean. While Maverick and Goose reveal their humorous side by flipping off the Soviet pilot and photographing it, the Soviet wears a tinted helmet, hiding his visage, and shows no real reaction, portraying the enemy as faceless and emotionless. The Soviet planes have no unique aspects, while Cougar’s plane is adorned with photos of his family. By displaying the enemy as abstract, the writers encourage the audiences to hate the Soviets and support the Americans. The dehumanization of the Soviets also contributes to the tone of American exceptionalism, prodding the viewers’ egos and encouraging them to join the military and support their superior, free country.

Top Gun romanticizes the zeitgeist of the 1950s and 60s and reminds Americans of a patriotic, more free-spirited time. After all, the target audience was mostly people too young to  remember anything bad about those decades. (Cough, cough, Vietnam War.) Maverick, portrayed as the perfect example of masculinity, flaunts popular 50s styles, including aviator sunglasses and white t-shirts with jeans. Additionally, the soundtrack features many songs that fall under the “oldies” genre, and utilizes them to cultivate a sense of nostalgia in the viewer, who likely grew up listening to them. In one scene, Goose joyfully sings “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, a rock and roll song from the 50s, at a restaurant with his family. Using “Great Balls of Fire” in one of the most pure, happy scenes in the movie paints a cheerful vision of the past, especially juxtaposed with Goose’s death soon after. During one of Maverick and Charlie’s dates, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, a soul song from the 60s, plays in the background, literally romanticizing the music of the 60s. Maverick even remarks that the song reminds him of his childhood and his mother, which the target audience likely relates to. In addition, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers plays twice, first when Maverick sings it to Charlie when they first meet, then from a jukebox while Maverick and Charlie reconnect near the end of the film. The repetition displays how their relationship comes full circle, and the use of a 60s song to represent such an important relationship and character arc emphasizes an idyllic view of the time period. The use of the jukebox, which was most popular in the 50s, cements the vintage vibe.

Of course, all these strategies were extremely effective. The script had to be approved by the Department of Defense, like any film that wants military help. The Pentagon even admits, “the main criteria we use is … how could the proposed production benefit the military.” Though the US Navy could not outright support the film due to regulations, they set up recruitment booths in movie theaters and played commercials before the film. They reported that overall recruitment rose, and recruits interested in naval aviation increased by 500%. This increase is despite the then-President Ronald Reagan’s approval rating plummeting in October of the same year due to his failure to come to an arms reduction agreement with Gorbachev (Soviet Union leader) at the Reykjavík Summit. Logically, if you disapprove of the government’s actions in regards to military and foreign relations, why would you join the military? Still, the extreme glorification of the military in Top Gun pushed many to enlist.

Top Gun truly made many feel the need, the need for speed.