Elite Legacy: How Top Gun Defined a Nation's Reputation in the Minds of its Peers
It was recently announced this week in a tweet from Tom Cruise that Top Gun 2 is beginning production. The sequel to the 1986 classic has long been desired, hinted at, and discussed, but ultimately languished in development hell for over three decades until now. During that time, the movie has become not only a cultural icon of American, cinematic film-making, but also an ambassador of American culture. The movie’s hero, Maverick, with his to-hell-with-the-rules and charming antics has long been the staple by which Americans are judged by overseas. Loud, brash, reckless, and on some primal level, sexy...or if you didn’t like American culture, arrogant. It contained everything that the world liked and disliked about our culture. But the influence I was focused on was pilots across the world and other branches and how the sequel would be seen in 2018.
What’s in a Name?
Lets start with the title itself, Top Gun. It is actually the name of a long-standing fighter development program from 1969, developed during the Vietnam War. It was the Navy’s response to finding out that their pilots were on the wrong side of a kill ratio of about 2:1 at best: a far cry from the ‘glory’ days of World War Two dog-fighting. Much of this was due to political factors of not allowing effective use of long-range missiles, which the military had now largely placed their faith in. And tin he stagnation of close-in dog-fighting skills that occurred as a result of that preoccupation.
So the Navy decided to invest in a program to regain those skills, as well as train its pilots to fight unfamiliar fighter-types other than what they were accustomed to. There was noticeable improvement afterwards and it soon became common for pilots to be sent there. This was set up at the Naval Air Station in Miramar in California and continued after the war ended in 1975. However, it was the movie with it’s namesake, Top Gun, that would catapult into it into the cultural lexicon. It became synonymous with elite and “best of the best”, the same way Navy SEALS and special forces seen that way today.
Filling Their Minds
Because of how pervasive American, pop culture had become across the world during the 1980’s, the name's uniqueness also spread with it. To refer to anyone as a ‘top gun’ meant that they were set apart and uniquely-talented. That it was created by American culture and used in an American, military adventure film also implied that its military as a whole, was therefore superior to all other competitors. In other words, both the movie and the name came to embody American military dominance the same way the Roman Standard and architecture did for Rome three millennia earlier.
I have talked with people from other countries who have expressed how cocky Americans are because of this self-righteous view of themselves. Yet the fall of America’s forty-four year, superpower rival, the Soviet Union in 1989 and the victory in the 1990-91 First Gulf War seem to confirm this status as legit.
Even back then though, there were many trying to correct the exaggerated image that the movie created. It’s portrayal of Maverick as a reckless pilot bucking authority, buzzing towers, and crooning his way into women's’ beds did increase the Navy’s recruitment rate. It also created a false idea of what it was about. It was still just a Hollywood movie. Though rooted in actual occurrences during World War Two, actual pilots will be the first to tell you that if someone had tried to buzz an actual tower even in 1985, they would have been disciplined hard at best and at worst, immediately booted. Heavy drinking is also frowned upon because of DE-hydration, and they had regulations for all personal to where motorcycle helmets on and off base when riding motorcycles.
Students shooting down instructors, especially on the first outing never happen. They’re instructors for a reason after all. And lone wolves are absolutely discouraged as success and survival are dependent on cooperation. Even today though, many of the stereotypes still linger in many a modern pilot’s minds. They often compare their current military lifestyle to Top Gun’s flamboyant portrayal and usually note how off much of it is.
There is the desire still engage in dogfights. The chances of that are rare to none though as the few air forces that could challenge them are either allies, or would guarantee an international incident or all out war.
Setting the Bar
With the increasing profile of women in combat roles since 1992, Top Gun also has often served as an inspiration to achieve more and live the motto, ‘the sky's the limit’. That road has been hard because of antipathy towards them in anything other than supporting roles and sexual harassment at the recruitment and service level. And many male pilots don’t like the idea of bringing in political correctness into an environment which often breeds dirty humor to alleviate tension. However all military branches have since been enacting a zero-tolerance policy and more women continue signing up, serving in active combat since the turn of the century.
The Top Gun affect on other air forces is only today becoming noticeable. On a larger scale, Russia and China have been building and modernizing their armed forces (ironically spurred on by the American dominance of First Gulf War), and on a smaller scale as other people start pushing themselves to achieve more in a military career for their own nations.
For Russian and Chinese pilots, the Top Gun affect inspires them differently. Because of a mix of current, political climates and predisposition to America’s Hollywood image, many see it as a symbol of America’s past dominance: a dominance they believe they are either equal to or surpassed. On August 18, 2014 while observing Chinese operations near Hinan Island, a P-8 Orion surveillance plane was not only intercepted by a Chinese SU-27, but the pilot then buzzed the front of the American plane with its weapons on full display and then barrel-rolled over top of it like the opening sequence from the movie.
In 2017, China also released its own version of the movie called Sky Hunter. Though nowhere near as rebellious as the original, the movie more or less copied it beat for beat. Though heavy-handed in its push for patriotism and obviously slanted towards obeying the ruling authorities, its not really that different from Top Gun’s own brand of eighties’ patriotism. And like I said before, it did boost recruitment for the Navy.
Likewise, Russian pilots have been engaging in similar behaviors with European air forces. In 2016, during an intercept of thirteen Russian fighters escorting one their own ships, German pilots reported that one of the Russians gave them ‘the bird’. The middle-finger gesture was a callback to another moment in the same opening sequence where Maverick and Goose go into an inverted flight above an intercepting fighter and Maverick promptly flicks off its counterpart. The German commander at the time, Swen Jacob, remarked to The Washington Post, “Maybe he watched too much ‘Top Gun’.”
And those this final example maybe more of a riff off the actual program than the movie, Russia has also enacted its own fighter develop program called Aviadarts. And like their American counterparts, they also invite their allies to participate in exercises.
On a smaller scale, many women in other nations have been signing up to be pilots in their own countries’ air forces. One of the most prominent ones being from Afghanistan, Niloofar Rahmani. In 2012, she became the country’s first female pilot whom despite increasing death threats received commendation from the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award and the moniker, “Afghan Top Gun”. Because of achieving such an elite status, she has had to seek asylum in America because of death threats upon her and her family. Other air forces have also began allowing women to fly combat missions and its proving to be one of the major historical turning points of the century.
"Its not so much about wanting a piece of the popularity pie as it is having competent public image that millions will see."
Top Gun’s influence is now global and it invokes many different interpretations, some characteristics carry over. That they are a cut above the rest of their peers. That they are bold and courageous. That there is a rebellious streak about them that pushes against the odds. Perhaps these features are more cultural than a movie trademark, but they are features that define whomever wears the mantle nonetheless. And it still carries weight at home as well as a minor twitter war erupted between the Navy and US Air force over what airplane Maverick should fly if he really wants quell his need for speed.
The real question becomes though is, how will the sequel fair to day’s environment?
In 1986, Hollywood could almost do no wrong, as America believed itself to be. They could have everyone in the cast fawning over the hero because it covered up in cool charisma and witty catch phrases. They could make any nation or group an antagonist and defeat them with no worry of international consequences or their allies seeing them as a necessary but arrogant son of a bitch. That is not 2018 though, nor the years going forward whenever the movie comes out.
I have a hard time seeing Maverick’s and Goose’s contest of getting ‘carnal knowledge’ of a woman being sexy these days. Actresses and many regular women don't want to be swooned over but have a shot at the cockpit. Non-White actors don’t want to play second fiddle to the lead but have established and defined character arcs that are just as complex as the hero’s. Many countries don’t want to see themselves portrayed as inferior to the American military as they had been in the past but as equal allies. And on a lighter note, even the US Navy’s own inter-service rivals are stepping up to challenge their claim as the best.
Its not so much about wanting a piece of the popularity pie as it is having competent public image that millions will see. Top Gun both help define a generation, a nation, and extend that nation’s shadow across the world. It’s sequel will now have to see if it can set a new standard where no one wants to have that shadow over them anymore.
© 2018 Jamal Smith