Propaganda and Top Gun: Maverick

Yes, this is a piece about the Pentagon and Top Gun. I know that’s old hat and everyone talks about it, but I think it’s important to interrogate the relationships here and be aware of them. Especially because this shit isn’t a recruitment commercial necessarily. We are all aware, in some sense, that it’s propaganda. No question about it. But we don’t realize, or investigate, the ways that it influences the film, or why the Military cares so much about making sure that a film that was sure to be super jingoistic would still come with strings attached. To brush it off as just a ploy to get kids to join up is foolish. You think they need a movie? While college loans exist? Now, to the post;

“Until recently, the United States was not believed to be considering the development of nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons; however, a since-revoked Air Force solicitation sought ideas for a “thermal protection system that can support hypersonic glide to ICBM ranges.” – The Congressional Research Service, May 5th, 2022

Hypersonic flight is conventionally defined as flight at speeds of up to Mach 5 (5 times the speed of sound) or faster, within the Earth’s atmosphere. Finding ways to move anything at that speed, where air gets so hot and puts up so much resistance it can easily tear something to shreds, is probably one of the most complex engineering problems that humanity has had to deal with. It’s up there with sequencing the human genome or putting a man in space. It is hard. It is expensive. 

The only utility of such a venture, besides sheer ego, is to kill other people. There is no other reason, besides a flight accident, that a human will fly that fast. However, a bomb, or nuke, flying that fast can easily get past missile defenses and warning systems, leaving one able to safely consign the world to a nuclear inferno.

But isn’t there some romance in moving faster than any living being, pushing the limits of blood, sintered titanium, and advanced ceramics? Crossing the final barriers for humanity?

Top Gun: Maverick starts with Maverick working as a test pilot for an unnamed, fictional, hypersonic flight test project. Here, of course, it’s just something he does. It’s like those scenes in military recruitment commercials where scientists are messing with lasers or whatever. Like those commercials, the point is partly to make you want to join the military, but this is also to give you a more positive perception of the entire military and the multi-billion dollar research projects that stuff like hypersonic flight are a part of. This is all also to give you a more positive view of these projects, as being pure research, a peacetime activity, instead of being part of a project to make America able to start a nuclear war before the other side can fire back. It’s a multifaceted narrative, which is supposed to make you accept the military’s perspective through subtle nudging and convenient omissions. This is propaganda in the 21st Century.

Which, let me be clear before I jump into the propaganda talk: This movie rules. Huge fan. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a real movie, with setup, payoff, and actual stakes, it’s genuinely one of the best things playing in theaters this year (And this has been a great year for film!).

But this movie is also pure propaganda. Evil, evil, propaganda.

In America, we don’t really think about the roles of things such as propaganda, or secret police, within society. These are things in other, quote authoritarian unquote countries. Since we think of ourselves as living within a free country, with freedom of speech and right to assembly and press and all that, these don’t seem like a reality that we live in. Of course, that is, to an extent, wrong. Sure, we aren’t being snatched off the streets and thrown into some random hole, like in Russia (except the many times that happened during the 2020 unrest), but propaganda plays an extensive role within our society.

There are, for one, actual propaganda units within the U.S. Military. Take, for example, this video by the 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne), currently sitting on YouTube at about 800k views at the time of writing. Go ahead, watch the whole thing. It’s honestly kind of cringey, like a low effort trailer for a fake movie. I’m sure the propagandists there in Fort Bragg had a big time putting on ghost masks and splicing stock footage to make this video, but I’ll be honest: the most pull this has is with the large group of distrustful, anti-Government commenters on this video. Of course, the real job of this group is to create propaganda in active warzones, such as within the Middle East, or places where we are overthrowing governments, such as Panama.

A Propaganda Leaflet from the 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne), distributed in the United States invasion of Panama in late 1989 and early 1990.

Domestic propaganda, intended for consumption within the United States of America, is the role of other parts of the military propaganda apparatus. There’s a lot here, but for the purposes of relevance I will discuss the Pentagon’s relationship with Hollywood.

It’s pretty well known if you follow film that the Pentagon gives a lot of assistance to movie production. They have people who check stuff for realism. They give filmmakers resources, filming locations, equipment on the cheap. If you read the credits, basically any blockbuster has a special thanks to the Department of Defense for this. But this help doesn’t come free. In exchange, the Pentagon gets the ability to determine the final cut of a movie, to make sure that it is “fairly portrayed” among other things. 

You can read the FOIA’d contracts yourself for these movies and see that clause, usually buried between more practical clauses such as scheduling and promising to only buy prop uniforms from the military. Top Gun: Maverick is no exception to this, with the same rights over a final cut waived, as well as a military censor around when filming the F-35 to make sure no “sensitive” footage of the 20 year old prototype fighter was filmed. 

But let’s be clear: This was intended from the very start. The military had, according to rumor, been encouraging production of this movie for a while, with the goal that it would boost recruitment and likely to help launder the image of a military that has become more associated with drones than anything else.

The result? A movie where our heroes go on a bombing run (that is ironically very similar to the bombing run against the Death Star in Star Wars, where the Empire was at least partially based on American forces) to stop a nuclear reactor being built by a rogue state (now ignore that there is a certain rogue state who we’ve broken an anti-nuclear treaty with, and so now are taking an increasingly aggressive stance against). It’s propaganda. Plain and simple. 

Now for the question; Why? Part of this is to boost recruitment. The military needs more bodies, and being sold a glamorous life of a fighter pilot helps. My cousin joined up because he wanted to be a helicopter pilot, only to immediately be assigned to be a grunt. This is how they get you.

But there’s a greater role than mere recruitment – the material conditions of poverty in America and the benefits that the military offers take care of a lot of recruitment. It’s to spread a narrative amongst the greater public. To think of the military as a particularly advanced, high tech force on the cutting edge of science (Never, ever, listen to Marines talking in a bar about the Osprey shedding parts during training). To think of bombings as being precise and accurate. To cast America as scrappy underdogs, relying on emotion and instinct, versus a much larger mechanized force.

To be direct: This movie is shaped by the military to push a certain story. I’m sure much of it is due to the writers, but we can’t ignore the involvement of officers who have final cut authority. That’s something to think about.

Mosul, Iraq, after a 9 month battle and bombing campaign during the war against ISIS.

Will it work? Will people be convinced that guided bombs are fine, or that bombing missions are precision strikes rather than letting it rip?

Well, I’ve seen people talk about the border crossing scene in Sicario as if it’s a real thing. 

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