I haven’t gone to see a movie in a theater for years. Not because I don’t like movies or going to the theater or watching a movie in a theater (and eating movie theater snacks!) but because I’ve been busy writing a dissertation and having babies. It seemed like too much effort to go see a movie when you could stream the latest ones while sitting on your couch. For one thing, you’re not paying a babysitter, and instead of nachos with Velveeta cheese, you can have samosas and chaat (I do miss theater popcorn though). But when “Top Gun: Maverick” was released in May 2022, I had to go. And so, on a movie date we went!
And it was great. “Top Gun: Maverick” was everything you want in a blockbuster: fighter jets, Tom Cruise falling out of a fighter jet and surviving, a familiar storyline of a rivalry between peers, nostalgia for a dead friend (Goose!), resentment from the dead old friend’s son (Rooster!), Jennifer Connelly, an unnamed but familiar foreign enemy, a successful military mission with no casualties, a beach scene with the ridiculously good-looking cast playing volleyball shirtless, and an ending where Cruise and Connelly literally fly into the sunset (seriously). I loved it, for all of these reasons (what can I say? I love cheesy movies) and more.
“Top Gun: Maverick’s” Oscar nomination is creating an illusion that all that is needed to destroy a uranium enrichment facility in “enemy territory” is camaraderie, coordination, and practice between fighter pilots.
“Top Gun: Maverick” also evoked sweet memories of growing up in Karachi and watching the original “Top Gun” on the lawn of the Beachview Club with my cousins during one of its “Movies by the Beach” screenings. I chuckled remembering when the guy operating the projector put his hands in front of the camera when Cruise kissed his instructor Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, played by Kelly McGillis. It reminded me of when I thought boys in bomber jackets were cool and when my friends and I played “Take My Breathe Away” so much that the cassette tape wore out. (Fun fact: in the 1990s, Kenny G’s “Forever in Love” and the instrumental version of “Take My Breath Away” was a staple on wedding videos among a certain Pakistani social set). In other words, nostalgia helped me put aside my disdain for blockbusters that romanticize war and military service, and I really loved the movie.
And I’m not the only one who loved it. “Top Gun: Maverick” grossed over $1.4 billion at the global box office and $692 million domestically in its first three months. It was a good ole, feel-good Hollywood movie that had you rooting for the US Navy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated it for an Oscar, I paused.
Now, the Oscars have a bunch of problems that go well beyond Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock last year (that Rock finally addresses in his fantastic Netflix special). Hollywood, and by extension, the Academy and all the awards associated with it, have a long, troubling history of racial injustice and lack of diversity. The Oscars are still pretty white (#OscarsStillSoWhite remains active), and for years, I’ve known that just because a movie wins the Oscar doesn’t mean it’s the “best.” Yet, getting an Oscar is a big deal, and so is getting nominated. But as one who enjoyed watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” its nomination sickened me because it’s doing what we don’t need: creating an illusion that all that is needed to destroy a uranium enrichment facility in “enemy territory” is camaraderie, coordination, and practice between fighter pilots.
THE NATIONAL SECURITY IMPLICATIONS OF “TOP GUN”
National security circles within the United States remain wedded to this idea that the US military is peerless and undefeatable, but the reality is that the United States hasn’t won a war since World War II — and even that victory is not the US’ alone. And when considering that it was won after President Harry S. Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, poisoning the land and people for decades to come, that “victory” feels less like a true win than a tragic tale of cruelty. We lost in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with each war resulting in millions of dollars spent and thousands of families destroyed. Starting a war with Iran, which is the obvious (fictionalized) country that Top Gun pilots are flying into, would be disastrous for everyone.
This is not the first time that Hollywood has given a movie like this so much importance. Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” received six Oscar nominations in 2015 but ultimately just won one of them (for sound editing). In it, Bradley Cooper depicts US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle who wrote the book with the same title. However, the movie deeply misrepresents the US war in Iraq in 2003, indicating that the invasion was a logical response to the 9/11 attacks. Reality, of course, is very different. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Instead, the George W. Bush administration lied about having evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program before invading the country.
“The Hurt Locker,” another movie about the US war on Iraq, won six Oscars (and many more awards) even though veterans criticized it for its inaccuracies — 62 technical errors to be exact.
The issue is not the movies themselves but how Hollywood tends to promote, elevate, and celebrate one specific storyline, one that is wedded to the idea that the US military is more humane than other militaries and that when the US military engages in unsavory activities like torture (“Zero Dark Thirty”) or killing civilians, those are errors, not calculated risks.
THE ENTANGLEMENT OF STORIES AND POLICY
Craig Michel explains that “Top Gun: Maverick” shows how Americans can feel better about an air war, while Sarah Streyder argues that the movie should be seen as a reason to not go to war with Iran at all. The 95th Oscars are this Sunday, and “Top Gun: Maverick” is already in the news for supposedly being funded by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, whose investment in New Republic Films was not publicly disclosed till now. While concerns about the Kremlin’s role in the storyline may be enough for “Top Gun: Maverick” not to win, in my view, it shouldn’t have been nominated at all.
To say that the US military-industrial complex is a complicated web of inflated budgets, false employment promises, corruption, and opaqueness is an understatement, but if you don’t believe me, follow Taylor Barnes and Stephen Semler. But I must leave you with this: a large military supported by an inflated budget does not make us safer. Instead, it creates a militarized foreign policy that puts us all at risk and narratives that make us believe that all we really need is Maverick and Rooster to take down an enemy. War is never the solution, no matter how much Hollywood may make you think it is.
Sahar Khan is the managing editor of Inkstick Media and a research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy department.