Military propaganda in film and TV: Contaminating films across the nation

When “Top Gun” was released in 1986, it was an instant hit. The film made over $350 million at the box office and has remained a beloved classic of American cinema.


When “Top Gun” was released in 1986, it was an instant hit. The film made over $350 million at the box office and has remained a beloved classic of American cinema. Claims that the film catapulted military recruitment rates the year following it’s release ran rampant among citizens across the nation, although these allegations were often oversold and over exaggerated. However, the film was in fact made in collaboration with the U.S. Navy.

Military propaganda movies are hardly unique to modern America. Historically, film has been used as propaganda since its inception. In fact, the very first Academy Award for Best Picture winner, 1927’s “Wings”, was created with the army’s support. On the other side of the world, 2021’s “The Battle at Lake Changjin” broke records as the highest-grossing film of all time in China. The movie was commissioned directly by the Chinese Communist Party, and has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. The popularity of these military movies has not diminished, regardless of involvement by various government parties.

Militaristic hits persist in the United States. Of course, there’s “Top Gun: Maverick”, alongside other pieces which are more covert. 2019’s “Captain Marvel” was made with the involvement of the U.S. Air Force and hoped to bolster female recruiting, which was exemplified by the screening of Air Force ads before the start of the movie. Whether this makes a difference in enrollment is unclear, yet these companies persist in their attempts no matter the circumstance. What makes these military central movies so appealing to production companies is that they are able to obtain the support of the Department of Defense in exchange for editing privileges of the script. For movies that require access to military bases and equipment, it’s infeasible not to make the deal. How can these companies be blamed for such an advantageous opportunity? 

What this means is that the Pentagon is able to nitpick and enforce changes on whatever they want, whenever they want. Because productions are reliant on the Pentagon, it’s their way or the highway. In “Top Gun”, the DOD made both minor and major script edits that the production was forced to accept. Kelly McGillis’s character Charlie was originally a fellow soldier, but is an instructor in the final film so as not to encourage relationships among military personnel. The DOD even altered pivotal moments of the film, such as the circumstances of Goose’s death, changed from a midair crash to an ejection. The US government’s heavy involvement in Hollywood creates, in a sense, a monopoly over its own portrayal. Though its influence is more subtle in some cases, at the end of the day the US government seems to always prevail. The Pentagon drew press when it assisted the production of “Wandavision” in 2020. Though the series does feature a fictional government agency as the antagonists, they are ultimately thwarted by the heroic FBI agent Jimmy Woo. The Pentagon also collaborated with Marvel on its show “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, which depicts the next Captain America combatting a group of political radicals who wish for a world without borders. Through media primarily aimed at kids and young teens, the Pentagon is able to co-opt ostensibly progressive TV to reinforce the idea of “America first.”

“Top Gun: Maverick” didn’t soar past a billion dollars at the box office because of its navy connections. It made that money because audiences  loved it. That said, most viewers will end up leaving the theater with the greatness of the US navy at the forefront of their minds. 

It’s clear that even whittled down by the Pentagon, military films can still be great. It is still frustrating that recommendations and reviews for “Top Gun” and films similar to it must contain an asterisk, a reminder that even at the movies, Americans must honor the stars and stripes.