The world was a different place in 1986. Mike Tyson won his first title that year, making him the youngest man ever to do so. A brand new Ford Mustang cost less than $7,500, and Tom Cruise was the face of what may have been the most successful military recruitment campaign in U.S. history.
Here we are, thirty-plus years later and Iron Mike makes cartoons and takes care of pigeons now. A brand new fully loaded Ford Mustang will run you only a bit more than a small house would have in the 80s — and Tom Cruise. Well, Tom Cruise may well become the face of what some hope will be the second most successful military recruitment campaign in U.S. history.
Top Gun was more than just your favorite fighter pilot movie that includes extended scenes of oiled up men playing beach volleyball, it was also a crash course into the culture of what being a fighter pilot was supposed to look like. It didn’t matter if Top Gun was a valid representation of the life of a naval aviator, what mattered was that it presented that life in a way that left you feeling like being at the stick of Maverick’s F-14 was just about the coolest job anyone in the military could ever get, and that, better than any posters or cheesy Go Navy commercials, got people into recruiter’s offices. Back in 1986, Lt. Ray Gray was the head of the officer programs department in Los Angeles, where Top Gun resulted in a spike of walk ins. Lt. Gray said,
Two groups I can identify (as having increased interest) are individuals who have applied in the past and were turned down or dropped out of Aviation Officers Training School, and individuals who are approaching the maximum age limit (to apply.)
There seems to have been a big rush in those categories that I have to attribute to the movie. I’ve asked several of these individuals if they’ve seen the movie and if that’s why they came down to talk to us again and they’ve said ‘yes’. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen a general increase in interest in young men who don’t yet qualify for the program, and I have to attribute that to ‘Top Gun’ also.”
Gray wasn’t wrong in his early assessments of Top Gun’s effect on recruiting offices all over the country. The overall number of military personnel across all branches of the U.S. military surged by about 20,000 entrants in 1986, and 16,000 of those new recruits were all in the Navy. In particular, there was a huge uptick in applicants looking to get into aviation occupational specialties. The movie was such a boon to recruiting that many Navy recruiters set up tables at movie theaters during showings so they could engage with energized potential recruits right as they left the movie.
The success of Top Gun was, in large part, thanks to the studio’s partnership with the Department of Defense, who provided funding and hardware for the film. That relationship, coupled with the movie’s success also resulted in an increased Pentagon influence in Hollywood — who saw a surge in submitted screenplays from directors hoping to capitalize on the success of the military oriented hit. When the DoD agrees to partner with a film by providing access to aircraft or funds, they also get to exert influence on the direction of the film.
Top Gun itself, for instance, was changed when the Navy complained that the film included too many mid-air collisions between American aircraft, so a significant plot point that had relied on one such collision was changed in the script to appease Big Navy. Top Gun, and many military movies to come after it, was willing to trade some creative freedom for access to the Navy’s F-14 Tomcats, and what resulted was a nearly two-hour long recruiting commercial that, if I’m honest, still works on me today (though admittedly, I see myself as more of an Iceman than a Maverick — because rules exist for a reason).
Earlier this year, Tom Cruise shared an image that harkened back to the success of Top Gun, with the heading, “I feel the need,” playing off the famous quote from the original: “I feel the need — the need for speed.” The picture and associated posts were symbolic, not only of the first day of filming Top Gun’s long-awaited sequel, but of the changes in Naval aviation since Maverick last took to the skies back in 1986.
— Tom Cruise (@TomCruise) May 31, 2018
The aircraft shown in the background is an F/A-18 Super Hornet, the current workhorse aircraft of the U.S. Navy. The Super Hornet has just begun a new stage of upgrades to the Block III configuration, which will include extensive improvements to its suite of electronics, added fuel range, slightly increased stealth capabilities and a revamp of flight systems intended to keep the Block III Super (Duper) Hornet in the air for years to come — it may even be the Block III variant of the aircraft featured in the new film, which will put Maverick back in the cockpit as an instructor at the famous Topgun school.
People involved with the film have said that it will address 5th generation fighters and drones (and a strange aircraft spotted in Georgia recently may have been a J-20 prop). Because it’s a Navy oriented film, one might expect to see the F-35C featured prominently, but recent crashes of Air Force F-22s at Top Gun school in Alaska serve as valuable reminders that either of America’s most advanced air frames may make an appearance on-screen.
While the studio watches progress on the film and wonders if Top Gun 2 will put people into the seats of theaters across the country, you can imagine DoD officials are watching and wondering if it’ll put people in the seats of Super Hornets. With the Air Force currently short over a thousand pilots, one can imagine there are some fingers crossed all throughout the Pentagon these days.
Only time will tell.
Image courtesy of Twitter