The Hollow Myths of a ‘Maverick’ Empire

As the US geopolitical project stumbles, and the idea of ‘benevolent statecraft’ is revealed as a sham, so too its ideological apparatus starts to wane. Hollywood, for years a supporter of the imperial project though the production of myths seems to have little left by way of ideas, merely repeating the same tropes from its own history. Unfortunately the myth that it somewhat pathetically keeps alive remains lethal.

The military mission which drives the plot of film sequel Top Gun: Maverick (2022) is a fictional US aircraft attack on a location within Iran’s borders. In this scenario it is suggested that Iran has a site which is enriching uranium and this is a ‘threat to US interests in the region’ – this obscured unnamed ‘US interest(s)’ should read Israel. Neither in Hollywood action genre storytelling or corporate news media narratives are audiences allowed to equivalently question settler Israel’s far greater possession of a nuclear capability within this western colonised middle-eastern region or the US’s own immense nuclear arsenal.

Nor are we asked to review the fact that the fundamentalist nature of Iran’s current government only exists because the US violently brought down the country’s 1950’s Parliamentary democracy, when its government proposed to nationalise the country’s oil assets in favour of its own citizens economic interests. Tragically, after the US imposed Shah’s regime and its death squads killed off, large numbers of the socialist, liberal, and feminist resistance, the forces of nationalist self-determination would eventually fall to an unrepresentative fundamentalism that still dominates Iran to this day. It barely needs to be resaid though, that Iran is a pre-existing indigenous society whereas Israel is an invented western colonialist outpost, the flawed nature of both their existences are consequences of western imperialism.

Recently the western news media have created a furore over what type of retaliation Iran might take for an attack by Israel on its Syrian embassy killing 16 people. There are 34,000 dead in Gaza and counting, Israel has been making missile attacks on neighbouring countries, these escalations – where contrarily Israel is spun as a potential victim – could serve to cover up these aggressions and greater regional imperialisms. It is therefore worth looking at the fictional representational strategies that are used to narrativize Iran as an official enemy, and glamourise western, military attacks which violate other countries borders.

Tom Cruise and the Navy drama genre:

In 1986 Tom Cruise starred in the first overtly Reaganite Top Gun production. This tied a set of oedipal type anxieties about progressing into manhood, career and societal position of authority, with success against the America empire’s symbolic cold war opposition – rather than giving much of a face and potential victim status to the enemy, in this instance the antagonist is represented by the eastern bloc’s Mig aircraft. These strategies are not original and crop-up both earlier in the US fighter pilot genre and again in the sequel Top Gun: Maverick.

Cruise followed this in 1989 with the slightly less jingoistic For a Few Good Men. This is a Naval courtroom drama film centred on Judge Advocate General (JAG) officers, which deals with the issue of innate internal violence within the military, and conveniently resolves it around an apologetic, ‘mistakes are made…rotten-apple’ type finale which largely side-steps any scrutiny of broader institutional military violence and its grooming effects on service personnel.

These two films laid the template for a hybrid ‘two for the price of one’ tv spin-off series JAG (1995+…2005). In this, a fictional Navy pilot with concerns about his eyesight switches to the JAG office, where he often clears the Navy of any allegations of violent impropriety, while occasionally climbing back into a cockpit for glamorous one-off missions. These productions were made with the cooperation of the Navy and as Koppes & Black point out – Hollywood Goes to War (1987) – Hollywood’s ideological support of the US military can be charted back to WWII.

Such was the ever rightward political shift of the JAG series that Oliver North would later make appearances as a fictionalised version of himself. North had been prominent in the Iran/Contra scandal where arms and drug dealings were used to raise money for the purposes of bringing down Nicaragua’s Sandinista socialist government. North received a Republican Presidential pardon for his part in these activities, which included lying to Congress.

Obviously, this type establishment military jingoism is not for all audiences. And it says a good deal about our own era’s political climate that a sequel to Top Gun, went into production despite the fact that the original had often been an object of parody. Hot Shots (1991) being an example. The episode of Star Stories (2007) satirising Tom Cruise’s media reputation also refers to the film’s use of a repressed homoerotic subtext. While American comedian Rich Hall has a famous stand-up routine which argues that Cruise is endlessly remaking the same film – including Top Gun – but just changing the profession of the central character.

Star Wars and Generic Cut-&-Paste

Incredibly the mechanism used in Top Gun: Maverick to engage viewers with an aircraft bombing raid on Iran is a restaging of the attack on the Death Star from Star Wars (1976), including the same hazardous low-level flying and implausibly small vulnerable target on an otherwise impenetrable objective. The Death Star attack sequence was itself also a lift but from the WWII drama The Dam Busters (1954). This was a dramatization of a technically unusual, WWII low level flying mission tasked with destroying a number of German dams, in the hope of flooding the Nazis industrialised production regions (decades after the war this much celebrated mission was revealed to have been of only limited value). Indicative of the similarities, one Youtube humourist who spotted the connections, posted a version of The Dam Busters bombing sequence, with the Star Wars Death Star attack soundtrack edited over it. This was sufficiently popular for a sequel to be made in which the Death Star attack sequence had The Dam Busters dialogue placed over it.

Usually, it is not enough to just repeat a generic pleasure and sometimes a reworked sequence will be camouflaged by a certain amount of innovation. In Top Gun: Maverick, the fighter plane attack on Iran sequence has added the difficulty of having to suddenly sharply climb over a cliff escarpment. This though is another borrow from an historically intermediary production – 633 Squadron (1964). Even with an added cliff-top attack element, its storytelling trajectory owes a huge debt to The Dam Busters – arguably to the point of being a type of retelling – but is entirely fictional. It was made the decade before Star Wars (see also Tim Robey – May 2014 item #9 “10 Films the that influenced Star Wars”).

As well as incorporating these generic elements of the attack on the Death Star, Cruise’s character repeatedly tells his surrogate son-protege – portrayed by Miles Teller, “Don’t think, just do”, which would seem to be a barely coded repetition of “Use the force, Luke!”. Ironically Star Wars was produced towards the end of a historical period of idealised counter-cultural iconography. Its heroes were rebels. In Top Gun: Maverick the earlier film’s dynamics are appropriated in support of the American empire.

Surrogate Father/Son Relations and more Generic Cut-&-Paste.

Surrogate father and son dynamics are also a feature of two of the Korean War based dramas influencing the emotional and generic dynamics of Top Gun: Maverick. These can be found between Fredrick March’s Admiral and William Holden’s pilot in The Bridges of Toko Ri (1954), and between Robert Mitchum’s veteran pilot-ace and talented younger newcomer in The Hunters (1958).

The idealised homoerotic imagery in Hollywood narrative, that Star Stories inadvertently drew audience attention to, serves to create Freudian narcissistic points of identification within the film for the spectator – audiences want to be these characters. This is something feminist Film Theorist Laura Mulvey characterised in her piece Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Screen, Autumn 1975). The older Patriarchal characters represent authority and therefore the ideology that the audience will be Oedipally driven to evolve towards, naturalise and adopt.

The source films also provide a key sequence that Top Gun: Maverick adopts – that of the vulnerable downed pilot joined by a colleague on the ground.

Here are photo examples of all three films, and the pilots in peril sequence actually features on the promotional poster for The Hunters. This film is probably the more direct influence on Top Gun: Maverick. Robert Mitchum plays a veteran left-over WWII flying ace, who during the Korean War is required to mentor the young impetuous Robert Wagner.

So, within this representational system the Patriarchal iconography serves to make expansionist ideology of the American empire invisible. Set generic sequences like this function to make its character proxies of empire, seem like the ‘real’ potential victims. While replicating the original Top Gun’s production’s representation of enemies as largely mere plane technology, similarly Iranian victims of the US invading its boarders here, are depicted as faceless, seemingly non-feeling, inhuman extensions of their plane technology, masked in mirror covered pilot helmets. It is also worth reflecting that the US Military Industrial Complex dominates the world with, 750 up to 1000 military bases across the globe. Its capitalist corporate sector is arguably the richest in the world. Yet in any Hollywood drama, whether it be military-themed like this genre, or sporting conflict based – such as Rocky IV (1985) – the US is spun as the plucky little underdog (a rhetorical tactic similarly practiced by nuclear armed Israel). Also, the melange of generic tropes woven together in Top Gun: Maverick come from WWII via the counter-culture influenced Star Wars, and the Korean War, thereby sidestepping the countless number of wars, where US imperialist atrocities have drawn widespread public protest – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya etc.

It is worth reflecting on how much popular cultural leverage and corporate news media partisanship has bought us to this point where America’s Military Industrial ruling-class can be represented as a heroic benevolent force for world order. US violent actions against Nicaragua and 1950s Iran have already been mentioned. But there is also the US imposition of a fascist regime and more death squads in Chile, the same in Salvador, assassination attempts on Hugo Chevez and Fidel Castro, the Guantanamo Bay torture centre, the persecution of Julian Assange, and use of Napalm, Agent Orange and depleted Uranium in various conflicts across the world.

Throughout the 20th C many western countries – including Britain – were actually giving sanctuary or temporary stay of relief to victims of US domestic political McCarthyite or racist persecution. When Tony Blair, having infiltrated a democratic socialist UK Labour Party aligned Britain and this Party with a US Republican President, there was not just widespread incredulous anger relating to the political betrayal. Blair was aligning the UK security apparatus with the US security services, that had tried to break the Civil Rights, movement, bugged Dr Martin Luther King and attempted to push him to suicide by pumping details of his sex life into the tabloids. The same security services operated an assassination programme for Black liberationists called COINTELPRO. It says something about the inversion of independent western nation state politics since, and globalised service to power of national corporate news media reporting, that films like Top Gun: Maverick, are put out in the expectation of audiences celebrating US domination of the Black and Brown homelands of the world.

Postscript

There insufficient space here to explore some of the other issues of generic repetition in Top Gun: Maverick, such as the heterosexual romance motif as a form of sexual beard or homoerotic disavowal. In one incident Cruise’s character inexplicably turns up at his girlfriend’s bar wearing officer dress whites – this is a reference to the original film and the romantic climax of an Officer and Gentleman (1979)

Here though, Rich Hall’s satire on the level of standardisation in the Tom Cruise product is worth a look.

About the author

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis is a freelance Black British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race, and representation. He has taught critical theory and film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.

More articles by Gavin Lewis

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