How Much Did Top Gun Maverick Cost the U.S. Taxpayer?
Countless films produced in the United States feature use of rather expensive military equipment, and often also real world military personnel. Given the extreme expense of all of this using things paid for by the U.S. taxpayer to benefit for profit companies, how is this allowed? Further, how are projects that the military will support selected? Can just any U.S. citizen apply for use of such equipment and personnel for their particular project to make it fair to all? Just how much does this cost the U.S. taxpayer in cases like, for example, the recent wildly profitable Top Gun: Maverick? And why and how did all of this get started?
As to the “Why”, as William Brady, one time head of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, wrote in 1917 to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, “The motion picture can be made the most wonderful system for spreading the National Propaganda at little or no cost.”
Fast-forwarding to the mid-20th century and the United States Office of War Information even had a Bureau of Motion Pictures, which reviewed over 1600 film scripts in the U.S. during WWII. As to why? Once again, as the Bureau’s head, Elmer Davis, stated, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they’re being propagandized.”
Beyond propaganda, a second commonly stated reason as to why this is of benefit to the military is in recruitment. That said, it may surprise you to learn that despite what almost every media outlet says, even the original Top Gun actually didn’t have much of any measurable effect on recruitment numbers when you actually look at the data, as we’ll get into in a bit.
This now brings us to how this all got started. While going all the way back to 1910 there were examples of films that featured military equipment being used, it was in the lull between WWI and WWII that the relationship between Hollywood and the military became fixed with the 1927 flick, Wings. With a cast that included about 3,000 infantry, and a bunch of U.S. military planes, and pilots, Wings not only won the Best Picture Oscar, but it showed how cooperation between the military and Hollywood provided huge benefits to both: Hollywood created an authentic military experience at a discount rate and enjoyed commercial and critical success, and the military had what for them was essentially a great recruitment film displayed in theaters across the country. They also had an invaluable tool for changing public perception of a given war and the potential righteousness of it, as well as able to influence perception of what it was like to be a soldier, and the idealized version of that person and life.
As such, during and after World War II, Hollywood war movies nearly universally featured brave men whose causes were just and succeeded, even if they perished, with notable titles like: 1945’s They Were Expendable, the 1949 Sands of Iowa Jima, the 1951 The Flying Leathernecks, 1953’s Stalag 17, The Bridges at Toko-Ri in 1954, The Longest Day in 1962, and The Great Escape in 1963.
Likewise, films like From Here to Eternity, Mister Roberts, South Pacific, and Operation Petticoat put a positive human face on the war and its servicemen. And it is precisely this that led author Lawrence Suid to coin the phrase “mutual exploitation.” According to Suid: “When I was getting my film degree it suddenly occurred to me that people in the U.S. had never seen the U.S. lose a war [in film], and when President Johnson said we can go into Vietnam and win, they believed him because they’d seen 50 years of war movies that were positive.”
Speaking of Vietnam, things changed dramatically in the negative direction in the aftermath in terms of public perception of the U.S. military and government for pretty obvious reasons. Naturally the Department of Defense was keen on rehabilitating that image and turned to their friends in Hollywood for help, with it generally noted the phenomenal film Top Gun was the most successful of all at this, though not without some controversy in the aftermath.
Tom Cruise himself rang in on this in an interview in 1990, stating, “Some people felt that Top Gun was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it. But I want the kids to know that that’s not the way war is — that Top Gun was just an amusement park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality. That’s why I didn’t go on and make Top Gun II and III and IV and V. That would have been irresponsible.”
Well… well, this is awkward…
In any event, so important was this relationship between the Department of Defense and Film Studios that since the middle of the century, the Pentagon has had a permanent liaison to deal with studios, with such individuals over time including Donald Baruch, Philip Strub, and David Evans, as well as countless others from specific branches of the military to further consult.
A big part of these individuals’ jobs is reviewing scripts to see if they meet potential selection criteria. As to how they decide what to accept, former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Alan Ortiz rings in, “There really is no hard equation when it comes to determining if the [Department of Defense] is going to support a particular project, but there are some core requirements that production has to meet. The biggest things we look for [are] verifiable proof of funding and distribution… We’re looking for reasonable authenticity in any production that we’re supporting when it comes to scripted productions. Obviously, with unscripted [projects] that’s different. But we strive to get it as close as we possibly can. We’re really looking to tell that story and to articulate, project, and protect the image of the US military, and the men and women who serve.”
Chief of Entertainment at the Department of Defense Glen Roberts further chimes in “We do not provide support to shows that depict storylines that violate military policy. For example, there’s a show on TV that shows uniformed men and women conducting law enforcement activities like kicking doors in and arresting drug dealers—we don’t support that particular show because that is against the Posse Comitatus Act, which is that US active duty military service members do not conduct domestic law enforcement…. We’re really trying to ensure we stay inside the lines of integrity, but we’re perfectly fine with fictional approaches. We work with Marvel movies— there’s no Hulk, there’s no Thor, Captain Marvel, or Iron Man, but we’re still happy to support those movies. We’re really looking to ensure the integrity of the institution as a whole.”
They even go so far as to require any extras portraying military personnel must be up to snuff. For example, in one section of the 84 page agreement between the Department of Defense and the makers of the smashingly good Top Gun: Maverick, it states in order to get the Department of Defense support, “The Production Company will cast actors, extras, doubles, and stunt personnel portraying Service members who conform to individual Military Service regulations governing age, height and weight, uniform, grooming, appearance, and conduct standards.”
Going back to Roberts, he goes on, despite these stringent requirements, the film “does not have to be a love letter to the military…. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be a bad person, a villain per se, who is in uniform, as long as it actually upholds the integrity of the men and women in uniform and the ability to do their job. Humor is good. We laugh at ourselves; we’re happy to laugh at ourselves. Like I said, it’s not unheard of to have a bad guy or bad gal, so to speak in a villain’s role.”
Going back to the funding requirement, Roberts elaborates, “There’s a lot of folks that want to come shoot the movie, but they don’t have funding, or they don’t have distribution. We need to make sure that we’re good stewards of the taxpayers’ money and their resources. And we only utilize those resources and make them available for things that are really going to be seen in the public eye.”
That said, as noted by the aforementioned David Evans, the Department of Defense also makes an effort to work with many student filmmakers. “[The services] might want to do something because it’s no sweat to them to help a student along.” And on this one and many documentaries, “Nine times out of 10 what [they] are asking for is access to individuals and access to installations just to get [supplemental footage].” And most of this is just footage of the military doing its normal thing, so not incurring any additional costs or effort. Just someone wanting to come film it and possibly talk to service members about something they do or have done.
That said, the documentaries do usually have to have funding and distribution method secured for what they are doing. But in some cases may still get a pass if the project looks right and the individuals involved are known and respected. With Phil Strub chiming in, “Sometimes we’ll ease over to, ‘OK, it looks legit and yes, you’ve got a really good reputation within the community. We’ll go ahead and support this one.’”
On top of this, as Motion Picture and Television Entertainment Liaison and Army Officer Todd Breasseale states, they also look at what their equipment is going to be used for. For example, if the studio, to quote him, “just wanted cheap props, essentially, that would typically get rejected out of turn.” Further, if the equipment they were asking for in a given scene was wildly unrealistic as to the way it might actually be used in real life, in his words “[bringing] a knife to a gunfight”, he’d also potentially reject, at least use of that specific equipment, on those grounds.
It’s also noted that during any filming and review of footage they are looking to make sure nothing classified at all is given away anywhere, even unintentionally. Going back to Top Gun: Maverick, this is allegedly one factor as to why the F-35 was not used for the mission, along with the fact that it’s a single seat aircraft so they would have had to CGI the actors into the jets instead of actually be there as was possible with the F/A-18’s used in most of the flight sequences. It’s also potentially noteworthy that the F-35’s estimated cost per hour is almost 3 times that of the F/A-18, which may or may not have also played ino things, as we’ll get into when we discuss costs of everything later and the interesting discrepancy from what is publicly stated by the Department of Defense vs actual cost when you dig a little deeper.
In any event, if the script passes the initial screening, it is then handed off to the appropriate liaison officers in respective branches of the military needed for actual approval or not and for their own thoughts on the script and any changes they might recommend. This is not just to get the script final approval, but also sometimes just plain helpful ideas from the people in the military whose job it is to do the things depicted in the films. In fact, sometimes the filmmakers themselves will explicitly request thoughts on a given scene or sequence in a film to try to get it as accurate as possible, or see if the military professionals have a better idea than what’s currently in the script for how to do something.
Pertinent to the topic at hand, the entire plot of Top Gun: Maverick was built off of ideas that came directly from the Navy according to director Joseph Kosinski. He states he asked Navy reps, “What’s the hardest, gnarliest, scariest mission you could ever imagine having to do with a Naval aviator?” The reps then began throwing out ideas, which he said he then just built the mission off of pretty much exactly as they suggested. The specific ideas were “Carrier launch, low-level ingress, through a canyon defended by SAMS, on a target that’s jammed GPS, hit the target with a buddy laser system, and you’ve got a pull at the end, and another SAM array waiting for you, and enemy aircraft patrolling the skies.” Kosinski goes on the only suggestion he didn’t take there for the mission was to make it at night, as obviously that wouldn’t exactly be very cinematic, though of course would have made it even more difficult for the pilots.
We should also point out that during and after filming it would seem, at least based on the Top Gun: Maverick agreement between the Department of Defense and the studio, the military generally requires they get to review any changes to the script, as well as look over the footage before it’s shown to the general public. Specifically the agreement states, “The Production Company must obtain, in advance, [Department of Defense] concurrence for any subsequent substantial changes proposed to the military depictions made to either the Picture or the sound portions of the production before it is exhibited to the public. The Production Company agrees to involve the DoD Project Officer in these changes, including those that may be made during post-production…”
And that, “The Production Company shall provide the DoD and CNAF Project Officers… with a viewing of the roughly edited, but final version of the production (the “rough cut”) at a stage in editing when changes can be accommodated. but only to the extent required to allow DoD to confirm that the tone of the military sequences substantially conforms to the agreed script treatment, or narrative description; to preclude release or disclosure of sensitive, security-related, or classified information; and to ensure that the privacy of DoD personnel is not violated. Should DoD determine that material in the production compromises any of the preceding concerns, DoD will alert the Production Company of the material, and the Production Company will remove the material from the production.”
Speaking of security concerns, going back to the F-35 in the film, the agreement also states, “F-35 Joint Program Office will have on-sight program manager to conduct security review of all F-35 footage onboard. Any footage deemed classified or sensitive will be deleted or turned over to the U.S. Navy prior to debarking the ship.”
Now, as you can imagine from all this, there is a fair amount of controversy given from these criteria there is at least some level of preference and greater access given to big studios because of their well funded nature. For example, no matter how well funded a project we’d want to do, or our great distribution method and subscriber base here on YouTube, we’re just guessing they’d not designate months of flying around time in an F/A-18 for us if we wanted to simply come along for their training and make a documentary about it all. Further controversy comes from that if the military or some war isn’t being painted in a light they like, even if extremely accurate to reality and real events, the use of military equipment and personnel will not be approved, or at least not without the studio changing the film in the way the Department of Defense wants.
That said, contrary to what is sometimes implied, this isn’t necessarily nefarious, often much more mundane. For example, in the original Top Gun, Maverick’s lady love in the movie was supposed to be a fellow soldier, but such a romantic relationship was not allowed in real life, and, thus, the Department of Defense required that the script be changed to accommodate. Thus, the screenwriters simply re-wrote the character of Charlotte Blackwood to be a civilian.
Moving on to the 2002 film Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage, about the real life Navajo Code Talkers used during WWII, there were a handful of changes the Department of Defense wanted that the filmmakers weren’t exactly pleased about, but nonetheless gave in.
For starters, there was a scene in which one of the Marines, nicknamed “The Dentist”, is shown pulling the gold fillings out of a dead Japanese soldier’s mouth. When this script was passed off to Capt Matt Morgan of the Mariner Corps, Morgan wrote in his feedback to Strub, “This has to go. The activity is un-Marine… I recommend these characters be looting the dead for intelligence, or military souvenirs — swords, knives, field glasses. Loot is still not cool, but more realistic and less brutal.”
Seems reasonable enough.
The ultimate feedback then to Producer Terence Chang was “The ‘Dentist’ character displays distinctly un-Marine behavior. He is, in fact, committing an atrocity. While I recognize the war in the Pacific was brutal, I don’t see a need to portray a Marine as a ghoul.”
There apparently was some back and forth arguing about this, with writer of the film Joe Batteer arguing this sort of looting and things of this nature did happen, which Morgan didn’t deny. Again attempting to be reasonable, Morgan further stated, “Listen, if you’re gonna do something like this, is this gonna be something that’s gonna be dealt with in the movie? Because you don’t deal with it. I mean, you just got a guy who shows up and he’s doing it like he was washing his car or something… If you’re gonna portray this, let’s deal with it. The why. The how. Was it reciprocal? You know, because the Japanese were doing awful things to the Marines, too.”
Ultimately it was decided just to cut the scene. As was a scene where one of the Marines murders with a flamethrower a Japanese soldier who was trying to surrender. On this one, the screenwriters really wanted to keep the scene, owing to it being critical to show the character in question was, to quote, “damaged” at that point by his experiences in the war.
However, Breasseale explains, “…if you’re going to show a soldier committing a war crime, then you’re going to also need to show how the uniform code of military justice deals with that, and the punishment that they would suffer.” Or, at least, ideally suffer. Again, the reality of the war in the Pacific was sometimes quite different from what the Department of Defense was willing to depict here.
Perhaps the most controversial change, however, was a scene in which the soldiers are told that if it looks like they are going to be captured, they should kill their code talker, rather than allow the enemy to take him captive. While you can see why the Department of Defense wouldn’t want that in there, Chang stated, “The whole movie was based on that assumption. We did talk to code talkers, and they said that was true. Why would they lie to me?”
On this point, former code talker John Brown Jr stated, “The Marine order was to let them shoot you if you were captured. That was war. We were obligated.” Code Talker Carl Gorman also stated the same, among several others. Congress even rang in on this one when they awarded the Congressional Gold Medals to 29 code talkers, with part of the legislation in the bill stating, “Some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow Marines, whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy.”
Despite all of this, the Marine Corps still denied this was ever actually a thing and would not allow it to be put in the movie if the filmmakers wanted Department of Defense support for the film. Thus, a compromise was reached where the script was changed from ordering the soldiers to kill their code talker if captured to, “Under no circumstances can you allow your code talker to fall into enemy hands. Your mission is to protect the code at all costs. Do you understand?” More or less implying the same thing, without explicitly saying it.
Moving on from there, Kevin Costner’s Thirteen Days covering the Cuban missile crisis was reportedly denied military aid in the filmmaking because of how they depicted the generals being eager to invade Cuba, something based on well documented real world discussions. When the military requested changes to correct this perceived negative portrayal, the studio rejected the suggested changes, and thus were denied use of military equipment and personnel. For some movies, this would stop it from being made given increased costs without Department of Defense support, but that was not the case for this film.
Moving on from there, a rather surprising film that initially was going to get military support, but the Department of Defense ultimately pulled out of was the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. As to why, writer Dean Devlin states, “Their one demand was that we remove Area 51 from the film, and we didn’t want to do that. So they withdrew their support.”
In a slightly more humorous example, according to David Robb’s 2004 book Operation Hollywood, in the James Bond film GoldenEye, the Department of Defense demanded the nationality of Admiral Chuck Farrel be changed from a U.S. Admiral to a different nation, owing to perceived incompetence. The studio acquiesced and made him French… The problem was the studio was also getting help from the French military. GoldenEye screenwriter Bruce Feirstein stated of this, “When the French lent us the boat, they wanted to make sure that the French military was in no way made to look bad. When they lend you the toys, they want some say in how the toys are used.” Thus, a further switch was made to make the Admiral Canadian.
Moving on to Iron Man, Strub states there originally was a scene in which a military officer was supposed to say they’d “kill themselves for the opportunities” Iron Man has. Strub recounts, “It never got resolved until we were in the middle of filming. Now we’re on the flight lines at Edwards Air Force Base…, and there’s 200 people, and [the director] and I are having an argument about this. He’s getting redder and redder in the face and I’m getting just as annoyed. It was pretty awkward and then he said, angrily, ‘Well how about they’d walk over hot coals?’ I said ‘fine.’ He was so surprised it was that easy.”
Strub elaborates concerning such compromises, “I think that’s more the way these things go once the filmmakers understand that we’re not out to undermine their art, but to try to come up with something that works for them. Oftentimes … it’s something they haven’t thought of and they like it [and] it makes it better. And that happens all the time. The greater news media never reports it, because it’s not very sexy to say that things worked out.”
That said, it doesn’t always work out, for example, in another Marvel film- The Avengers. Strub stated, “We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it. To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything… It’s one thing like [in] Transformers where you have this unit of mostly soldiers and one (airman), and they report to the chairman. It’s a fictional military organization, but it’s not outside of the system, as compared to [S.H.I.E.L.D.]. S.H.I.E.L.D. is this all-powerful entity that can, you know, nuke New York City.”
Thus, in the end, this was one of the few Marvel films that didn’t get Department of Defense support. And instead the jets depicted in the film were simply computer generated.
And, listen, I think we can all agree that that denial was warranted just based on the stupidity of the nuking in the first place. I mean, Black Widow with her- [checks notes]- handgun… Seriously? And Hawkeye with his bow and arrow were extremely effective against the invading force. We’re just throwing this out there, but maybe first try deploying the real U.S. Military with their ability to pummel things to a level Captain America’s fists could never do, no matter how strong he is. And maybe just see, before, you know, nuking millions of your own citizens, which by the way still wouldn’t have closed off the portal, assuming the Tesseract’s energy barrier was unbreachable as stated in the film. So the nuking would have stopped absolutely nothing. Maybe SHIELD did need some oversight…
And while we’re on the subject, let’s just say if Iron Man punching Thanos could make him bleed, I mean, maybe try the nuke option on that one? Or, if nothing else, when the Chitauri were fixing to square off either time with Wakanda and their- [checks notes]- spears…, I’m once again asking why nobody was texting Wong and requesting, if he wasn’t too busy, to maybe pretty please use his little portals to send some of the literal millions of trained soldiers world-wide who probably would have been happy to come do exactly what the Winter Soldier and a F-ing racoon were doing very effectively with their machine guns…. And, like, when Wong asked Doctor Strange, “What, you wanted more?” I mean, ya. We are literally leaving millions of our best trained and equipped soldiers sitting on the sidelines in favor of an, admittedly adorable, alien whose sole fighting power is the ability to put people to sleep temporarily if she happens to be able to touch them. Or, you know, maybe just go grab some AH-64 Apaches if everyone else is busy… Just spitballing.
OR, and hear me out on this one, try for some diplomacy and someone bother to suggest to Thanos instead of snapping away half of all life in the Universe, use the stones to snap into existence double the resources for the same effect. Or ten times? What the heck, we aren’t driving! The list goes on and on… Either way, definitely the Apaches. For the coolness factor, and the whole raining death vibe they’ve got going on.
But we digress.
This all brings us around to cost. So just how much does all this cost the U.S. taxpayer? Well, in theory, nothing, though there is a bit of controversy here in terms of some questionable accounting, as we’ll get into in a bit. But in general, as the aforementioned Todd Breasseale notes, “every time you see a piece of military hardware that is not created through CGI, that cost is borne out by the production company… Unless a specific training mission was prescheduled and planned to be flown anyway, the production company would pay the hourly rate for that aircraft.” And as for soldiers, “Soldiers are paid anyway… For instance, we shot a picture up in Canada and we brought in actual soldiers because they needed to be able to fly the Blackhawk helicopters. So they paid for the soldiers’ transportation up there, they paid a rate field cost for the Blackhawks, they paid the hourly rate for the Blackhawks, and then they paid the per diem and hotel expenses for the service members who are on set.”
However, some have taken issue with all this even so. In particular the seemingly generous nature at times things can be lumped into “training”. For example, Strub states, “The thing is… whether it’s legitimate training or not, isn’t necessarily an exact science.” For example on the film set for a made for TV movie, Vestige of Honor, he notes, “I think there were Army National Guard helicopters … involved. Watching them take off, land, take off, land, take off, land—I thought this cannot be any meaningful training whatsoever. So I sidled over to their officer in charge … and I said, ‘Well, I guess you’re not getting much training today are you?’ And he said, ‘We’ve gotten more training this morning than a week at Fort Hood. I’ve got my refuelers here. I’ve got my emergency medical people here.’”
This brings us to accounting and Top Gun: Maverick. Going back to the 84 page agreement between the Department of Defense and the studio, consistent with a normal collaboration between the U.S. military and a film studio, to quote the document, “The Production Company will reimburse the U.S. Government for any additional expenses incurred as a result of the assistance rendered for the production of Top Gun: Maverick.”
It’s also been reported that the Department of Defense charged the studio $11,374 for each hour of flight time of the F/A-18’s used in the film that couldn’t be chocked up to training.
So how much does an hour of flight time actually cost for the F/A-18? According to the Department of Defense, exactly that amount, funny enough.
So, no problems there, right?
Well, it would seem that’s not actually the real cost per hour of flying an F/A-18. Not even close, at least according to former F/A-18 pilot and present day Advanced Data and Analytics consultant Brett Odom, as outlined in his completely unrelated 2016 report, Why Sloppy Accounting Is Destroying the US Fighter Inventory. In this one, his report has nothing to do with Hollywood, and is simply criticizing the Department of Defense’ accounting when it comes to stated operating cost rates for military aircraft, and how this is negatively impacting decisions made by commanding officers in real world scenarios. For example, he notes the inaccuracies, “…incentivized to overutilize aircraft, and to use them for relatively low quality missions where a cheaper alternative might serve better.”
Embedded in the piece is a breakdown of costs of various aircraft, including the F/A-18. In particular, the Department of Defense’s quoted hourly operating cost of around $11,000 does indeed include everything related to maintaining and flying the aircraft… except one critical and rather expensive thing- the initial cost of the jet itself, which is about $65 million per F/A-18.
Why is this important when discussing cost per hour? Because each jet has a finite number of hours in its service life- about 6,000 hours.
Thus, when you factor in the expected number of hours each jet will be flown before it’s scrapped or becomes a museum piece, that’s an additional approximately $10,833 added to the cost of each hour of operation. Thus, about doubling the cost to just over $22,000 per flight hour for the F/A-18.
Going back to Hollywood Films, in terms of reimbursement rates for Top Gun: Maverick non-training hours, that would mean the studio was only paying about half the real cost per hour for the F/A-18.
And just as a brief aside for how silly these numbers can get, and why it’s so important for commanders to be aware of the real numbers when optimally utilizing resources for a given mission, Odom notes the F-22 Raptor, which the Department of Defense listed at $33,538 per hour, when factoring in unit cost is actually closer to about $60,000 per hour, and the F-35 is closer to about $50,000 per hour.
Going back to Top Gun: Maverick, it is reported that they filmed 813 hours of aerial footage in the F/A-18’s for the film. Now, it is not clear from quotes from Kosinski whether that’s 813 total flight hours, which would seem extremely excessive, or more likely that they shot 813 hours of total flight footage from all cameras used during the flights. As for how many cameras were used, if you’re curious, Kosinksi states there were 6 cameras inside the cockpit, 4 looking at the actor at different angles, and 2 cameras looking forward. He also states there were cameras mounted on the exterior of the jet and more cameras filming from the ground, but he does not specify exact numbers on this, other than to state at their peak they had 26 total cameras rolling between two jets flying and ground cameras. And further that, “When you have two fast-moving objects, when you have moments when the footage is good, you’re going to get one- or two-second pieces worthy of being in the film. In a 14-hour day, 30 seconds was great.”
Another vital piece of information for tallying things up we don’t have here is how many of these flight hours were counted as training or not. This could be anything from the pilot’s need to train in some specific environment or maneuver, to just simply getting needed hours in towards their general flight requirement time.
But whatever those totals are, to sum the costs up, it would seem that in the general case, the studio had to pay a set rate for the equipment and personnel they used outside of things that could be chocked up to training, in order to in theory not cost the U.S. taxpayer anything they wouldn’t have already had to pay for… except as noted, the hourly rate charged for non-training F/A-18 hours ($11,374 per hour) it would seem was about half of reality of about $22,000 when adding in the $10,833 per hour that comes from the initial purchase price of the jet itself. Thus, on the surface, seeming to cost the U.S. taxpayer quite a lot actually, even if not discussing potentially how generous or not the Department of Defense was being with what qualified as “training”.
All of this said, however, there are other factors that might still see this as a steal of a deal for both the Department of Defense’ general budget and for the U.S. taxpayer. And that comes down to recruiting and the rather astronomical amount the Department of Defense spends just to recruit a single person to some branch of the military, not even including talking bonuses and things of that nature to the person- just cost of staff and expenses to do the recruiting in the first place.
On that one, for reference, as tallied up by RateTheMilitary, an organization set on helping to improve military recruitment efforts, the various branches of the U.S. military combine to average spending about $18K per recruit. These costs come from things like advertising and maintaining about 15,000 staff members, among other operational costs of their recruitment efforts. And for reference here, the U.S. military including all branches generally tries to recruit roughly 200,000 people to fill their ranks per year.
Thus, while allowing their personnel and equipment to be used in films that paint the military in a positive light and encourage recruitment may not come out of the normal recruitment budgets, it is generally seen as doing just this, and even if being super generous about what counts as training and giving studios a bargain deal on use of equipment outside of that, it still comes at a drastically cheaper rate compared to normal advertising and recruitment methods the Department of Defense otherwise uses- thus, all potentially actually saving the U.S. taxpayer money even if it’s accurate to say they aren’t, for example, being correctly compensated for use of all those F/A-18 flight hours in a film like Top Gun: Maverick.
For example, going back to the cost per hour of the F/A-18, when factoring in the cost of the jet itself, even if we wanted to be wildly inaccurate and say all 813 hours of aerial footage were literally 813 hours of flying, and not hours compiled from multiple cameras in the same flights, and even if on top of that we said the Department of Defense chocked up every single one of those hours to training that really shouldn’t have been, and using the correct $22,000 per hour figure factoring in the cost of the jet- that wildly overinflated figure is still only just shy of $18 million spent.
This is a lot of taxpayer money, sure, but at average cost per recruit numbers, this would mean Top Gun: Maverick would only need to recruit an additional 1,000 or so people from its debut on forever to recoup that cost, with anything after actually saving taxpayer money. And given inflation rates and things like that, it looks even better as some kid watching the movie 10 years from now that decides to later join up would have cost a lot more than the current rates to recruit. But the movie is out there and will be watched for decades. Again, an absolute steal of a deal for the Department of Defense.
And, given the Department of Defense notes they have been struggling mightily in recent years to get the number of recruits they need, and thus having to continually increase advertising budgets and the like, this is potentially huge. As Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas of the Air Force Recruitment Service notes, “It’s a math problem. The national labor shortage is driving millions of unfilled jobs. The nation is bigger. The military is smaller. Few people today know someone who has served. Eligibility to serve has dropped to just 23 percent due to obesity, medical, or other issues, and less people are generally knowledgeable enough about the military to know what a great way of life serving in the military can be.”
Of course, this is only a steal of a deal if it actually causes people to sign up for the military. So, does it?
In most cases, this simply isn’t measurable in any definitive way. Despite studies attempting to do so such as Lindsay Varzarevsky’s 2022 Economics Thesis A Study of the Impact of US Department of Defense and Movie Industry Cooperation on Military Application Rates.
That said, in a case like Top Gun, this is often cited to be a rare example where the spike in recruitment after, especially for the U.S. Navy and Air Force, was so high that it’s just blatantly obvious… Except, as we alluded to at the beginning of this piece, while you’ll often read the Navy saw a 500% increase in recruits the year Top Gun came out… this isn’t accurate at all, nor in the years after. And the actual increase appears to have been only about 8% in the immediate. Which, to be fair, again given how much the Department of Defense spends on recruitment seems like a massive spike, and made Top Gun well worth their time even on year one.
…Except, here’s the thing, while recruitment did go up 8% as noted, what also went up was the Department of Defense’s spending on recruitment. In 1984, for example, it had a $13.1 million advertising budget, which then jumped to $19.9 million in 1985, and in 1986, when Top Gun came out in May of that year, it was at $31 million, more than double two years before and up 36% from the previous year. Which, again, saw an 8% increase… We should also probably point out here that the significant rise in recruitment trend had actually started in 1984, and 1986 and beyond for a bit was just a continuation of this trend.
Not just that, as reported in a 1986 edition of the New York Times covering U.S. Military recruitment, they also point out that the Navy had not just massively increased advertising year over year leading up to Top Gun, but also that year almost tripled the number of recruiters they had across the United States. They also began implementing a then new plan offering $18,800 for college for anyone who served two years plus another four in the reserves- again, all for an 8% total boost…
Further, for whatever it’s worth, as Air Force Recruiting Services spokesperson Leslie Brown states, at least on their end on any sort of spike from the original Top Gun, “We can’t find in the Air Force where that’s true.”
That said, it is pointed out that a positive perception of the military and soldiers is always going to help recruiting, whether this is measurable for a given outlet for that like Top Gun or not. And arguably the individuals who might have been most inspired by Top Gun to perhaps join the military would be children, with the effect not coming until potentially many years later and being effectively unmeasurable no matter how much you look at the data.
So this brings us back to the question- did the original Top Gun actually have any real effect on recruitment? Or was it just the increase in spending on recruitment and massive increase in recruiters and added benefits that did it? Or, going further, was it something of every business manager’s favorite term- “synergy” between the two?
For what it’s worth, anecdotal accounts from countless pilots who did sign up note their early interest in doing so came about from watching Top Gun. For example, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Air Forces Commander Ronald Flanders states, “If you talk to a lot of the senior pilots in the Navy today, the captains and admirals, many of them attribute their interest in naval aviation today to the original release of that film.”
Except it does beg the question of whether they perhaps were already interested in flying or the military or would have become anyway because of their inherent inclinations to such. And thus movies like Top Gun would naturally appeal to them, but even if it had not existed, they probably would have become interested in flying anyway and may have gone down the same path as the military is one of the best ways to even just become a commercial pilot someday.
Afterall, you’d perhaps have to be not the sharpest tool in the shed if you thought depictions in movies like Top Gun accurately represent what real life is like as a military pilot and want to join because of it. Which beyond ESPECIALLY in the original Top Gun countless things that would have seen you grounded permanently, such as the whole buzzing the tower thing, mostly life as a real military pilot is pretty mundane.
As former F/A-18 Weapons Systems Officer Joe Ruzicka states, “… if anyone were to make a movie about real-life jet jocks it would be boring as hell. The mundane outpaces the thrills by about 100 to 1. You think you get bored with your daily routine of eating, sleeping, and sitting behind a computer? Try doing it for seven months at a time while trapped on an aircraft carrier with 5,000 of your closest friends.”
Commander Ronald Flanders further chimes in of the reality of being a fighter pilot in today’s military, “Most of the aviation fighting is either providing ‘eyes in the sky’ or occasionally dropping bombs on target. Very little of it’s the glamorous air warfare you see in ‘Top Gun.’”
That’s not to mention that even the types of personalities depicted are the polar opposite of what, for example, the Top Gun program is looking for. As elaborated on by former Top Gun commanding officer, Christopher Papaioanu, “If they come in confident, overconfident and cocky, that’s not… a personality that you can make better…” They instead look for pilots who are, to quote, “humble, who can go do an event, make a big comeback, recognize that they’ve made some mistakes and be willing to critique themselves or allow us as instructors to make them better.”
Former Navy Instructor pilot Jim Guibault further states, “Nobody wants to risk their lives around a loose cannon, no matter how good they are at certain things. There’s even a term for this: NAFOD. No Apparent Fear Of Death. These are the ones who’ll get you killed with their recklessness.”
And, sadly, you’re almost never going to get a cool call sign like Iceman or Maverick either, with actual callsigns likely to be whatever the most embarrassing thing your fellow pilots can come up with about you or something they witnessed you do informing what your ultimate callsign will be, with many simply not family friendly to repeat. As former Navy pilot Chris Petrock succinctly states, “…the thing that locks in a call sign is if the guy doesn’t like it.” Or as the aforementioned Joe Ruzicka notes of the pilots in the Top Gun films, “the most attractive people in flight suits you’ve ever seen. Trust me on the last part: when you serve with guys who look like their callsigns — …Pigger, Butthead — no one would pull them out of central casting.”
Thus, again, all coming back to that it’s unlikely anyone is going to be truly convinced to enlist just because of something they saw in even the coolest of films like a Top Gun and the somehow even cooler Top Gun: Maverick, let alone other films the military supports that sometimes show the rather brutal side of real life deployment or fighting.
Thus, once again, while many a pilot or former pilot in some branch of the U.S. Military may have been of the so-called “Top Gun” generation and inspired by the film, it may well be that movies like Top Gun simply appealed to them because of their pre-existing inclinations and interests, and thus may have been likely to sign up anyway.
However, as alluded to, direct inspiration isn’t needed here to make these films a benefit to recruitment. There is something to be said for a general increase in public perception of the U.S. military and the benefits that it has indirectly on recruitment and the lives of the soldiers themselves. That’s not to mention even as something of a propaganda tool abroad, generally making the U.S. military look so dominant you’d not ever want to mess with them.
And, at least, for what it’s worth, the Department of Defense definitely thinks these sorts of films are both great for public perception of the military and great recruitment tools, worth making their equipment and personnel available for filming, so long as the military is painted in a reasonably positive light, and reasonably accurate to reality in terms of how personnel would conduct themselves, at least ideally given set policy.
Humans are going to human, of course, and like every job, there are people who do it well and people who don’t exactly live up to normal standards of conduct. Or sometimes just a seemingly systemic bit of bad behavior that needs corrected right quick, such as the Navy’s infamous Tailhook scandal, in which a group of Marines and Navy personnel allegedly sexually assaulted as many as 7 men and 83 women one night at a hotel in Las Vegas. Naturally, this resulted in some pretty sweeping and very long overdo and needed reforms. And, to their credit, in recent years the Department of Defense has supported some films and documentaries that depict such, as noted by the aforementioned Colonel Alan, “We’ve done projects like “The Invisible War,” a 2012 American documentary film about some difficult, tough subjects like sexual assault in the military. It’s not an easy thing to watch, and not an easy thing to talk about, but an important discussion.”
Speaking of rather uncomfortable topics, this brings us back to the benefits to the military on the public perception front, which depending on your particular viewpoint may constitute propaganda or not in a given case. As George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley points out, “propaganda denotes a certain product; a packaged news account or film developed by a government or an organization to shape opinion … yet this is not traditional propaganda since the military does not generate the product itself and does not compel others to produce it. Rather, it achieves the same result through indirect influence; securing tailored historical accounts by withholding important resources.”
Semantics aside, even if one does consider this pure propaganda, there is something to be said for countering negative perception often put forth by the news, which generally has little interest in balanced reporting, and is incentivized to report the bad actors and negative events in the military. For example, you’re not going to see on the evening news a story of a U.S. soldier saving some random life in some far away place, but rather you’ll hear about things like the Tailhook scandal or the atrocities committed by the U.S. in the Abu Ghraib prison and others during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The news is also more likely to report on things like suicide rates of soldiers, post traumatic stress disorders, subsequent alcohol and drug abuse, etc. rather than the number of soldiers who after completing their service use the self discipline and many skills they learned during their time in the military, along with potential provided educational funding, to go make a great life for themselves and their family directly because of their time in the military.
This negative side and controversy being more or less synonymous with News to get those sweet, sweet, clicks, instead of accurately portraying things in an objective manner overall. Thus, the military has a vested interest in getting a slightly more accurate, if also occasionally whitewashed on the other end of the spectrum, view of the reality of the military and life in it. As the aforementioned Liaison officer Todd Breasseale states of military support for films in this way, “There’s a lot to be said about the necessity to educate the American public about the military they’re paying for.”
That said, as noted by cinema studies and cultural theory professor Alissa Wilkinson, “In the future, when those involved have passed away and our cultural relationship to truth has only gotten more corrupted, how will we access the truth about the ethically murky wars of the past several decades? Even if we know the facts and the films differ, will we care? What does it mean if the military has the financial power to say what version of history gets made?”
Countering that, Breasseale argues, “There have been academics, very serious academics, who’ve written books about this sort of thing, who believe that any support whatsoever to the motion picture industry is necessarily propaganda. I just can’t get there. I can’t get my head around it, because it is not a black-and-white issue.”
Back again on the other side, showing his own concern, the aforementioned author David Robb states, “The military is part of the US government. In America we have the First Amendment, which prohibits government from favouring speech it likes, and not favouring speech it doesn’t like. You can’t reward somebody who makes a movie saying how great the American government is – and deny the same break to somebody criticising it. The military are not film-makers. They’re good at making war, and making weapons, but they’re not good at making movies. They don’t have a sense of humour and they don’t really even have a sense of their own history.”
Going back once again on the other side, and it’s noted that beyond any perception problem, asking any member of the military to portray their work and their fellow soldiers in a negative light, especially when talking historical things which may not be at all how the military does things these days, but nonetheless is going to cast themselves in a negative light in public perception anyway, isn’t exactly a fair ask on an individual level. Nor would many taxpayers be happy if their money is being used to paint the U.S. in a negative light, especially in many cases where it isn’t historic or accurate to reality and how the military would or did do things.
Once again as Breasseale said, “It is not a black-and-white issue.” Which, I think that is something we can all agree on. And indeed almost never is anything black and white, not even real world representations of the colors of black and white, with people literally working tirelessly to make blacker blacks and whiter whites on screens and in paints and the like.
So what do you think our abnormally attractive and scholarly audience? Is the U.S. military making their equipment and personnel available to film studios in the way they do and with the stipulations they do an acceptable use of taxpayer resources all things considered? Or should it not be allowed at all? Or perhaps allowed, but differently than the way they currently do it?
Inquiring minds want to know. What’s your opinion?
And while you’re contemplating that, how about some Bonus Top Gun Facts?
Despite having his pilot’s license since 1994, no- Tom Cruise did not get to fly any of the scenes he was in in the F/A-18, or even touch the controls at all other than the switch to activate the cameras the studio had installed. This is owing to Department of Defense rules that forbid, to quote, “non-military personnel from controlling a Defense Department asset other than small arms in training scenarios.” That said, he did get to fly in the scenes at the end, flying around in the WWII era few million dollar P-51 Mustang. As to why on this one, it’s because he’s an adult, and nobody could stop him…. because it is his plane. His Mustang was originally built in 1946, ultimately finding its way into life as a museum piece in Illinois before being restored in 1997 and purchased by Cruise in 2001. He’s been flying it ever since. No word on whether the studio compensated him on his flight hours on that one. Although, given his reported 10% cut of the gross of the film, which earned about $1.5 billion, we’re guessing either way he’s not having to eat Top Ramen, nor sell his Gulfstream IV jet, which apparently has a jacuzzi in it. Because why wouldn’t you have a jacuzzi in a jet? Maybe just no barrel rolls though…
Moving on from there, how about how realistic was it that Maverick absolutely destroyed his students in Top Gun: Maverick? Former Top Gun senior instructor Dave Berke rings in that this was very accurate as, “The most proficient instructor is significantly better than the most proficient student. Like a big, big, big difference.”
As for why, this just comes down to that the instructors practice the scenarios over time massively more than the pilots taking the extra training at the school. Former Top Gun instructor Guy Snodgrass also concurred stating even when he was being evaluated to become an instructor himself at Top Gun after graduating the course, he was likewise handily outmaneuvered and shot down by his instructor, and figured he did poorly on the tests because of it. But not so, with his evaluator stating to him after, “No one ever beats their instructor.” And where they felt he shined, and far more important to them, was his analysis of what he had done wrong and how he could improve next time. They were also in general evaluating his character and temperament in those defeats, all of which in his case were deemed ideal to become an instructor there. Once again illustrating the importance of finding pilots who are extremely teachable and willing to learn, rather than the more hotshot, overly confident Maverick types whose egos often get in the way of real improvement, and their rule breaking a major liability to their fellow servicemembers and respective missions.
Moving on from there, going back to the agreement between the U.S. Military and the studio for Top Gun: Maverick, if you know anything about the F-14 Tomcat, you’re probably wondering where they got a flying one given the U.S. Military doesn’t have any of that amazing jet anymore. And, indeed, nobody has a flying one except for Iran, which owing to sanctions, the film studio could not pursue an agreement to use a working one. So, how did the studio handle all this for the film? In the agreement it states that the F-14 shown during the ground scenes was borrowed from the The National Naval Aviation Museum, and that they approved “repaint the aircraft with NNAM approved paint scheme, remove ejection seats for on-stage filming, and conduct maintenance to power aircraft to have control panel and exterior lights operational in support of filming… All costs related to transporting, painting and maintenance are the Production Company’s sole expense.” And if you’re wondering here, the flight shots in the film showing the F-14 were, sadly, thus all computer generated.Expand for References
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