We spoke to the Pentagon about Top Gun: Maverick and the military film business
Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. PHOTO CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Paramount+
Top Gun: Maverick, The The hugely successful action film starring Tom Cruise has been nominated for Oscars in six categories at this Sunday’s Oscars.
While the film is filled with nostalgic nods to its predecessor and touching moments between pilots across generations, its slick and suspenseful flight sequences are what stays consistent impressed critics. These sequences — along with the film’s use of naval equipment and accurate depictions of naval uniforms and behavior — were made possible thanks to a partnership with the Department of Defense Entertainment Media Office, operating for nearly 100 years. Invented made up of experts, technicians, historians and military personnel, the office supports projects that are either military-focused or have military elements.
learn more about it Top Gun: Maverick and the business of making military films in general, we spoke to three people who work in and with the bureau: Glen Roberts, head of entertainment at the DOD and former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Alan Ortiz, Deputy Chief of Bureau and former Army National Guard Captain, and David Daitch, a former senior Navy Lieutenant Commander who worked on the film as a Navy advisor.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Which projects does the DOD support?
Roberts: Our mission is to inform and educate the American people about the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Defense and the Armed Forces. It also serves to project and protect the image in the entertainment field, which includes movies, scripted television, series television, game shows, reality shows, sporting events, talk shows, contests and even video games. 80% of the projects we work on are not scripted.
Ortiz: In this office we traditionally try to find balance. Just because a story has a negative outcome doesn’t mean we don’t tell it or make an effort to tell an important piece of history. We’ve done projects like The Invisible War, a 2012 American documentary about some tough, tough issues like sexual assault in the military. It’s not easy to watch and it’s not easy to talk about, but it’s an important discussion.
What is the approval process when a film wants to work with the DOD?
Ortiz: There’s really no hard-and-fast equation when it comes to determining whether the DOD will support a given project, but there are some core requirements that production must meet. The main thing we look for is verifiable proof of funding and distribution.
Roberts: We don’t support shows that present storylines that go against military policy. For example, There’s a show on TV that shows uniformed men and women conducting law enforcement activities, like kicking down doors and arresting drug dealers – we don’t support that particular show because it violates the Posse Comitatus Act, which states that US military personnel in active… Service are not conducting domestic law enforcement.
Where does the DOD get money to work on projects such as Top Gun: Maverick?
Roberts: All DOD support for film production is provided at no cost to the taxpayer. This includes everything from travel, flight times of any kind, vehicle times and fuel for vehicles used. It’s a very broad range of fees to ensure the taxpayer doesn’t foot the bill for a private company. So this bill goes to the studios.
Daitch: There are two ways to pay for things like the aerial sequences in the films. One is that it was a pre-existing evolution, and we just said so [the Paramount crew] to film it since it was already going to happen. The other is, if they had a very specific request that couldn’t be achieved through training, then we actually gave [Paramount] an invoice for the flight hours.
There are videos on YouTube of fighter pilots looking at the stuff and criticizing it Top Gun: Mavericks Training and fight scenes, basically pointing out what is realistic and what takes artistic liberties. How does the DOD care about realism when working with Hollywood?
Ortiz: We look for appropriate authenticity in every production we support when it comes to screenplay productions. Obviously with unscripted [projects,] that is different. But we try to get as close to him as possible. We truly strive to tell that story and to articulate, project and protect the image of the US military and the men and women who serve.
Roberts: We’re really trying to make sure we stay within the bounds of integrity, but we’re totally fine with fictitious approaches. We work with Marvel films – there is no Hulk, there is no Thor, Captain Marvel or Iron Man, but we still love to support these films. We are genuinely committed to ensuring the integrity of the institution as a whole.
Daitch: When we present a fight, we want to make sure it’s as accurate as possible while also making sure we’re not giving away anything secret. We fully understand that this is a product designed for entertainment and it often means you need to speed up sequences – we understand we are not making a documentary here.
The very first film to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture –Wing, in 1929 – was also a collaboration between Hollywood and the DOD. What do you think is the enduring appeal of war films?
Roberts: It’s such a rich tapestry of environments, rich stories with incredible tales of heroism, loss and sacrifice, and I just don’t think it ever gets old. There are 1.2 million people in the Department of Defense; that’s 1.2 million stories, each unique and individual in their own way.
Ortiz: The gap between civilians and military has only widened, so some of the interest may come from an American audience where fewer and fewer Americans know anyone who has served. And so there’s an appeal for people who serve, and people want to know more about what it’s like to be a fighter pilot or what’s going on in a submarine.
Is “air combat football” in Top Gun: Maverick a real thing in the navy? If yes, please explain the rules!
Daitch: I had never heard of it before the film. In many ways I understand the concept of it – it’s attack and defense at the same time, like in chess when you decide to add a physical element. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it came from Tom [Cruise]joe [Kosinski, the director,] and Chris [McQuarrie, one of the film’s producers].
All other fun facts about the making of Top Gun: Maverick?
Daitch: In the end [of the movie] is the P-51 [Mustang]– this is the old airplane from the second world war. This is Tom’s personal plane and he flies it all the time, and he actually flew it for the film. He is an incredibly accomplished aviator. Also, there are many crew members who actually worked on the original [movie] at the beginning of their careers, and this is how they end them.