‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Is Just a High-Budget Military Recruitment Tool

Amid the recent mass shootings, the movie sticks to its roots in glorifying guns and fighter jets.


On May 24, the same day the blockbuster “military-entertainment complex” film Top Gun: Maverick came out, a man shot and killed nineteen students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

As a society, we’re obsessed with gratuitous violence in films like Maverick while being horrified by mass shootings like those in Uvalde and Buffalo, New York. And while excessive gun violence in media is only loosely connected to gun violence in real life, it does reflect the particularly American obsession with guns and might to some extent explain how they’ve become so entrenched in our national psyche. 

The military-industrial complex is again hoping for a surge in interest inspired by this new film. As in 1986, recruitment booths are being set up in theater lobbies to draw in a new generation.

A recent review in The New Yorker claims that Maverick is defined by a “perfect substancelessness.” That’s true, but only if we ignore all of the guns.

As a fourteen-year-old in 1986, I went with my father to see the original Top Gun, which featured a twenty-four-year-old Tom Cruise. But now Cruise is fifty-nine, and something is off. Why is he so teary-eyed? Why does he keep running full-tilt, for no reason? And why can’t I enjoy a Top Gun movie the way I used to?

The original Top Gun film served as a huge recruitment tool for the U.S. military. In a time when sign-ups had been down following the negative public view of the recently ended war in Vietnam, Navy and Air Force recruiters rejoiced at the boom in young men wanting to become fighter pilots. In 1986, a naval recruiter told the Los Angeles Times that about 90 percent of applicants said they had seen the movie. Now, the military-industrial complex is again hoping for a surge in interest inspired by this new film. As in 1986, recruitment booths are being set up in theater lobbies to draw in a new generation.

However, thirty-six years later, the film’s somber subtext is the feeling that the United States is in decline. When a commanding officer warns Cruise’s character, “Your kind is headed for extinction,” he responds, “Maybe so, sir. But not today.” The audience is moved to root for Cruise, as for our nation. But are we rooting for those leading this country to annihilation?

Also sensed between the lines of the film is suicide, which comprises the majority of U.S. gun deaths. The film is dedicated to Tony Scott, director of the first Top Gun, who died in 2012 by jumping from a Los Angeles bridge while battling cancer. Suicide in the United States increased by 30 percent from 2000 to 2016, and in 2019, it was the tenth-leading cause of death, a trend that is echoed in the military.

In 2021, the Army saw its highest rates of active-duty suicide since 2001, and among veterans, there was an average of 17.4 suicides per day in 2019. Yet the movie does not share information about Scott’s suicide or provide access to suicide prevention resources (nor mention the national hotline number 1-800-273-8255, nor the new three-digit emergency number 988, which is scheduled to go into effect on July 16, 2022).

Even diseases such as cancer, the second-leading cause of U.S. deaths, can be linked to militarism and nuclear weapons. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fallout from testing in the 1940s and 1950s has been linked to an “increased risk of cancer” in the U.S. population. The study found that “​​any person living in the contiguous United States since 1951 has been exposed to some radioactive fallout.”

But the most anachronous scrap of violence in Maverick is the emission of carbon. As fires burn and floods inundate the United States, which spent $170 million on this film, our youth reckon with a future containing not just the threat of nuclear annihilation, but also the certainty of scorching temperatures and rising seas. 

From watching this movie, you’d never know that climate change is our reality. One scene shows a flock of birds startled by the roaring jets. In other scenes, the camera lingers on the jets’ afterburners. In the most intense sequences of the film, engine failure means death, so the audience inevitably hopes that the fuel will keep burning.

Top Gun: Maverick encourages us to embrace flashy military hardware as necessary for our personal safety. Deep down, though, we know that the real threat is this culture of militarism that kills with guns, despair, and toxic pollution.

This story was published by The Progressive Magazine.