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zero dark thirty, top gun, and me

I’ve already got my ticket: this evening I’ll be seeing Zero Dark Thirty, the latest film by one of my favorite directors, Kathryn Bigelow.

There’s a movie out there for which I have a hatred out of proportion to the film’s quality or lack of same. On the Internet Movie Database, Top Gun has an average rating of 6.7/10 from IMDB users. My rating? 3/10. You know how we get frustrated when we go to the movie theater and have to sit through advertisements (and I don’t mean trailers) before the movie starts? Well, from my perspective, Top Gun is nothing more than a commercial for the U.S. Navy. This didn’t just happen … the makers of Top Gun got plenty of help. From Wikipedia:

The producers wanted the assistance of the United States Navy in production of the film. The U.S. Navy was influential in relation to script approval, which saw changes being made. The opening dogfight was moved to international waters as opposed to Cuba, the language was toned down, and a scene that involved a crash on the deck of an aircraft carrier was also scrapped. Maverick's love interest was also changed from a female enlisted member of the Navy to a civilian contractor with the Navy, due to the U.S. Department of Defense's prohibition of fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel. …

The Navy made available several aircraft from F-14 fighter squadron VF-51 Screaming Eagles (which Tom Skerritt mentions in the scene at his home) for the film. … Shots of the aircraft carrier sequences were filmed aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), showing aircraft from F-14 squadrons VF-114 Aardvarks and VF-213 Black Lions. …

A motion picture producer, John Davis, claimed that "Top Gun was a recruiting video for the Navy. It really helped their recruiting. People saw the movie and said, 'Wow! I want to be a pilot.'"

The United States Navy stated that after the release of the film that the number of young men who enlisted, wanting to be Naval aviators, went up by 500 percent.

Of course, Top Gun was not the first movie to be made with the approval of the military. But it must have been clear from the start that the Navy had nothing to worry about; the filmmakers wanted to make a pro-Navy film from the start.

I agree that Top Gun is an effective movie. But by effective, most people mean “works as a movie”, while I mean “works as a recruitment advertisement”, which is not the same thing.

Whatever … you might think I’m full of shit about this. I’ve been told that, on more than one occasion. The main point to take from this is that I find Top Gun objectionable for reasons that are not just because of what I see on the screen.

Apparently, a lot of people feel the same way about Zero Dark Thirty. Somehow this film has become a talking point prior to its release, mostly from people who haven’t actually seen the movie. Once I’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty, I might join the chorus of those who think it promotes a particular way of thinking, although since I think Bigelow is a very good director and thought Tony Scott was something less than very good, it’s likely I’ll prefer Zero Dark Thirty over Top Gun on artistic grounds, if nothing else. But I’m going to see the movie before I examine the film’s politics.

And what if I find Zero Dark Thirty objectionable? Will I be sorry, then, that I spent my money on the enterprise?

Let’s put it this way. I really don’t like Top Gun. But I’ve seen it several times. The first time, I found out I hated it. The other times, I’ve shown it in college courses. Because Top Gun is an excellent movie to analyze, because the context of the film is ripe for examination, because I like being challenged by students who don’t share my opinion about the film.

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