Tom Cruise’s latest movie, a sequel to his classic 1986 action pic, Top Gun, is finally getting a release later this month after delays related to the covid-19 pandemic. But Cruise, who’s now 59 years old, felt very different about doing a sequel to the film back in 1990. In fact, Cruise said making a sequel would be “irresponsible” and suggested any continuation of the story could be interpreted as pro-war propaganda.
Cruise made the comments in an interview with Playboy magazine for the January 1990 issue, while promoting his then-new film Born on the Fourth of July. That movie, directed by Oliver Stone, was an anti-war statement that seemed to clash ideologically with Top Gun, something the Playboy interviewer pointed out.
But Cruise was clearly ready for the question and believed Top Gun’s cartoonish artifice was clear. The actor did, however, draw a line at doing a sequel.
Playboy: [Born on the Fourth of July] is also the flip side of Top Gun, which is essentially war by Nintendo game and a paean to blind patriotism.
Cruise: OK, 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.
Cruise notes that “some people” felt Top Gun was a promotion for the Navy, but it quite literally was. The film received assistance from the U.S. Navy from its inception and the script was approved by the Pentagon, as we know from books like Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film by Lawrence Suid.
But many readers of this interview in 1990 may not have been aware of the military’s intimate involvement in the movie. And, even if they were, Cruise was still going to pretend like Top Gun was a story that was responsible for a huge uptick in kids signing up to be fighter pilots.
Playboy: Is Born a redemption of Top Gun?
Cruise: They are to different things. Top Gun is a joy ride and shouldn’t be looked at beyond that. Born is about real people and real events. Top Gun should be looked at as going on Space Mountain—it’s like a simple fairy tale.
But the interviewer wouldn’t let Cruise off that easy.
Playboy: A lot of boys have gone off to war to that kind of drumbeat. That is the history of war—young, callow kids marching off to a fairy-tale glory as in Top Gun.
Cruise: Think of that: I am totally responsible for World War Three [laughs]! Come on. Let’s look at the reality of what I am saying—where my beliefs lie. I didn’t have anything riding on Top Gun. The fact is, I really want people to see Born on the Fourth of July—it’s a movie that had to be made.
As Suid points out in his book, the producers of Top Gun met with military leaders at the Pentagon in early June of 1983, long before they even had a script. The producers, including action movie legend Jerry Bruckheimer, pitched the basic idea for Top Gun and the brass at the Pentagon loved it. The military received total veto power over the script and the producers in turn received access to incredibly advanced weapons of war that would’ve been difficult to reproduce effectively and economically with the relatively primitive special effects of the early 1980s.
Top Gun producers gained access to aircraft carriers the USS Enterprise and the USS Ranger, along with incredibly expensive F-14 jets, with the military charging Paramount Pictures for the fuel alone.
What got cut from Top Gun? According to Suid, an early version of the screenplay had Tom Cruise’s love interest as a naval officer. That character, played by Kelly McGillis, was turned into a civilian astrophysicist at the Navy’s request. The filmmakers also scrapped a scene showing U.S. aircraft “flying after MIGs over land of the fictional foreign country,” another thing with which the Pentagon took issue.
Not only did the Navy receive a pro-military film at a time when movies more critical of the establishment were popular in the wake of Vietnam—like Apocalypse Now (1979), Rambo: First Blood (1982), and Platoon (1986)—the military also got a huge boost in interest from kids looking to sign up for real warfare by enlisting in the armed services. Military recruiters even set up enlistment booths at movie theaters, according to an article from Time magazine in 1986.
But where does all of that leave this Top Gun sequel, known as Top Gun: Maverick, which will hit theaters on May 27? Cruise started receiving criticism for the Top Gun sequel as early as the summer of 2019, when the first trailer for the film hit the web. Viewers noticed that Maverick’s jacket no longer had a Taiwanese flag, an obvious concession to China, the world’s biggest cinema market. And whatever Cruise’s hesitation to create a pro-military film in 1990 that could lead to increased recruitment, he clearly doesn’t feel that way anymore.
“I wasn’t ready to make a sequel until we had a special story worthy of a sequel and technology evolved so that we could delve deeper into the experience of a fighter pilot,” Cruise says in a new promo for the film uploaded to YouTube by Paramount Pictures.
“We worked with the Navy and the Top Gun school to formulate how to shoot it practically. Because if we’re going to do it, we’re flying the F-18s,” Cruise continues as viewers see footage of the planes zooming by like a Navy commercial.
That YouTube video has over 4.3 million views and Cruise clearly has a different attitude about it all now. And don’t be surprised if you see military recruiters camped outside the theater when you buy your ticket for Top Gun: Maverick. There really is nothing new under the sun.