One of the biggest money-making films of all time was also one of the best recruiting tools the military has ever had for swelling the ranks of those in uniform.
Top Gun was the highest grossing movie of 1986. Box office revenues topped more than $176 million but, more important, the film showed that it was cool to be in the military. Commander Marion R. Edwards, the late father of one of my oldest friends and a naval flight officer for 23 years, was quick to point out the functional flaws of the film. Buzzing the control tower, for instance, would cost you your wings, yet Maverick (Tom Cruise) does it twice with no repercussions.
Despite Commander Edwards' warnings that life as a naval aviator would not be what Hollywood made it out to be, it did not stop me, and thousands of others, from pursuing a career in the Navy. A combination of poor eyesight and arthritis eventually kept me from joining, but the seed had been planted.
In 1985 the number of uniformed personnel in the armed services was 2.15 million. A year after Top Gun was released that number had increased by more than 20,000 across all services. The Navy saw an increase from 571,000 uniformed personnel in 1985 to almost 587,000 at the end of FY 1987. The numbers were up for the Air Force and Marines as well. Only the Army's numbers were relatively flat for the time period.
National media also noted Top Gun's effect on recruiting. The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather wasted no time in reporting how the movie had impacted the number of enlistees that were joining when the movie ruled the box office.
Twenty years later the military needs another Top Gun to help recruiting efforts. With nightly news reports bringing home images of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, young people are more reluctant to enlist than in years past. The news images from Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the fact that Hollywood has failed to produce a top notch "recruiting" film since Top Gun, makes persuading young people to volunteer that much harder.
A superb film like Black Hawk Down (produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who also made Top Gun) may make people feel good about the honor, courage, valor, commitment, and dedication of the fighting men and women of our armed forces, but it doesn't exactly leave an impressionable 18-year-old wanting to go to the local recruiting office and sign up. For those arguing that war movies in wartime cannot be an effective recruiting tool, just turn back the clock to 1944 when The Fighting Seabees, starring John Wayne, was released. That movie depicted fighting conditions in the harsh Pacific Theater and reflected safety concerns the film's characters had about operating in a combat zone.
A Hollywood blockbuster that projects the image that military service is cool and rewarding will serve the interests of the nation by attracting talented individuals to volunteer. Audiences would flock to a film in which a hip actor such as Brad Pitt or George Clooney, in a military role, makes use of the latest technology to perhaps rescue a woman or a group of American tourists from terrorists; but a remake of a box office bomb such as 1986's The Delta Force or 1996's Executive Decision should be avoided.
There was death in the fantasy world of Top Gun: Goose, Maverick's radar intercept officer, was killed. But the image of Maverick flying a fast jet, shooting down the enemy in a dogfight, and getting the girl was marketable because it was what every teenage boy (this writer included) wanted in 1986. If Hollywood had a movie on the shelf for 2006 that produced an image that made young people as enthusiastic about military service as Top Gun did, then such a film, combined with a solid integrated marketing communications plan, would help recruiters meet their goals and would help send talented and enthusiastic recruits to serve their country.
Whether or not recruiting goals are met will be based largely on a public perception grounded in the image of what military service is all about. Another Top Gun could provide much support in building a positive image of military life during a time of great need for our nation's recruiters.
Dr. Parker is an assistant professor of marketing and advertising at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.