The Pentagon Goes Hollywood

Filmmakers and the military enjoy a profitable partnership

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The Tom Cruise film Top Gun, about U.S. Navy pilots training to be "the best of the best," had all the ingredients for a hit: a brash beefcake hero and a gorgeous, throaty-voiced heroine (Kelly McGillis), a pop-music sound track and MTV-style visual pyrotechnics. But the truly impressive stars of the film are its sleek, roaring fighter jets. Featured in thrilling aerial sequences, they make modern-day dogfights seem like the ultimate video game.

The high-flying hardware turns Top Gun into a 110-minute commercial for the Navy -- and it was the Navy's cooperation that put the planes in the picture. The producers paid the military $1.8 million for the use of Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego, four aircraft carriers and about two dozen F-14 Tomcats, F-5 Tigers and A-4 Skyhawks, some flown by real-life top-gun pilots. Without such billion-dollar props, the producers would have spent an inordinate amount of time and money searching for substitutes, and might not have been able to make the movie at all.

The partnership has been profitable for both Hollywood and the Pentagon. Top Gun, which has raked in $160 million so far at the box office, is the year's highest-grossing film. Its glorified portrayal of Navy life spurred theater owners in such cities as Los Angeles and Detroit to ask the Navy to set up recruiting exhibits outside cinemas where Top Gun was playing to sign up the young moviegoers intoxicated by the Hollywood fantasy.

Such is the way that moviemakers and the military do business together. The combination of Top Gun's box-office success and America's current mood of gung-ho patriotism has sent studios scrambling to produce war movies: the Pentagon is currently reviewing more than 200 screenplays. Says Los Angeles- based Navy Liaison Officer Sandra Stairs: "I've seen ten times more scripts now than in the previous two years." Each of the four services, as well as the Coast Guard, maintains a liaison office in Los Angeles to handle requests for everything from old uniforms to tanks. The Pentagon, says Donald Baruch, special assistant for audiovisual media, "couldn't buy the sort of publicity films give us."

But there is a catch. Before a producer receives military assistance for a TV or movie project, the screenplay is reviewed by officials at the Department of Defense and by each of the services involved. The Pentagon ends up rejecting many projects that come its way on the grounds that they distort military life and situations. An Officer and a Gentleman, which like Top Gun dealt with naval aviation training, was turned down because of its rough language, steamy sex and, to the military mind, inaccurate view of boot camp. The Pentagon said no to WarGames because the military contends that a teenage computer hacker could never crack the U.S. strategic defense system. Even Rambo's lone-wolf heroics would have failed to pass muster, despite later praise from President Reagan. The Pentagon guidelines do not condone "activities by individuals . . . which are properly the actions of the U.S. Government."

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