Top Gun: Combat on the Screen and the Reality of a High-Stakes Dogfight

Top Gun was first released in 1986. Right away audiences were captivated at how combat dogfights were depicted on the big screen. The movie shows fighter jets making a range of maneuves and pilots navigating combat with a seemingly hostile nation. The hostile jets shoot down the F-18 and F-14 Tomcats in the film and raise the stakes of the story as the MiGs seem to pose a real challenge to the US Navy. Towards the end of the original Top Gun a number of American naval fighters are shot down while other pilots important to the story come to their rescue. The main character of the story looses friends as pilots are killed through the events of the film.

Top Gun

Top Gun: Maverick released in 2022 moves things forward in several ways. An adversary that has advanced fifth-generation fighter jets is depicted in the story. These special aircraft have a blend of things to showcase that makes them like nothing else in the sky. The F-22 Raptor for example can turn, navigate and target approaching aircraft like no other advanced fighter. However, fifth generation aircraft are depicted in Top Gun: Maverick that pose a threat. The characters meet these aircraft and are left outmatched by jets from a foreign country that goes unnamed through the film. The red star on their wings is a tiny clue.

Films like Top Gun are specialised. They have a specific topic in mind for their audience. They expose the audience to the experience of being in the air from the view of the pilot. Dogfights are more frequently depicted involving World War Two aircraft that fly with propeller engines. In comparison, F-14s and newer F-22s and F-35s are fast and target with missiles able to fly great distances, in some cases even at supersonic speeds. As a result, movies like Top Gun use modern aircraft to ask an interesting question to their audience. What could modern fighter jet combat look like and where is it most likely to take place next?

The Current Generation of Fighter Jets

Top Gun
Image (Credit: jeffholy)

In 2013 two Iranian F-4 Phantoms attempted to intercept a US predator drone doing surveillance work. Little did they realise the drone was being escorted by two F-22 Raptors. The Raptors managed to sneak up on the Phantoms, inspect whether they were armed before surprising them by breaking radio silence. “You really ought to go home” the US fighter pilot exclaimed over the radio to have the two Iranian Phantom pilots react in shock. The incident is not surprising as F-22s come with a slick design that means they avoid radar. Engaging from the direction of the sun means they can move in without being spotted. While the Iranian Air Force still has a number of old aircraft, countries like Russia and People’s Republic of China are modernising and catching up with the United States.

Fifth generation fighter jets come with a certain degree of stealth, advanced avionic capabilities, and the ability to evade radar. The design of the J-20 includes a large missile payload to make its role dynamic. The Chinese J-20 was designed to compete with an F-22 in many respects. Its wing design and engine have raised questions about whether the aircraft was made with the American fighter jet in mind. In contrast, the development for the Russian T-50 PAK FA began in March 2007. The fighter was designed to have a number of automated features to assist in targeting, flight and navigation that advance on MiG aircraft. These Chinese and Russian aircraft were made following the release of the F-22. The Chinese J-20, the Russian T-50, and the American made F-22 and F-35 are fifth generation fighter jets.

Top Gun

In the beginning of Top Gun: Maverick we hear two new aircraft mentioned. One of those aircraft is the F-35. At present, only the United States, Japan, and Italy can assemble the F-35. The parts for this plane are sourced from several countries all of which are allies to the United States. The F-35 was designed to take off vertically like a Harrier Jump Jet. While the F-22 Raptor is still faster than the F-35, the F-35 is more multipurpose. The number of weapons that the F-35 has is greater than the F-22. The F-35 is in many respects a flying computer which means it can connect imagery with radar to find its enemy and hit a range of different targets. The F-22 and F-35 both have unique roles to play. The F-35 for instance was not designed to engage in close contact dogfights. The F-22, however, is.

The second new aircraft we hear about in Top Gun: Maverick is an aircraft that goes without a name. We are told it is a fifth-generation fighter. We are told that it is superior to the F-18 which will be used by the US Navy in the mission the pilots have to complete. Just like the Iranian Phantoms, an F-18 has little chance against a fifth-generation fighter jet. A similar situation exists for Japan and the United States as they adjust their deployment of F-15s to F-22 Raptors on the island of Okinawa. The advancement of China’s fighter jets means that a fifth-generation fighter is needed to keep China in check should a J-20 fly into Japanese airspace. But in Top Gun: Maverick, it is not clear who the enemy is exactly.

The Enemy in Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun
Image (Credit: jeffholy)

Josh Rottenberg, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2022, attempted to answer the question of who exactly the enemy is in Top Gun: Maverick. In his mind, due to the movie featuring fifth-generation fighters it must involve a country with these fighters. That shortens the list, as China and Russia are the only two countries that have these fighters and are not allies of the United States. While I mentioned the red star on the wings of the fighters as a potential clue, the sign if you pay close attention is not consistent throughout the film. The enemy fighter that Maverick flies at the end of the movie does not have the same markings as the other aircraft. Thus I think that some of the enemy fighters are from one country and others from another. Two countries working together.

On top of this, Russia and China both already have nuclear weapons so a mission to take out a nuclear enrichment facility doesn’t seem reasonable. The United States would be more interested in flying such a mission against a country like Iran or North Korea. Tom Cruise’s character Maverick ends up stealing an F-14 from the enemy fighter base in order to escape. The country with a large number of F-14s is Iran. The Imperial Republic of Iran Air Force brought a number of F-14s back when the United States and Iran were allies prior to the Iranian Revolution in the 1980s. North Korea has no F-14s. This leads me to disagree with the conclusion that it must be Russia or China who are the enemy. The enemy in this case is, in spite of the fifth generation fighters being present, actually Iran.

Top Gun
Image (Credit: Misuo WU)

So how does the enemy being Iran explain the fifth-generation fighters? One possible explanation is that Russia or China have come to a deal with Iran to assist in the protection of their nuclear enrichment facility. Russia, having been sanctioned following the invasion of Ukraine, seems like a contender who would benefit from uranium in exchange for providing fifth generation fighters to assist. The confusion when Maverick steals the F-14 in the movie amongst the fifth-generation fighters also supports the theory that two nations are working together. The Russian fighter pilots are not sure if the rogue F-14 is Iranian pilots or the American pilots who were shot down. The enemy pilots see Maverick without his eyes covered and do not immediately shoot him down. Maverick must look as they do. The enemy, therefore, is not North Korea with Chinese fighters.

While the snow and trees may suggest that the end of Top Gun: Maverick takes place in Russia, it also snows in Iran. According to the director of the movie when interviewed by the New York Times, the enemy was intended to be ambiguous and a mystery. This was done intentionally as the film had impressive ticket sales internationally. Having a mystery enemy also meant avoiding the films script being bogged down with political discussions. While the movie may not be explicit, the country that they are attacking in the end of the movie is Iran assisted by Russian fighter jets. This is the explanation that makes the most sense, in spite of all the mystery and secrecy in the movie. But what about a real conflict?

The Reality of the Danger Zone

Top Gun
Image (Credit: jeffholy)

The Taiwan Strait is a major hot spot as China continues to use a range of fighter jets to test Taiwanese and Japanese airspace. 2023 was a record year for China flying its fighters near Taiwan in the lead-up to the presidential election on the island. China regularly does this in order to effect the election in their favour and embarrass the Democratic Progressive Party who have consistently held the presidency. The opposing KMT party has strong ties to the People’s Republic of China and wants to strengthen the relationship with China and keep Taiwan in the fold with its neighbour. China maintains that Taiwan is a part of China where in reality Taiwan is a nation-state with its own political system, elected leader and constitution.

One possibility is that F-22 Raptors will be forced to take action in the Indo-Pacific if China takes more extreme actions towards Taiwan. A situation where China looks to cut off and invade the Matsu islands, a small group of islands part of Taiwan situated close to China, could spark a wider conflict. China may choose to take more extreme action and begin attacking shipping in the Taiwan Strait creating a mess that F-22s and F-35s would have to come in and sort out by keeping China in check and not letting its fighters run rogue. A situation like this would become complex very quickly, as Japan has islands like Okinawa situated close to Taiwan. Shipping within the region would be impacted quickly and the United States would have to respond. This would put American fighter jets to the test.

F-22 vs Chinese J-20 | Fighter Pilot Reacts
A former US fighter pilot compares the F-22 with the Chinese J-20

In the original Top Gun movie in 1986, we are left with some pretty rosy pictures of how conflict takes place. The staff of the aircraft carrier and the pilots who make it back celebrate that they were able to intimidate the foreign fighters to leave. The fact that pilots lost their lives is lost on the audience and the story only really dwells on the death of Maverick’s co-pilot, while the death of others is brushed to one side as the events of the movie unfold. Top Gun is suited for an imaginary conflict because its events do not mirror what a real conflict would be like. Top Gun: Maverick takes this further with older F-14s and F-18s going head to head against advanced enemy fighters without getting a scratch. It may be enjoyable for audiences but in reality events like this will escalate rather than end the conflict.

F-22s may have maneuverability and speed that give them an advantage but the Chinese J-20 has a greater payload which means it may have more opportunities to hit its targets. While the F-35 does have advanced radar that will allow for tracking of enemy fighters and spot approaching fighters ahead of time, it may not always win out against J-20 fighters. The events of Top Gun in a way create an illusion that American fighters will always win. But a situation where China looks to act more and more aggressively towards Taiwan will mean China may inflict as much harm as possible on foreign jets to get them to back down and leave. The conflict will continue for years and any finite deployment of fighters, in Okinawa or elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, that gets involved in the conflict could find itself quickly strained. Any conflict will be messy.

The Next Enemy for a New Top Gun

Top Gun
Image (Credit: Ridwan Chandra – MeganeRid)

In the middle of January 2024, Screen Rant reported that a third Top Gun movie was in the works. The success of Top Gun: Maverick got the attention of moviemakers meaning that the project has already picked up a studio. While a new Top Gun movie now seems likely, where will the movie be set and what will be the situation that requires Maverick’s pilot skills once more. The project is said to have a potential plot that has to do with proving that real pilots are better than drone pilots. Meanwhile, Chinese audiences have taken such an interest in the Top Gun franchise that the movie Born to Fly was released in 2022 involving Chinese fighter pilots.

Born to Fly

Born to Fly showcases a number of fictional advanced fighters and the struggle the pilots go through while testing these new aircraft and showing their limits. The movie comes off as a propaganda piece and patriotic. It had mixed reviews after its release, with The Guardian stating that “this is less a movie, more a flying foreign policy document”. The movie is soaked in messaging about China testing its limits and clawing its way back from the inferiority it had during World War Two. In the end, the movie feels like it is suited for a Chinese audience.

One aspect of the movie that got a lot of international attention is how towards the end of the movie Chinese pilots are seen facing American pilots and prevailing. The pilots fly out in J-20 fighter jets to intercept American aircraft only to warn them and have the American F-35s turn around and go home. The movie Born to Fly is an awkward watch at best. As tempting as it may be to look for a new enemy for a new Top Gun movie, Born to Fly shows how that will alienate key international audiences and portray an image of conflict being an inevitability between the United States and China. Scholars of International Relations like Alexander Wendt point out that conflict is a socially made phenomena where the citizens of nations build in their minds the idea to go to war. But power struggles and identity differences are not inevitably linked to conflict like Born to Fly suggests.

Top Gun movies are not designed to be political in a way that reflects reality on the battlefield. Top Gun: Maverick stuck with an imaginary enemy and the next Top Gun movie will likely do the same. A shift to focusing on a real conflict not only makes the movie more of a propaganda pamphlet but it also imbeds in the mind of the audience that conflict is on the way. That is a dangerous message for a Hollywood movie to send as it has the potential to build the idea of going to war for the audience. Top Gun films should instead focus on shaping a story that creates a sense of discovery for the characters rather than as a tool to tell a story about an existing conflict. Playing off a potential reality where China and the United States are in conflict in film will help socially reinforce the idea that this will happen at some point. Be careful what you wish for in front of your audience.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Ronald

    The thing about these action movies, no matter which country they are from, is that they are candy for the masses. The films are the equivalent to junk TV, junk news and are like junk food. They are there to stir up and profit from basic instincts, feelings and in many cases prejudices. That however is the nature of the beast.

  2. wilzo

    Chinese cinema is becoming like a chaperoned disco: it seems to offer all the sights and sounds, but ultimately its all safe, unambiguous, PG-rated, sexless and ethically unchallenging.

    • Janae

      Yes. Look at The Great Wall: some spectacular visuals, but all of the Chinese heroes are so endlessly brave and noble that there’s never a sense that they face complex decisions or personal demons, or all of the other human frailties that have been making heroes compelling for at least as long as we’ve had Odysseus and Aeneas.

      • angel

        There are plenty of interesting and talented Chinese filmmakers: if the CCP really wanted to foster a film industry that shows China in a positive light, they’d support them in creating a much more diverse range of films of ideas and art and all the stuff that shows how lively and complicated and varied and exciting the country is.

  3. Joselyn

    It’s all about the soundtrack!

  4. Kale

    It’s difficult to not give Top Gun the very narrowest of recommendations because it contains the awesome spectacle of the fighter jets, accompanied by a great sound design. It also has a good soundtrack perfect for this type of action film which I suppose is why it is so memorable. However, I can’t imagine it stands up very well to repeat viewing. I watched it for the first time a few months ago and found he dialogue almost criminally corny, the acting hammy, set against a vapid storyline. The less said about the editing of the aerial combat action sequences the better. Right up to the last afterburner I was left feeling enervated instead of invigorated.

    • thomas

      Seen it at least four times, terrific escapist entertainment. Couldnt give a damn if its politically incorrect

  5. Pamela

    I pity the fool who doesn’t like Top Gun.

  6. caroa

    Tony Scott got special access to the US navy because they realised that this was like an extended recruitment film.

  7. Alec

    I’ve never seen Top Gun but I will search it out now.

  8. Robles

    Brilliant film! And the sequel.

  9. Miranda

    The only thing the Chinese version can’t imitate too well is the values the heroes are notionally fighting for.

  10. Paul

    Top Gun. It’s a coming-of-age story. A young man must check his ego and learn patience and responsibility in order to prevail in a crisis and emerge as a man. It’s just a fairy tale.

  11. SiothrĂșn

    Great to see this live on the site! It was a pleasure to edit, and I love seeing how the changes you made enhanced the reading experience! Great job!

  12. WANG

    It’s a conservative film which glamourizes the military and occupies a black-and-white moral universe. Yes, it’s as camp as Christmas. Yes, its representation of gender is -ahem- problematic. In all of those senses it occupies an Homeric universe, and is an Homeric yarn.

    All of the ingredients are there: an impulsive, insubordinate hero Achilles (I mean Maverick) must make peace with his nemesis Agamemnon (I mean Ice Man) in order to defeat the Trojans (I mean the Ruskies) but not before the death of his comrade Patroclus (I mean Goose) leads him firstly to withdraw from battle and then resolve to avenge his death.

    Beowulf (wait, no, I mean Theseus, no Ulysses, no, Maverick) overcomes overwhelming odds and emerges, no longer an immature chancer, but a man, who has proved himself in battle, won the respect of his Myrmidons (I mean the Geats, no, I mean his squadron) and taken as his prize the lovely Bryseis (or Wealhtheow, or Charlie).

    It’s just escapism, and the story as simple, old and compelling as any story of adventures and heroes told at any time. I’m with the author. I think it’s great.

    • Nyasia

      I loved The Warriors before I knew it was an interpretation of an ancient Greek classic. Those ancient Greek playwrights really knew how to blow their dog whistles.

  13. Mckenzie

    Hot Shots is better.

  14. Kerr

    Top Gun is the worst big budget film in the past 30 years. Cruise can’t act for toffees and the whole thing is an ad for the U.S airforce.

    • jasiah

      Oh who cares about Tom’s acting anyway?! Not me, for one. . . and I love the movie. You may be interested to know that Top Gun was the highest grossing film in 1986 making $177 million in the US alone.

  15. Nicole

    TOP GUN is the kind of movie where you know the Tom Cruise character is a maverick because his nickname is Maverick…

  16. Grayson

    It’s a fantastic film. The songs (Kenny Loggins, Berlin), the aerial dogfights, the numerous quotable lines, Tom, Val, Kelly, Anthony…

    • Fox

      And… don’t forget a stunt pilot died during the making. The movie is dedicated to him, Art Scholl.

  17. Abril

    I’m pretty certain they kick started WW3 at the end of the final scene.

  18. benecc

    Top Gun fun fact no. 94: Bryan Adams declined to do a song for the soundtrack because of the militaristic nature of the film.

    • Roberto

      I had the Top Gun soundtrack (who didn’t) and oh my goodness it doesn’t stand the test of time.

      Was an 80s teen playground classic though.

      • Bright

        The Righteous Brothers is a classic.

        The opening five minutes is probably some of the best cinema (action) ever.

  19. darren

    I was in the army when that came out. We were watching Full Metal Jacket and still talking about Platoon. The Princess Bride was a barracks VCR favorite the summer before I was discharged. Okay, I’m coming out now, my guilty pleasure is The Princess Bride with Robin Wright Penn and what’s his name as Wesley aka Dread Pirate Roberts. Mandy Patinkin also did a great job. Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father….prepare to die! Classic.

    • Riya

      I am highly suspicious of the time I first saw Top Gun, it was in the naafi over xmas and new year where there was only a few of us left on the station through having drawn the short straw for gate guard, I think it was motivational propaganda, but they dropped the big screen and Newkie Brown was cheap

  20. Strong

    Why is it a guilty pleasure? A great movie, celebrating American heroes.

    Why do we always have to feel bad about being a strong and powerful nation, that can defend itself?

    • Taliyah

      Top Gun is a true story but when they adapted it for the screen they had to make Maverick straight to appeal to the masses, just like Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

      Top Gun was the story of the first all gay flying aces in the US Army. Heroes!

  21. Jett

    What to do after you’ve stolen all the technology? Steal the movie plots too!

    • Shyann

      Oh and Hollywood don’t “steal” others movie ideas?

    • Davi

      What about the Magnificent Seven, the Departed, and many others hollywood plagiarisms?

  22. Huggie

    Patriotic films are “nothing new” in the east of west.

    • Graham

      Just look at Hollywood pumping out all the American propaganda. What’s the difference? Every country does the same, including Western ones.

  23. Tart

    All great rising powers always seem to have a dip into jingoistic vulgarity. We saw it in this country during the age of Empire, we see it in America today. It’s only fair that China has a go.

    • Pineda

      The Song dynasty was the most innovative, artistic and aesthetically pleasing dynasty in China’s history, but was militarily weak and was humiliated by the Northern nomads. The Ming dynasty Confucian elites also despised the military class and were conquered by Northerners so maybe a spoonful of jingoism isn’t necessarily bad.

  24. Madalynn

    China is merely playing a catch up or imitation from a well known already established master of this game of using cinema to fire up military patriotism and exceptionalism. The united states, it’s easy to pass US’s ridiculous many patriotic movies since they are democracy and “free”. It’s one of my critique of America’s cinema.

  25. Bubba

    Is it just me, or was Tom far sexier before the cosmetic surgery and teeth realigning? I much prefer him in this movie and Cocktail. But then he went all strange and Scientisty. . . . sigh

  26. Evan

    Possibly the most homo-erotic mainstream film ever. Brilliant fun.

    • Slimie

      And the soundtrack! You can’t get much better!

  27. Kenya

    I sense the west is in panic, now that their propaganda finally meet their match.

  28. It’s tough to think that both films lean heavily on the superiority of their armed forces. Back in the 1980s that advantage may have been more technological and in the present they are driving for the edge to be more in the ‘heart’ department. Easily achieved when the enemy are presented as automatons (in both films) wearing their sun visors down. The US Navy recruiting stations surely enjoyed their boost – maybe we should hope that everyone gets good at logistics and engineering while they serve, rather than having to actually go into combat.

  29. Ayala

    It is a trashy romp of excessive machismo, but the photography is incredible.

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