The year was 1968. Lyndon Johnson was the President of the United States, The Beatles were finishing the White Album, and the United States Navy was trying to figure out why it was losing so many world-class fighter planes to a third-tier enemy in a place called Vietnam.
Traditionally, Navy fighters had destroyed roughly ten or more enemy aircraft for everyone one they lost in return, for a loss-exchange-ratio – what everyone really wanted to call a kill ratio – of some 10:1. In its grimmest and most glorious battles such as the Navy preferred to remember, this statistic might dive to around 2 or 3 to 1; in dominating unequal battles such as the Navy actually preferred to fight it might climb even much higher still.
But in Vietnam, while the material factors all seemed to point towards the dominant, high ratio, the operations research told the admirals the truth – that Vietnam's tiny, rookie air force of mostly hopelessly obsolete Soviet cast-offs like the MiG-17 and -19 was handling the first team very roughly, holding it to a kill ratio no better and perhaps somewhat worse than 2:1. Worse, new new MiG-21 was coming into Vietnamese service, with its high speed and air-to-air guided missiles. The problem only seemed to be getting worse. But what even was the problem?
When Navy Captain Frank Ault was tasked, in response to the shocking failures, with examining the Navy's process for acquiring and employing air-to-air missile systems, he chose to interpret his mandate broadly. Previous reviews had been too piecemeal, he suggested. None "addressed concurrently the aircraft-missile fire control system across the complete spectrum".
Ault ultimately concluded that the problem was human and cultural. The Navy had gone all-in its new F-4 Phantom heavy interceptor-fighter and the high-tech, quantitative approach it embodied. Wars were to be fought by pushbutton and the enemy pre-emptively denied a vote, killed by missiles from beyond visual range before he had any opportunity to act. Chance and judgement were to be distrusted and eliminated. But this approach had broken down over Vietnam, where combat conditions had not corresponded to those envisioned by Pentagon planners. Enemies might be detected at long range, but in crowded multi-service and multi-national airspace, this gave no license to attack without first making a visual identification. Denied the ability to fight their preferred fight, F-4 pilots were being forced into close-range dogfights for which their aircraft and training were not designed. Even when ideal conditions did allow them to play to their airplanes' presumed strengths, returns were generally a pathetic fraction of what the numerical simulations had predicted. Results had been postulated based on calculations that were meaningless because they neglected the cumulative effects of stress, fear, and accumulated small human difficulties; what Claueswitz called friction.
Ault's answer was to set up a Fighter Weapons School at Miramar, California that would become known as TOPGUN, to teach the skills that had been lost. "We threw away the tactics manual and wrote our own," recalled the school's first commander. Equipment and budget were virtually nil, but personnel were exceptional. Training assignments were just four weeks long, but intense, realistic, and rewarding. Assignees, selected from among the most promising relatively new pilots, were expected to "spread the gospel" on their return to the fleet. It worked. When the halftime bell sounded, the Paris Peace Talks collapsed, and President Nixon ordered a resumption of large-scale aerial warfare over North Vietnam, the Navy was ready. Navy kill ratios climbed back into the 10:1 regime and stayed there for the rest of the war, while the Air Force, which then had not yet implemented its own equivalent of Top Gun, continued to struggle.
Years passed, Vietnam became for Americans only a painful memory, and TOPGUN continued. It was 1983, some thirteen years after the first, 01-69 class graduated; Ronald Reagan was president, U2 had just released the War album, and magazine writer Ehud Yonay painted an indelible portrait of how the school looked in the early 1980s for California magazine. "In those days," his own subjects would later observe,
before high definition video and Go-Pro type cameras, the written word combined with still photography was the only practical and affordable way to convey to others what flying fighters was like. Ehud’s story was among the very few articles that transported the average reader in [...] it’s no surprise someone later recognized potential movie material
"Someone" was Hollywood producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who turned the Top Gun academy and the portrait of "Fightertown, U.S.A." in the 1980s into an epochal Hollywood triumph, "the most aesthetically arresting propaganda film ever created." The stories that Navy recruiters opened up for business directly inside movie theater lobbies, or that Navy recruitment increased 300%, or 500% or 1,000% are difficult to confirm, but the sheer proportion of post-Cold War veterans today who trace their involvement with the Navy to Top Gun is difficult to gainsay. Indeed, the recruitment boom was so indiscriminate that not a few Air Force veterans today sheepishly admit they were drawn in without realizing that Tom Cruise had actually been flying for the rival service.
(Not everyone was convinced; Roger Ebert was awed by director Tony Scott's ability to depict complex aerial battle maneuvers without overly disorienting the viewer, but added, "Look out for the scenes where the people talk to one another." And the film's absurd horniness was so excessive that it was apparently blamed for the Tailhook Convention sexual harassment scandal.)
Years passed. It was 2022. Joe Biden was President, Taylor Swift had just released the "Midnights" album, and Tom Cruise somehow was still easily justifying his place as a first-tier movie star. It was time to release the remake. No-one expected much from what was seen as essentially a period tribute piece. But Maverick's success went on to astonish the world. Somehow, the younger work had been matured, aged gracefully. Its simplistic good-vs-evil and boy-meets-girl premises had a new attraction in an age of recondite "expanded universes." Tomris Laffly, writing for the website of the late Roger Ebert, praised Maverick for marrying the old Top Gun action ethos with an unexpectedly high tone. "In some sense, what this movie takes most seriously are concepts like friendship, loyalty, romance, and okay, bromance." Audiences agreed; Maverick was not only the hit of the year, but one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
Will Top Gun: Maverick win Favorite Movie at the 2022 People's Choice Awards?
This question resolves Yes if Maverick wins and No if it doesn't. The People's Choice Awards ceremony begins 9:00 pm Eastern on December 6th.