How Hollywood helped sanitise the ‘war on terror’

A Top Gun drone sequel is planned – will it be the latest in a series of films that prime the US military’s image?

American actors Tom Cruise, and Kelly McGillis in a promotional portrait for Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott, 1986 [Getty]
Top Gun effectively rehabilitated the military's image, writes Shabi [Getty]

Fans of 80s blockbusters – doubtless a huge cohort – will be celebrating the news from Hollywood this week that there’s going to be a sequel to the all-American action drama, Top Gun.

Come on, of course you were a fan of this glamorous, speed-loving, adrenaline-charged action drama, with its cheesy singing serenades, amazing aerial stunts and Tom Cruise at his megawatt-smiling best playing the cocky, charismatic navy super-pilot, Maverick. No? Well, the US military was a huge fan – and not just because the film caused a spike in air force enlistments after its release in 1986.

Top Gun effectively rehabilitated the military’s image and revived confidence in it – both factors were a bit low, post-Vietnam.

Listening Post – Feature: The Zero Dark Thirty controversy

This film is what helped ferment a Pentagon perception of the entertainment industry as useful for this sort of promotion of core values – and so perhaps we can expect more of the same, but with a necessary, modern warfare drone factor for the sequel.

Sanitising the ‘war on terror

Top Gun isn’t the only movie to have assisted with this sort of thing. As proof of how hard Hollywood has helped to sanitise the “war on terror”, the film Zero Dark Thirty has pretty much become the prime example.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2011 blockbuster is premised on the idea that enhanced interrogation techniques (in other words: torture) actually led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

The film, peddled as a definitive, authentic account, was made with such close cooperation with the CIA – keen to justify its now defunct detention and interrogation programme – that it might as well have been scripted by the agency.

Its role as a propaganda vehicle was recently reaffirmed by a US documentary, Secrets, Politics and Lies (on the US public broadcaster, PBS), which examined the CIA programme: how the agency tortured detainees in the post 9/11 years, knew this didn’t produce any reliable intel, and then lied about both doing it and the fact of it not working.

Top Gun was made in consultation with the Pentagon, but this relationship is perhaps best seen in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down: In exchange for script changes, the film-makers were loaned eight shiny Black Hawk helicopters and over 100 soldiers…


The US Senate’s own Investigations Committee spent six years looking into the CIA programme and the committee’s former head, Dianne Feinstein, saw an advance copy of Bigelow’s movie. This is what she tells PBS about the experience: “I walked out of Zero Dark Thirty, candidly… I couldn’t handle it. Because it is so false.”

As journalist Michael Isikoff tells in this documentary, Hollywood movies have a significant impact: “More people see them, and more people get their impressions about what happened from a movie like that than they do from countless news stories, or TV spots.”

Triumph of good over evil

Right from the start, Hollywood seemed keen to help with the “war on terror”. In 9/11’s aftermath, Karl Rove, then special adviser to George W Bush, convened a Beverly Hills meeting with entertainment chiefs to see how they might contribute.

This new war gave the US movie industry the chance to build on its favourite storyline, a recurrent theme from Westerns to sci-fi: the triumph of good over evil – and what better setting than Bush’s “war on terror” narrative of us v them?

Actually, the Cold War was pretty handy for that, too, albeit with less flashy weaponry – cinematic stereotypes from then were simply repurposed for the global terror period: from cold-hearted, evil Soviets to hot-headed, evil Arabs.

The assumptions underpinning such productions are the same throughout: the US is the global force for good, sometimes forced – reluctantly but heroically, in its thankless task as the world’s police – to do bad stuff to combat all the evil out there. Arab militants, just like their Soviet villain predecessors, aren’t depicted as having motives or political context, because evil is just gratuitously violent.

The 2003 documentary, Hollywood and the Pentagon: a Dangerous Liaison, suggests that most American war movies have had some help from the US army. The Pentagon even has its own office in LA, with each branch of the military working with films that portray them in action.

Film-makers often trade access to expensive, flashy military hardware in exchange for having army officials consult over the script – these might simply be suggestions over which rifles to use, or it could be over actual scenes.

Top Gun was made in consultation with the Pentagon, but this relationship is perhaps best seen in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down: In exchange for script changes, the film-makers were loaned eight shiny Black Hawk helicopters and over 100 soldiers; an arrangement that required US army liaison with the government of Morocco – where the movie was filmed – so that its personnel would be let into the country.

Self-justifying and heroic

When films tinker with the optics, massaging the “war on terror” narrative so that it becomes self-justifying and heroic, it’s bad enough. But something like Zero Dark Thirty feels worse because it is based on a barefaced lie, fed wholesale to its creators under the seductive cover of “exclusive access”.

And maybe the disappointment with all of this stems from the expectation that culture’s purpose is to go where politics doesn’t; to challenge propaganda rather than reinforce it. We think of Hollywood as liberal-minded, but that’s misguided when it comes to its portrayal of US foreign policy and place in the world.

The PBS documentary Secrets, Politics and Lies concludes by showing how political shutters have closed on the CIA torture issue: A Republican senate came into force last year, the Intelligence Committee appointed a new, Republican head, who recalled all copies of the 6,000 page, classified Panetta review, refusing to read this damning appraisal of CIA torture put together by his predecessors.

The senate committee had spent six years poring over millions of documents to probe the issue and issue the review – but now it’s all shut down. What we’re left with is an award-winning movie, script-doctored by the CIA and watched by millions, telling us that torture led to the capture of bin Laden. Thank you, Hollywood; It’s been real.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.