In today’s world where tension among nations is increasing, there are certain symbols of power that any respected global superpower must possess. These include nuclear weapons and a space program. However, the latest essential item for a powerful nation is a hyper-nationalistic blockbuster film featuring a superior air force. In May 2022, the release of Top Gun: Maverick caused a frenzy worldwide, followed by the Chinese film Born to Fly a year later. This month, India joins in with its own fighter pilot spectacle, Fighter, starring Hrithik Roshan whose iconic hairstyle alone represents a national monument.
Russia has not shown any indication of its decline in terms of global power, while China and India are on the rise due to their authoritarian leaders seeking to project soft power. Similarly, the United States experienced a surge of nationalistic sentiment in the 1980s, fueled by popular militaristic movies such as Top Gun, Rambo, Commando, Red Dawn, and others. China has been showcasing its cinematic prowess for the past ten years with action-packed films like the Wolf Warrior franchise and Operation Red Sea, as well as historical movies with patriotic themes. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not been as successful in controlling its film industry, but recent releases like Baaghi 2 and Uri: The Surgical Strike show a tendency towards bellicose content. The release of Fighter, coinciding with India’s 75th Republic Day and featuring a scene of actor Roshan emerging from a helicopter with the Indian tricolour flag, suggests increasing pressure for the country to promote nationalistic ideals through its film industry.
The film Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott, is hailed as the ultimate example of military filmmaking. With its visually stunning display of technology and elite capabilities portrayed by the characters in their sleek Ray-Ban sunglasses and pristine contrails, it’s no wonder that countries like China and India desire their own version. Released in 1986, Top Gun not only topped the box office and launched Tom Cruise as an American icon, but also served as a way for the United States to showcase its military strength through soft power and attract recruits. Shot with the flashy, back-lit style of a sports broadcast by ad man Tony Scott, the film made warfare seem exciting and glamorous. This was no accident, as the script was approved by the Department of Defense in exchange for access to military equipment and locations necessary for the film’s production. In fact, just one F-14 fighter used in the film, the same one flown by Maverick, was worth more than double the entire budget of the film at $38 million. In short, Top Gun can be seen as a form of propaganda.
China learned that replicating a successful film like Top Gun with Born to Fly was not as effortless as anticipated. The movie centers on a group of aspiring pilots and aims to criticize foreign powers who have shown a lack of respect for Chinese airspace, including two individuals with American accents who boast about their ability to enter and exit at will. Additionally, it serves as a platform to showcase China’s J-20 stealth fighter. Director Liu Xiaoshi had been producing films for the Aviation Industry Corporation of China for 15 years, but after the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick (which did not earn any money in China due to being banned), the Chinese government became hesitant to engage in a similar confrontation. As a result, Born to Fly was removed from its scheduled release in 2022, just before China’s National Day on October 1st, supposedly to improve its subpar special effects. The film was eventually released in the following year and only made $117.3 million, a small amount compared to the huge profits of the Wolf Warriors franchise.
However, the true weakness lies in the cockpit, where the human element of the film is lacking. In comparison to Maverick from Top Gun, who embodies rebellious and aggressive behavior, the protagonist Lei Yu (played by Wang Yibo, a member of a boy band) is unimpressive. While Top Gun allowed for selective censorship, with Hollywood exchanging script approval for access to military equipment, Chinese directors are subject to mandatory censorship, with every script being thoroughly examined. This is evident in Born to Fly through its subdued portrayal. There is no hint of camaraderie between soldiers, and certainly no overtly homosexual undertones that director Quentin Tarantino would have pounced on. Instead, the excitement in the Chinese air force seems to revolve around occasional dumpling nights with superiors, an odd fascination with parachute-folding, and a masochistic ideology that emphasizes sacrificing for the greater good – a common theme in state-sponsored Chinese military films.
Hopefully, Fighter will be more fun and at least bring in some Bollywood bombast. Unsurprisingly, it has been produced in co-operation with the Indian armed forces, filming partly at the air force academy in the southern Indian city of Dundigal. So it probably won’t be some hard-hitting exposé of military inculcation methods, with Roshan not quite having the superstar immunity that has allowed the actor Shah Rukh Khan to make statements in his films that cut across the grain of pro-Hindi nationalism. The title of his recent patriotic covert-forces hit, Pathaan, is the Hindi word for the Afghan Pashto ethnic group, which provides his character’s origin story; a pluralistic twist on the Jai Hind blockbuster.
Like the bold and enthusiastic American models of the 1980s, Fighter may not have a rebellious agenda. However, this does not mean it will not use cunning tactics – if it has learned its lessons well. The US soft-power model has a significant strategic advantage: disguising propaganda as captivating entertainment. Despite its purpose of promoting certain beliefs, Top Gun is also incredibly entertaining, oozing with attitude and sexual tension – two seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum. Additionally, the franchise is skilled at evoking emotions: the sequel cleverly weaves in “talking points” mandated by the military to create a compelling modern tale about the decline of US influence, tapping into our fondness for Maverick’s confident persona.
The two movies possess a deliberate impartiality, primarily set in educational institutions, with the final confrontations occurring in international waters and an unspecified Middle Eastern nation. Hollywood maintains a secure separation from exact realism, in order to increase its popularity in the worldwide box office. However, propaganda is the motive behind these calculated script choices, with the nondescript military liaison office on Wilshire Boulevard directing the influential hand of hard power in Hollywood.
This phenomenon is known as stealth propaganda, where audiences are more accepting of political messages because they are disguised. China and India may prioritize rapid growth, but they won’t have the same level of influence unless they are able to operate covertly.