Russia’s Su-57 Fighter Confirmed as the ‘Villain’ of New Pentagon-Backed ‘Top Gun’ Film: What Does it Signify?

Cinema and popular media more generally have often significantly influenced public perceptions of both international politics and military affairs, with few examples being more profound than the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun. The film was produced in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, which benefitted considerably from its popularity to boost recruiting. Navy recruiters set up recruiting booths inside some theatres showing the film, and according to the Navy the recruitment of young men wanting to become naval aviators increased by 500 percent after Top Gun’s release. Unknown to most, the Pentagon had considerable influence over the film, as in order to gain access to the Navy’s equipment and personnel, without which the film would have been impossible to produce, the Pentagon was given the right to remove scenes or dialog unfavourable to its image. Notable known examples was the cancellation of a story idea about a midair collision, and changing of the female lead played by Kelly McGillis (Charlotte) to a civilian so the main protagonist a naval aviator played by Tom Cruise (Maverick) to court her. This was true not only for Top Gun, but more broadly for high budget military-related films from Transformers to Battleship which could not have been produced without the Pentagon’s support - and in turn without giving the Military the right to alter their scripts. This practice is far from unique to the United States, but due to the unmatched popularity of the American film industry it provides the Pentagon with more influence over how it is perceived than the militaries of other countries enjoy. Pentagon influence also means, however, that films reliant on its support can provide important insight into what messages the United States Military wants to send to the public both domestically and abroad. 

Coming to cinemas in the United States 36 years after the original, Top Gun 2 has been delayed since 2019 with considerable changes having since been made particularly to combat scenes. The film, also starring Tom Cruise as naval aviator Maverick, will likely reflect the political climate of its day - much as the original Top Gun had flyers go up against Soviet-built fighters of an unnamed enemy state in the Indian Ocean. Where the original film saw the villains flying ‘MiG-28’ fighter jet, a fictitious designation represented on screen by American F-5Es painted a striking black with communist style red stars reminiscent of North Korean fighters, the new Top Gun will see realistic portrayals of an adversary’s arsenal far more possible today than four decades ago. This includes not only Soviet S-125 air defence systems, widely used across the world from North Korea to Syria and Venezuela, but also as revealed in the latest trailer from March 29 the Russian-built Su-57 next generation fighter. The ability to use actual Russian weapons systems in the film is largely a result of technological advances, but also of the fact that many of these systems have become much more accessible to the United States including through security partners, particularly former Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe, as well as through direct purchases and other acquisitions of such weapons. Russia’s main fighter the Flanker series, for example, flies in the U.S. Military for testing after two were purchased from Belarus in the 1990s. The fact that the Russian Military is far less secretive than the USSR had been about its weapons programs, with photographs and video footage made relatively available for producers to base their on screen renderings on, is another important factor.  

The appearance of the Su-57 indicates that Russian rather than Chinese weapons are portrayed as the primary adversaries for the United States - which is highly fitting for 2022 but may not have been in 2019. While China has a stealth fighter program far more mature than the Su-57, the J-20, it is not offered for export where the Su-57 is expected to be widely fielded overseas as the Flanker series were including by countries much more likely to go to war with the U.S. than Russia or China themselves. Avoiding portraying a Chinese built fighter as the adversary also ensures Top Gun 2 has a greater chance of being a success in Chinese markets. Using the Su-57, despite only five being in service and rather than its predecessor the Su-27-derived Flanker series of which well over 1000 are fielded across the world, allows the film’s protagonists to go head to head with a next generation threat that currently barely exists - symbolising the very best Russia has. Them doing so flying a vintage F-14, a fighter that first flew in 1970 and was retired in 2006, will challenge Maverick and his weapons systems officer to achieve a much greater feat when they win or hold their own against such an aircraft - stressing the ‘elite’ status of the Navy’s top aviators much as the original 1986 production did.

The fact that the F-14 is perhaps the most iconic jet fighter in the U.S. Military’s history, and was the star of the original Top Gun, made its return a highly popular choice among franchise and navy fans. The Su-57’s new and unusual design will make it a far more interesting opponent than a Flanker or the old ‘MiG-28’ ever could be, while raising the stakes and at the same time remaining somewhat realistic - since it is a real aircraft on offer for export today. The nature of the likely fictional state adversary flying the Su-57 remains unknown, but there is a significant possibility that like in the original film the enemy state will not even be named. Following on from one of the most successful military films of the Cold War, both for the interests of the Navy and in box offices, the impact Top Gun 2 will have remains to be seen. 

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