Pop Culture

How the US Military Gave Notes on Top Gun: Maverick

A US navy captain walks GQ through his collaboration with Maverick’s screenwriter and director.

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Tom Cruise, Glen Powell, Miles Teller and Monica Barbaro in Top Gun: Maverick.Courtesy of Scott Garfield for Paramount via Everett Collection

Top Gun: Maverick’s immersive, shot-from-the-cockpit dogfights and low-altitude, close-formation flying scenes are made possible by rare and unfettered military access. Witnessing the spectacle recalls a letter Francis Ford Coppola once wrote to the Pentagon: “I can only assume that the military uses its control of these aircraft as a means of dictating which films can be made and which films cannot be made.” The US air force had refused Coppola support and access to the helicopters that were integral to *Apocalypse Now–*eventually, he struck a deal with Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos for access to Huey helicopters, fighter jets, and military trucks.

Seven years later, the original Top Gun (1986) helped boost Navy recruitment by around 8% (not quite the 500% statistic that’s been floating around social media). In Alissa Wilkinson’s Vox Article, “The long, long twisty affair between the US Military and Hollywood,” film historian Mark Harris says the dynamic changed after Vietnam “from the military saying to Hollywood, ‘We need you to help us,’ to the military saying to Hollywood, ‘We’ll help you. We’ll give you access.’”

The military also happily backed the sequel to Top Gun: Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works partnered with Paramount Pictures to produce a physical mock-up/likely adaptation of their unfinished Hypersonic SR-72 stealth plane for the “Mach 10” sequence, complete with a Lockheed logo on the pilot stick. The Maverick cast talks in real “ready rooms” and takes off from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, outfitted with 6K Sony Venice cinema cameras.

The Pentagon had some input into Maverick’s script, too. After initial clearances, Captain JJ “Yank” Cummings and Commander Tim “Sparky” Charlebois worked with the film’s screenwriter Eric Singer and director Joseph Kosinski for several months to ensure the film depicted the Navy “accurately, positively, and professionally.”

Cummings hopes Top Gun: Maverick does for the current generation what the original did for his—push civilians to enlist. He talked to GQ about his time advising Singer and Kosinski on what to add, change, and remove from their depiction of the Navy and elaborate showcase of US military superiority.

GQ: I’ve read about how you worked with the director Joseph Kosinski overnight at the USS Theodore Roosevelt air carrier, but what did the rest of your time on Top Gun: Maverick look like?

Captain Cummings: I got a call in June of 2017 from the commander of the Naval Airforce Pacific Public Affairs Office asking if I would escort the director and producer to the USSR Theodore Roosevelt to spend a night on the aircraft carrier. I was not “hired” for my moviemaking experience, I was “hired” for my F-14, F-18, and aircraft carrier background.

The night before we went to the ship, I showed Joe [Kosinski] a bunch of motivational flying videos that were exclusively Tomcat footage. He loved them and told me at the San Diego Premiere in May, “Yank. Top Gun: Maverick started the night I sat down on your living room couch.” I took Joe out to the carrier, and we sorted out some plot themes based on the discussions we had and what he was seeing on the ship. Eric Singer, who wrote American Hustle, was the writer but could not make the trip out to the ship. CDR Tim “Sparky” Charlebois came on board right after the carrier visit, and we both decided a trip to Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon, Nevada which is where TOPGUN [The real-life United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program] is located, would be valuable. We thought Eric and Joe needed to meet a bunch of naval aviators, observe an air wing going through training, hit the NAS Fallon Officers’ Club—which is legendary by the way—and meet the TOPGUN staff in their building.

The trip to Fallon was pivotal. I vividly remember Eric sharing with a dozen salty F-18 pilots his idea for the final scene. I was not sure how they were going to react and was a little nervous but breathed a sigh of relief when they all loved the idea—I mean enthusiastically loved it! This group also introduced Joe and Eric to “Stroke 3.” This is now an unclassified and famous video taken from the cockpit of an F-16 during a day bombing mission into Iraq on January 17, 1991. The F-16s never made it to their target because they were lit up by several surface-to-air missiles (SAM). One of the F-16s got shot down. It is raw, emotional, chaotic footage of the F-16 pilot fighting to save his life. You can hear the fear in his voice. Elements of Stroke 3, such as the intensity and chaos, are in the final scene after the Daggers come off target and are getting pummeled with SAMs.

Sparky and I then escorted Joe and Executive Producer Tommy Harper to Naval Air Station Lemoore, where the majority of our west coast strike fighter assets are stationed. Our last trip was to Naval Air Station North Island and Captain Greg “Chaser” Keithley, a retired F-14/F18 naval aviator, was with me.

From June 2017 to February 2018, I was in close contact with Eric, sometimes daily, and spent many days going line by line through the screenplay with him. We had a great working relationship and he regularly asked my opinion and bounced ideas off me. With the exception of a few minor plot line shifts, what we worked on is basically what made it to the big screen.

What was your reaction to the first Top Gun?

I decided that I wanted to fly for the Navy just before I saw Top Gun back in 1986. I was a Freshman at Bates College, a small school in Maine, looking at my options—I didn’t want a boring office life in a cubicle, I wanted to do something dangerous, rewarding, and fun. Aviation popped up on my radar because I had a couple of uncles who flew for the Navy. Just around the time I was thinking about my future, I went to see Top Gun and said, “Yeah! I’m doing that!” I knew that was the path I wanted to go down. So I enlisted in the US Navy Reserves to increase my probability of getting selected, went to Bootcamp my sophomore year, and, after I graduated from Bates, went to Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida.

About eight years later I had my first flight in an F-14, and to this day I’m stunned that I pulled it off. It’s pretty cool to see a movie and confirm, “Yep, that’s what I wanna do,” and then go do it. My friends from school still can’t believe I pulled it off. That was 36 years ago.

The ready room in Top Gun 1 was the actual ready room from my very first F-14 Squadron. In 1995, I checked into the VF-24 Fighting Renegades. I walked into the ready room and said, “This feels familiar.” It turned out that it was the debriefing room in Top Gun, which looked the same as when they filmed it in 1986. They had not changed a single thing.

Joe and Eric were basically sponges, listening to the way we talked to each other, getting the feel of what the life is like, and taking it all in. It was on the trip to Naval Air Station North Island where Chaser Keithley and I showed Joe and Tommy, the VRC-40 hangar. This is where the scene was filmed where Maverick throws the NATOPS manual into the trash. On that same trip to North Island, Chaser and I also introduced Joe and Tommy to a pair of famous Naval Aviation bars: The I-Bar and Trader Jon’s. The I Bar is on Naval Air Station North Island; Trader Jon’s was a really cool bar that was in Pensacola, Florida that closed in 1998. The Hard Deck is based on both of those bars. In the original screenplay, the bar was named The Captain’s Mast. I suggested that we find a new name because Captain’s Mast is what the Navy calls its judicial proceedings when Sailors violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and are held accountable. No one wants to go to Captain’s Mast because that is where you go to get punished. They went with Hard Deck. Good call.

Did you interact with anyone else on the film crew?

Joe, Eric, Eric’s cousin Shaun Gray, who is also a writer, and Tommy Hopper, the executive producer. In the early days, it was me, Eric, and Shaun. We spent five days straight in a hotel room in San Diego going through the screenplay line by line. Sparky was still onboard, and he was a tremendous help. Eric was fascinated with Sparky’s discussion on how risk is managed in naval strike warfare, and that risk management scheme is an underlying theme in the movie. It was about this time that Sparky left to head to NAS Lemoore to start his training track to be a Super Hornet squadron commanding officer.

About a month later, Eric, Shaun, and I did five days in Eric’s Santa Monica office and Joe dropped in for the last two days to review our work. So yes, we logged a lot of time together. They were fun discussions where they would occasionally ask me, “What do you think? What would you say here? Does this make sense?” A couple of times I got frustrated by some of the scenes they were putting together—“That’s so ridiculous and would never happen. Can we try this instead?”

We had some—I guess you could call them—negotiations. In the end, we worked through it and it obviously worked out well.

Do you remember any of the more outlandish ideas they had?

Absolutely. There were a few hills I was willing to die on. One was the final scene. The proposal initially was that four planes go into strike the target and two get shot down. They wanted Mav and Rooster to survive the ejection, sneak onto the enemy air base, jump in a Tomcat and then catch up to Phoenix/Bob and Payback/Fanboy so they could save Mav/Rooster in a dogfight. That would never happen. First of all, the surviving Super Hornets are traveling at 9 miles a minute away from Mav and Rooster and they’re low on gas [laughs]. This would not work. We called Joe and said it was beyond reality, so we worked on a different flow.

Then the locker room scenes. The very first screenplay had locker room scenes, and I begged them, “Please don’t do this.” There are no post-flight locker room interactions in Naval Aviation. Please don’t do this. In general, I was pushing back pretty hard early on to keep the movie realistic, but to a fault. Eric and Joe eventually pulled me aside and said, “Look. We cannot make this the most accurate, yet boring fighter pilot movie in the history of film, we need drama. That is what sells tickets.” After that conversation, I got it—we need to push reality a little bit for the dramatic tone.

Did you also advise on anything outside of the flying sequences in the script?

Sure did. I assisted with some of the dialogue. A few months ago, Joe called me and said, “Yank. There are two quotes in the movie that came right out of your mouth. When you see the movie, see if you can figure out which quotes are yours.” It was the “bag of ass” comment and “I don’t sail boats, Penny. I land on them.” When I saw the movie, I yelled, “That’s my quote!” My daughter, who was sitting next to me, started laughing.

Early on they wanted all F-35s, the brand-new fighter for the US Naval Airforce. That’s the newest, shiniest toy. I said, OK, cool. But you can only get access to ten of them, and not only can you not sit in the F-35, but you also can’t bring a camera within 10 feet of it. If you want F-35s in this movie it’s going to be all CGI and like Iron Eagle 7 or something because you can’t put anyone in it. Putting a civilian in that aircraft would not happen because it is highly classified. Paramount wanted the F-35s to conduct the strike mission at low altitude and that is 100% not what the jet is designed to do. It is a low radar observable jet designed to attack air-to-air and air-to-ground targets undetected at high altitude. The Navy would never approve a screenplay with the F-35 conducting a mission it was not designed to do.

But, if they used Super Hornets, they’d have access to 600 of them. You can put someone in the backseat, and you can make it a real movie with folks really pulling Gs. We had a couple of discussions with the executive producers and they got it. In the original screenplay, we had a quick scene at the opening to show the F-35’s capability, but it didn’t make the final version.

Then they wanted single-seat F-18s for the entire movie because they wanted to keep the character count down. If you get too many characters things get muddy. But I told them two-seat Super Hornets are a major part of the fleet, and if you don’t show them that’s not going to be pleasing to the Navy, because it’s all about the team—so I requested that be a part of the plot and they added it.

By the way, in a real-world strike like the one in the movie, the two-seat Fs would do just what you saw in the movie — “buddy lazing” for the laser-guided bombs dropped from another aircraft. That’s exactly what the two-seat super hornets would be doing.

I also asked them not to have romantic relationships between the aviators or what is called fraternization in the Navy—which is an inappropriate relationship between a senior and a junior officer. I requested that and some form of military bearing and keeping standards for Navy regulations for haircuts and uniforms. For the most part, they got it right.

The gender of Goose’s kid was originally a man, but for about a month, the gender was shifted to a woman. Early on, I gave a documentary produced by my good friend Paco Chierici called Speed and Angels to Joe and Eric. It’s about the experiences of two new Tomcat pilots on a combat deployment in 2005. One of them is a woman. I get a call one day and Eric tells me “Goose’s kid is now a woman.” I figured the shift occurred because of what they saw in Speed and Angels. Also, the recent success of Rey in Star Wars and Wonder Woman might have had some influence. I requested that Eric not over-focus on gender and make her a hero because she is good in the jet and absolutely lethal in combat. Phoenix definitely met both of those two attributes because she is hardcore.

It looks like the actors are in the cockpit, do you know how they pulled those shots off?

They were. The actors are in the backseat with qualified naval aviators in front, obviously. Those are the two-seat aircraft. I’ve seen some Youtube videos of the array of cameras they had in the back. So, I would say 95% of what you saw is the actors actually pulling Gs in the jet.

That was Joe and Eric’s goal, to make the most of the movie from filming real aircraft and actors in the jet. There was very little CGI used.

Did the evolution of military aircraft technology over the years make the story or style of flying in Top Gun: Maverick any different from the original?

In the original, it was a lot of one versus one fights in the aircraft, with the occasional two vs one. In this one, we tried making it a little more complicated. Then factoring in the air-to-ground aspect. Back in 86, F-14s were not air-to-ground aircraft, meaning they did not carry bombs or drop weapons, it was purely a fighter. In this movie, you see the Super Hornet strike fighters perform both the fighter and attack roles by doing air-to-air missions as well as dropping air-to-ground ordinance. So the leap in technology from the F-14A to the Super Hornet F-18-E/F allowed this movie to be more dynamic with all these shots of the Super Hornet flying low and fast, which is just really fun by the way. [laughs] You don’t fly air-to-air missions low to the ground, you fly very high. It was great that the movie captured the air-to-ground capability of the Super Hornet to show the world that we do a lot of great air-to-ground work. That’s our bread and butter–air to ground.

What did you think of the movie?

I went to see Top Gun: Maverick a few weeks ago in Virginia Beach with a theater full of old Tomcat and Super Hornet pilots. I was a little nervous in the back row because if they didn’t like the movie, I was going to hear about it. But every one of them loved it. I will say it’s pretty fun to go to a movie like that with a bunch of wiseass fighter pilots because they were shouting out great one-liners throughout the movie. It was a very interactive experience. For example, when Maverick gets grounded and goes to the bar and Penny goes, “So what are you going to do now?” My friend yells, “Go join Fedex!” That got a good laugh out of everyone.

Do you have other favorite films that center naval aviation?

No other movies stick out for naval aviation. But for aviation, there’s a movie called The Blue Max filmed in 1966. It’s an excellent movie about fighter pilots on the Western Front in World War I, and it is not a glamorous film about war and fighter pilots. George Peppard is a proletariat blue collar officer trying to earn the Blue Max by getting 20 air-to-air kills. He’s not from the bourgeoisie. It is a really entertaining movie with great biplane fighter flying scenes!

There was a movie a few years ago called Flight of the Intruder, based upon a book by Stephen Coontz, but that was really terrible. The Cane Mutiny (1954) is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. I think Humphrey Bogart won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Captain Queeg in it. Fantastic movie about leadership, and the book is phenomenal. It’s not an Aviation movie, but it’s a great movie about the Navy and leadership.

Oh! The Final Countdown, the USS Nimitz goes through some sort of funky time warp back into World War II right before Pearl Harbor. It is excellent! It’s not one that makes you want to join the Navy, but it’s really good. There’s also some live footage and actual shots on the USS Nimitz. Back in 2013, I was second in command on the Nimitz and I could recognize some of those ship locations even though it was filmed back in the 80s.

What do you hope results from Top Gun: Maverick’s massive success?

I hope that people go to that movie and walk out of there knowing the United States Navy and Naval Aviation in particular, do a really hard and challenging job but make it look easy. I want folks to walk out of there knowing that we do dangerous things without making them look dangerous. I want them to walk out of there thinking, “Wow, there are some young men and women out there on the high seas right now doing that very same job. Thank god they’re out there doing that on behalf of our nation and way of life.”

As you can imagine, the movie doesn’t accurately depict Navy life. This movie shows a team of aviators flying at some of the greatest training ranges in the world. They then fly out to the ship to fly this mission that we’d all want to fly, and then head home immediately after the mission is done. There’s no 9-month deployment away from friends and family [laughs], missing births of children, anniversaries, water heaters blowing up—all things my family has experienced while I was away. So, I hope folks recognize that a lot of folks who are not getting paid a lot of money are doing some very dangerous stuff on behalf of our nation, and they’ll never know it. It’s behind the scenes. Right now, there are people underway and about to make a night landing on an aircraft carrier somewhere around the world in bad weather and rough seas. And they will do that professionally and safely—on behalf of our nation and our way of life.

So, I hope folks recognize that, and then I hope that they want to come do it. Back in the old days, people really pushed military life—pushed people to join the military. Now you don’t see that very much. So I hope folks recognize that your country is always hiring, we have good people—the finest folks the nation can produce—and we put them in these very challenging jobs as aircraft maintainers, nuclear operators, naval aviators and give them a life that is rewarding, challenging, and relevant. Then they leave the Navy, be it after four or in my case thirty-one years, and go back to society as better people. Now they can go out into society and share their experience. This movie just accelerates that–expands the scope by which the public sees the work we do.

I enlisted in 1986 when Top Gun 1 came out, and I’m retiring the year Top Gun Maverick came out. So I just want to mention how I bookended my career with this Top Gun thing. By the way, I went through the Top Gun course back in 2000 with a Tomcat. I actually lived that life. It’s not like the movie.

Cue the national anthem. [laughs]

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