Words by Jonathan Ing Sposato
I love me some Top Gun. I loved the original film so much that it overrides any reflexive skepticism I've harbored about its star's association with Scientology, its jingoistic overtones, and mawkish sentimentalism. And honestly, I don't even like most other people who like Top Gun. But just as Hollywood has gotten more astute about evolving blockbuster sequels to the taste level of its audience age (i.e. we have gone from teens to middle-aged), the newer Top Gun: Maverick is a more complex, nuanced, and thoughtful work of mawkish sentimentalism.
And there's even much more under the surface today. As today's top blockbuster films require incredible amounts of international financing, the less obvious influences of overseas money can affect even the most 'American' of movies. This is the story of how the most iconic American flight jacket of all time came to be at the center of Chinese-Taiwan relations, a litmus test for censorship, and exemplify how the smallest editorial gesture can impact an entire culture being seen by the international community.
In the year 1986, I sat as a cynical 18-year-old in the center of the 11th row at the famed (and now closed) Cinerama Theatre in downtown Seattle. Rebelling against Reagan era neo-conservatism was the ethos of my generation. But a high school friend who would later go on to film school and a prolific career as a director informed that we just had to go see this new movie with airplanes, directed by the brother of our favorite movie director, Ridley Scott (of Bladerunner fame), the younger Tony Scott. The 11th row was the last row of the forward section, and according to my budding director friend, both the optimal foci of the Dolby surround sound system and the perfect placement of the screen's edges at our exact peripheral limits.
The ensuing onslaught of exhilarating aerial sequences, jingoistic overtones, top 40 rock-and-roll, and overt homoeroticism both confused and delighted me. I would usually never be caught dead listening to Kenny Loggins. How could a bunch of things I'm not into, come together to work so well in one place? It was just... fun, and honest about what it was. Having grown up on a diet of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Taxi Driver, seeing Top Gun was like eating a great hamburger.
It is hard to explain the impact of Top Gun on my generation. A college friend enlisted in the Navy right after and actually became an F-14 pilot. Guys started working out, beach volleyball became a thing, and bomber jackets emerged as a fashion staple. What remains, for me, decades later is an indelible appreciation for Naval aviation and an unnatural fascination with all things flight jackets. My own private collection of vintage G-1 and A-2 flight jackets began soon after my initial viewing of Top Gun, and has grown extensively to become both an embarrassment to my family and a source of envy for other collectors. I've become an expert in all things flight jackets, and flight museum curators have made overtures to acquire my collection. Got a vintage patch that you can't identify? Talk to me Goose...
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In 2019, the much anticipated sequel to Top Gun was announced, to much fanfare. Viewers of a spectacular trailer were treated to jaw dropping aerial sequences and themes invoking the 1986 original. But one small detail did not escape the attention of those like myself who are keen observers of historic flight jackets: the real USS Galveston patch on the back of Maverick's G-1 had been subtly changed. Something was off, and if you blinked during the trailer you would have missed it. Here is an image from the original film showing the patch denoting an actual Navy Far East cruise which took place from 1963 to 1964. Try not to be distracted by the least convincing romantic kiss in movie history:
But here is the patch from the more recent 2019 trailer. Note that the bottom half of the USS Galveston Patch, where the Japanese and Taiwanese flags previously resided, has been replaced with new symbols. These are not real symbols that exist on any real Naval aviator patch.
Understandably, close observers of Maverick's iconic jacket were in an uproar. Flight jackets, and Naval aviator G-1's in particular are meant to be a sort of living document of a pilot's career. Patches of squadrons served, carriers deployed, regions of deployment (or "cruises"), aircraft flown, and even various landing qualifications often adorn jackets in heterogenous ways. No two jackets are alike, and it is said that “a star pilot’s flight jacket has no stains, only stories.” In the story, Maverick's jacket was a hand-me-down from his ace pilot father who flew the skies of SE Asia. No in-universe explanation would be possible for this change. The jacket had simply lost that loving feeling...
This led astute observers to speculate that perhaps the Japanese and Taiwanese flags were removed to appease Chinese censors, and quite possibly also Chinese financiers of the film. Tencent Pictures, the film division of Chinese tech giant Tencent, is a co-financier of the new movie.
Mark McKinnon, the senior international news correspondent for Canada's Globe & Mail, was amongst the first to react. His tweet had 14,000 likes and 7,000 retweets;
But should we be surprised? As it turns out, Hollywood studios have for years avoided storylines that could cause offense to China. China is the world’s largest box office, with $7.3 billion in ticket sales last year or roughly a third of all sales worldwide. And with the government permitting only 34 foreign films to screen in Chinese theaters per year(!), access to the lucrative market is both coveted and hard-won. According to Patrick Brzeski of The Hollywood Reporter:
"For the better part of a decade, U.S. studios have been careful to portray China in an unfailingly positive, or neutral, light. Film projects casting a critical eye on the China of the past or present—Seven Years in Tibet, for example, or Richard Gere’s Red Corner, which criticized China’s legal system—haven’t gotten made since the 1990s. Instead, China has tended to be portrayed—if at all—as a thoroughly stabilizing and technologically advanced partner, as in the finale of Ridley Scott’s The Martian or Roland Emmerich’s 2012."
It was even reported that producers of the 2004 film Red Dawn, itself a sequel to another Reagan-era film, spent in excess of $1 million to digitally remove all references to the invading army being Chinese, instead changing the adversaries to be North Korean and Russian. In the global movie economy, this is exactly how foreign ideology impacts American pop culture.
And such was the 'appease China' sentiment as recently as May 24, Top Gun: Maverick's advance screening in Taiwan. Taiwan is home to 23 million Chinese who are governed independently from the mainland. For decades since the communist takeover of the mainland, political leaders on both sides have had differing positions on the island’s status, sovereignty, and relations with the mainland.
But at its core Top Gun is ultimately a tale of redemption. It is the simple story arc of those who have fallen ascending back to former eminence by sheer virtue and honesty to their beliefs. Perhaps so too have the film's producers redeemed themselves. On May 24 Taiwanese movie goers were treated to a surprising new re-edit of the footage to feature a prominent shot of the Japanese and Taiwanese flags. Audiences reportedly cheered and clapped at the unexpected sight of their national flag while some were even moved to tears, according to the Central News Agency of Taiwan. The Taiwanese flag was back. Taiwan and Japan are no longer erased from the biggest blockbuster of 2022.
As reported by Rachel Cheung of Vice World News, "For all its soaring aerial maneuvers, the most daring stunt may be a middle finger to China."
And why would someone in the states care? As a half Chinese American I can offer an explanation. When the People’s Republic of China entered the Korean War on the side of North Korea in the late 1950s, Chinese American communities suddenly attracted public attention in new and unwelcome ways. For the first time since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, being Chinese was increasingly coupled with being 'the enemy.' With China and the U.S. essentially at war via proxies, prominent journalist Gilbert Woo at the time described his fellow Chinese Americans as wrestling with the sense that “being Chinese is itself a crime.” To demonstrate their patriotism, Chinese American veterans’ groups marched in anti-communist parades carrying American flags and banners denouncing the “reds.”
But the democratically governed Taiwan could offer a different narrative. Taiwan's democratic society provided a different lens through which cultural Chinese can be perceived as allies, descendants of General Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomingtang which has been painted with romantic overtones not unlike the American revolution. They were the good guys, and their flag was even red, white, and blue. The allyship between General Chiang Kai-shek and the U.S. was cemented in WWII via the all volunteer squadron "Flying Tigers," which operated over occupied China and comprised of former American aces and newly minted Chinese fighter pilots.
And appropriately, guess what is on the back of their flight jackets? Look familiar?
As of this writing, Top Gun's unexpected about-turn has not been commented upon nor explained by the film's producers. Curiously, the film has also not been given any release date in China, the world’s biggest movie box office market. And as U.S.-Chinese relations have soured recently over both trade and the Ukraine, "There's a high probability Beijing will ban the release and monetization of Top Gun (a film that celebrates the American military) in China," as told to CNN Business by Chris Fenton, author of Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion-Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business.
So perhaps it was already a forgone conclusion? Either way, we certainly hope that the film's producers aren't, ahem, "writing checks their bodies can't cash."
Published on June 5, 2022
Words by Jonathan Ing Sposato
Jonathan Sposato is the founder and acting editor-in-chief of JoySauce. When he is not planting eggplants in his garden, he can usually be found explaining to friends just how a London-born, half-Chinese, half-Korean guy ended up with an Italian last name, while going to a school in Hong Kong run by Spanish nuns.