China Belatedly Trashes Top Gun: ‘Hollywood Is a Propaganda Arm of the U.S. Government’

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount Pictures)
Paramount Pictures

The Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times railed against the global blockbuster hit Top Gun: Maverick on Monday — over a year after its release — as warmongering “propaganda,” proving that the Pentagon “censors the creation of films.”

The condemnation appeared to be a response to the U.S. Department of Defense issuing a new policy in June that blocked support for Hollywood studios that comply with Chinese Communist censorship, a growing problem in the past two decades as the American film industry became dependent on the mammoth Chinese box office for profits.

A document obtained by the D.C. outlet Politico read:

[The Pentagon] will not provide production assistance when there is demonstrable evidence that the production has complied or is likely to comply with a demand from the Government of the People’s Republic of China … to censor the content of the project in a material manner to advance the national interest of the People’s Republic of China.

Some reports indicated that Top Gun: Maverick almost became the victim of such censorship after the Chinese government demanded that the film’s costume department remove a Taiwanese flag from the eponymous main character’s jacket. The film kept the jacket — losing funding from the Chinese corporation Tencent and access to Chinese theaters — and became one of Hollywood’s most successful releases in years.

The Global Times‘ complaints follow regular coverage of the American film industry portrayed as decaying or outdated, which more often complains of unwanted franchise reboots, “political correctness,” or insufficient Chinese “patriotism” in Hollywood movies. It notably ignored Top Gun: Maverick and its global success until this week.

While major Hollywood releases have faced similar complaints at home, the Chinese government’s focus on Top Gun: Maverick is particularly ill-timed after the May release of Born to Fly, a film about Chinese fighter pilots produced with the aid of the Chinese military, mocked around the world for being a “shabby” copy of Top Gun: Maverick.

“As evidenced by the facts, the sequel to Top Gun, which unfortunately failed to break free from its conventional framework, continues to glorify war and wrap violence in a seductive package, just as it did in the 1980s,” the Global Times complained on Monday. “Unquestionably, the producers of Top Gun: Maverick utilized US aircraft carriers, naval air bases, and a range of F-14s and other fighter jets.”

The state newspaper went on to complain that the original Top Gun, released in 1986, was meant to “restore the image of the military damaged by the Vietnam War,” and both films were part of “a full-spectrum propaganda campaign targeting Western audiences, enticing them to support aggressive and globally oriented US militarism.”

“The new regulation proves once again Hollywood is a propaganda arm of the US government used to trumpet its global hegemonic policy, and the US government has always wanted to shape Hollywood’s ‘freedom of expression,'” the Chinese state outlet concluded. “For decades, Hollywood has narrated the US’ official stance and US military-dominated global order to world audiences. However, they should realize that this prime time has passed and that it will cost Hollywood more to dance to the tune of the US government.”

It went on to claim that Hollywood movies are currently “less appealing in the Chinese market,” and choosing Pentagon backing for war movies over Chinese Communist Party censorship would not improve their fate. The Global Times‘ description of Hollywood films as “flavorless” due to “political correctness” and “the increased scarcity of good storytelling” has become a common opinion on the newspaper’s pages, but its condemnation of the Pentagon on Monday did not cohesively explain the relationship between those two arguments. The films that the state newspaper has condemned as “flavorless” flops in recent months have no overt military themes: the climate alarmist film Avatar 2, Disney’s remake of The Little Mermaid, and the fifth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, starring 80-year-old Harrison Ford.

The Global Times also did not explain how it reached the conclusion that studios that do not accept communist censorship will fail while simultaneously using Top Gun: Maverick — which made over $1 billion in worldwide box office sales without a Chinese release — as its example.

The state newspaper also omitted the growing, intrusive presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Chinese films, which the Communist Party has increasingly used to elbow American films out of Chinese theaters. The most successful of these ventures has been a series of films about the Korean War, narrating stories told from the perspective of Chinese and North Korean communist fighters. The Battle at Lake Changjin, the top movie at the Chinese box office in 2021, told the story of Chinese communist “volunteers” defeating villainous American troops in a Korean War battle. The film featured poor special effects and low-quality action but broke box office records thanks to Chinese regime pressure on the population to watch it in theaters as a “patriotic” duty.

Beijing aggressively pressured citizens to watch the movie, encouraging them to eat frozen potatoes while watching it to live a small part of the experience of fighting the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea,” the Chinese regime’s name for the Korean War.

Last year, the Chinese government produced a sequel to Lake Changjin, called Water Gate Bridge, that suffered from the same production shortcomings and did not reach the same level of success as its precursor.

This year’s military propaganda blockbuster was Born to Fly, which the Global Times nakedly described as China’s “answer” to Top Gun: Maverick — supposedly infused with “the spiritual inheritance present among China’s past and present Air Force generations” — and thus superior to the American “popcorn movie.” The film, about PLA fighter pilots, was first intended to be released in October for the anniversary of the founding of communist China, but producers shelved it with minimal explanation, promising “better production effects.”

“Some in China who have seen Born to Fly have said that the movie disappointed the Chinese air force because of both its overall perceived shabbiness,” the Hollywood Reporter reported, “and its mistaken reference to China’s proudly homemade J-20 jet as a ‘fourth-generation’ stealth fighter, rather than, correctly, a more advanced, fifth-generation plane of its kind.”

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