Selling the Rope

By Kevin Shannahan/Opinion

“The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” – V.I. Lenin

Vladimir Lenin’s prescient quote is more relevant today, 97 years after his death, than it was during the early days of the Soviet Union. After all, aside from oil, vodka and the AK-47, Lenin and his successors had little influence upon the world economy. Regretfully, such is not the case for Communist China.

When the first Top Gun movie came out in 1986, I was a young Air Force officer in a subterranean and considerably less glamorous area of the military, North Dakota being rather bereft of beach volleyball opportunities. The movie was a tremendous amount of fun. Top Gun had flying, cheesy lines and singing to Kelly McGillis. Then there was the opportunity to poke jest at our Naval brethren in those days before “don’t ask, don’t tell” about the disturbing lack of a feminine touch in the shirtless, oily beach volleyball scene and the really good time everyone seemed to be having in the locker room.

And now, 34 years later, there will be a sequel to Top Gun. From the trailers I have seen, it promises to be a stunning piece of cinematography. Advances in filmmaking make the flying scenes simply breathtaking. I was also interested in how the film would treat a Pete “Maverick” Mitchell who was no longer the young officer of 30 plus years ago. For all the campy and over the top scenes, the first Top Gun was, at heart, a serious film. Sacrifice, self-discovery, overcoming adversity and courage in fulfilling your responsibilities marked Maverick’s journey through the movie. At the end, he was more than a gifted, if immature, aviator, he became a Naval officer.

I was looking forward to the second Top Gun movie’s release. A pity, as I will not be seeing it and I rather hope it is a dismal failure at the box office. The movie may be a superbly beautiful paean to military aviation. The characters may exemplify all that is right and good about military service. That is of no import, the movie is irredeemably marred by its maker’s moral failure.

There is an iconic part of Maverick’s uniform, his father’s aviator’s jacket from Vietnam, that he wears in scenes throughout the movie. In the 1986 movie, there was a patch on the back of the jacket with the US, UN , Japanese and Taiwanese flags. In the trailer for the second Top Gun, Cruise’s character reaches into a locker festooned with unit stickers, takes out the jacket and puts it on. Superficially, it is the same jacket. A closer look shows a telling difference. In that single scene, my desire to see the movie turned to ashes in my mouth. The Japanese and Taiwanese flags were replaced with flags containing meaningless shapes in colors similar to the flags in the original jacket. Communist China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and relations with Japan have always been fraught since the second world war. Their flags disappeared.

This change may seem to be minor and of no consequence, but it is not. The movie’s credits include Tencent Pictures, a Chinese company. Nor is this an isolated incident. Another movie, an animated children’s film “Abominable” about a Yeti in China, had a scene in a child’s room in which there was a map of China on the wall. The map included the Chinese “Nine-Line” maritime border, a border disputed by its neighbors. Nor is the exercise of Chinese soft power confined to the movie industry. The NBA is incredibly popular in China and makes quite a bit of money there. The reaction of the league, and some of its more famous players, to an executive tweeting support of democracy protesters in Hong Kong and the subsequent economic threats to the league were telling. China represents a huge part of the international market for movies, the entry of which into the country is controlled by the government. Lenin must be looking up from his dank corner of Hell and wishing that his sealed train stopped in China rather than Finland Station.

The situation with the second Top Gun movie is the most disturbing, however. Parts of the movie were filmed on an aircraft carrier. Military aircraft are used throughout the film. Naval aviators helped with filming the movie. It is probably unknowable if the Navy knew of the switched patches. At this point it does not matter. In China’s eyes every time that scene plays, their view of the world is advanced.

There is another quote from V.I. Lenin we would be wise to remember: “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.”

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