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Can Hollywood magic help fix the current Navy pilot shortage?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In 1986, the film "Top Gun" debuted. Navy recruitment soared, as well as the understanding that the Navy has fighter pilots. So can the sequel, 36 years later, help fix the current pilot shortage in the Navy? Steve Walsh with member station KPBS reports.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: On a sunny day at a Navy base near San Diego, Tom Cruise was on message.

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TOM CRUISE: It's a celebration of the Navy. It's a celebration of aviation. It's a celebration, I think, of our country.

WALSH: Cruise was at Naval Air Station North Island for the premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick." Several scenes were shot at the base. Surrounded by sailors in front of the base theater, Cruise worked the red carpet. The megastar said he shares the Navy's high hopes for the long-awaited sequel. Paramount paid the Navy more than $5 million. Much of the money was spent to retrofit real F-18 Super Hornets with cameras. Real Navy pilots do the flying, putting actors and the audience in the cockpit. It's part of a long tradition of Hollywood working with the military. Nick Cull teaches media and history at USC.

NICK CULL: On the Pentagon side of things, they wanted to have the best of the U.S. military represented, and they knew that if filmmakers wanted to have tanks and aircraft carriers and aircraft featuring in their movies, they would be willing to concede certain aspects of creative input.

WALSH: Though it can be tough for the Pentagon to live up to the Hollywood hype, Cull says.

CULL: Why can't we succeed in Iraq or Afghanistan? The difficulties of operating in these kinds of situations are underestimated when we have these fantasies of exaggerated competence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

ED HARRIS: (As Rear Admiral Chester Cain) You should be at least a two star admiral by now. Yet here you are, Captain.

ROBERT NEWELL: I do think that the country knows that they're going to see a movie, and they can make their own judgments.

WALSH: Bob Newell directs the Navy's program that works with the entertainment industry. He says the Navy reviews the script to see if it upholds the values of the service, realizing fewer people have a direct connection to the military.

NEWELL: That has started to wane. And so people don't have and communities don't have those connections that they used to. Everybody can't go out to an aircraft carrier, but everybody can go to a movie theater.

WALSH: And the Navy could use a hit right now. The original film is legendary among Navy recruiters, driving up interest in naval aviation 10 years after Vietnam. Captain Kevin Ferguson was the Navy's technical advisor on the "Top Gun" sequel. Standing in front of an F-18 on North Island, he admits he became a pilot after seeing the original film in the 1980s. Ferguson flies for both the reserves, as well as Delta Airlines. Commercial aviation has always drawn military pilots. And the competition for pilots, he says, is heating up.

KEVIN FERGUSON: You have to retire at age 65. So you do the math. You get a lot of people that are falling off the cliff there. The airlines, all of them, did not necessarily plan in advance. And then COVID hit, and a lot of people, you know, took early retirements and left. What we're left with now is a massive resurgence in travel demand and not enough people to fill it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Then look at Eric (ph). There we go.

WALSH: Outside the premiere, a group of young sailors were waiting for the filmmakers. Some of them admitted they either hadn't seen the original or had watched it the night before. Seaman Recruit Charles Poindexter used to watch the film with his dad as a kid.

CHARLES POINDEXTER: My dad - he was excited. I called him yesterday. He was like, oh, man, you about to go see Tom Cruise. I was like, yeah, you know. He's like, oh, that's my favorite actor. You know, I got to - you got to get some pictures, get a whole lot of pictures.

WALSH: Whether at the box office or the recruiter's office, we'll know soon enough whether the franchise can handle one last mission.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANGER ZONE")

KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) Highway to the danger zone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.