December 17, 1903, was the day which transformed everything from travel to how wars were fought. On a stretch of baron land in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, became the first people to ever take flight on their hand-built airplane. Fast-forward 120 years, and the aviation industry is booming (and screwing everybody over). While planes look drastically different from the designs of Orville and Wilbur, their creation is responsible for transporting hundreds of millions of people across the world every year.
Additionally, their relatively simplistic concept has aided air forces all over the globe to win wars, transport life-saving supplies, and even send astronauts into space. Aviation is commonly deployed in film production with drones and helicopters used to capture some truly majestic scenes. Likewise, there have been some equally majestic movies that have made the air force the subject of action and drama. Let’s take a look at the best movies about the air force…
7 Good Kill
New Zealander Andrew Niccol, the man behind 2011’s In Time and 2005’s fantastic, underrated Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War, was at the directorial guard for 2014’s Good Kill. A film that put Ethan Hawke at the center of the action as Major Thomas Egan, a US drones pilot during the war in Afghanistan. A film that is inherently anti-war, Good Kill follows Egan who is operating in a Portakabin, thousands of miles from where his decisions are wreaking havoc.
Good Kill demonstrates how the psychological conflict and torment of the inhumanity of the job take their toll on the operation’s orchestrators, and how the new technologies being used by the Air Force can be extremely deadly and even dehumanizing for the pilots.
Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut concerns the fascinating true story of former American long-distance Olympian, Louis Zamperini (played tremendously by Jack O’Connell). An inspiring chronicle of courage, bravery, and resilience in the face of evil, Unbroken chronicles Zamperini’s terrifying ordeal as a Japanese Prisoner of War after his plane crashes in the Pacific. Victimized by the hateful officer, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi) throughout his imprisonment, Zamperini must fight for his survival and ever-dwindling hope.
5 Tora! Tora! Tora!
Scooping the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, the 1970 classic, Tora! Tora! Tora! provides an alternative view, from the Axis perspective. As Japanese fighter jets descended on Pearl Harbor during the winter of 1941, unbeknownst to them, they were about to open a can of worms that had two atomic bombs bubbling invisibly underneath the surface. A groundbreaking, unique film for the time, Tora! Tora! ToraI was a co-production of American and Japanese artists that tries to humanize air force pilots on each side of the war.
Written and directed by a variety of filmmakers (including uncredited work from the distinguished mind of Akira Kurosawa, the film tells the tale of the growing tensions and unrest between the Americans and the Japanese, culminating in the Japanese attack on the US naval base, Pearl Harbour. A movie that is exceptionally acted, thoughtfully paced, and historically accurate.
4 The Right Stuff
The subject of the 2020 Disney+ serialized remake, 1983’s The Right Stuff was written and directed by the Philip Kaufman and based on the classic non-fiction book from Tom Wolfe. The film tells the story of the U.S. space program and how it began in the late ’50s and early ’60s, attempting to break the sound barrier with the Mercury Project, using some of the bravest test pilots in the history of aviation.
The film tells the story of the Mercury 7 (members of the Air Force, Army, and Navy) who’d make the unprecedented voyage into space in the early 1960s. The historical epic is an all-encompassing take on the goings-on at NASA during the operation’s build-up and all the complications involved, and is one of the rare, red-blooded patriotic films that is actually a masterpiece
3 Top Gun
The sorely missed Tony Scott’s aerodynamic Air Force classic was a truly iconic 80s title. Pitting Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell up against Val Kilmer’s Tom Kazansky, two up-and-comers in the revered Top Gun program.
Set against the soundtrack of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” Top Gun served as a cultural reference point, and building block for Tom Cruise’s future endeavors as a big-budget, blockbuster action star. The film follows Maverick’s daredevil antics in the cockpit, and his attempts at swooning his civilian instructor, Charlie (Kelly McGillis).
A film that seems to feature heavily in lists of military movies, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t a film that one would naturally associate with the Air Force, yet in his sensationally shot, cinematic chronicle, the Memento director relies heavily on a three-point-perspective. From land, sea, and air we are given a multidimensional view of the evacuation efforts of the allied forces, and the British public.
Tom Hardy stars as Farrier, a supremely talented spitfire pilot who is embroiled in a nerve-dangling dogfight with the Luftwaffe as he tries to ward off the aerial assault on the vulnerable British troops in Normandy. A film that expresses the true meaning of valiance, and the sheer skill and nerveless temperament of the pilots involved.
1 Top Gun: Maverick
The film and actor that Steven Spielberg attributed to “saving Hollywood’s ass” and “even theatrical distribution,” the Tom Cruise-led Top Gun: Maverick was the highest-grossing movie of 2022, and the critical love-in equaled the commercial hype. 36 years after the release of the 1986 original, Cruise was back to reprise the role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
In this action-stroke-military propaganda flick, Mitchell, now a middle-aged man, still haunted by the death of his dear co-pilot and friend, “Goose,” is now an instructor in the air force’s Top Gun program training up new recruits for a special mission involving an unnamed country and the destruction of its suspicious uranium enrichment plant. Top Gun: Maverick is an all-action, G-force-defying affair, that balances dipping into episodes of nostalgic reminiscence while also keeping an eye firmly on the landing-strip of the present.