It’s an action thriller about an F-14 fighter pilot and volleyball ace who gets tapped for special training with the best of his peers. Soon he’s tangling with bad guys over the Middle East in the 1980s.
Top Gun? Not quite. It’s Passion of Flight, Iran’s awesomely-bad, ahistorical 2012 miniseries about the life of Iranian military hero and martyr Abbas Babaei.
For those unfamiliar with the nationalist fighter pilot propaganda convention, they’re starting to become the new hotness. In 2011 China churned out Sky Fighters. South Korea followed with Return 2 Base a year later.
Maybe it’s that the 1986 Tony Scott film showed how a little bit of government cooperation in the prop department—the U.S. Navy rented out F-14s and allowed shots of the USS Enterprise for Top Gun—can make for friendly military PR and hefty box office returns.
Or maybe it’s just that dashing fighter pilots jet through a special place in the public imagination.
Both Top Gun and Passion of Flight are devotionals to their countries’ flying aces. But each approaches the genre differently, largely because of varying historical contexts.
Top Gun came out after “Morning in America” had dawned but while unease over the Vietnam war and the military still lingered. Maverick’s attempt to make it through the Top Gun fighter school and be the best pilot he can be isn’t just a quest to rehabilitate his father’s legacy.
It’s also an allegory for the military’s attempt to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of everyday Americans.
The 1980s resonate differently for Iranians. Passion of Flight is set against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war. To Iranians, it’s known as “the imposed war”—imposed, that is, by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
The war stretched on for seven awful years, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted untold suffering among civilians on both sides.
The biopic series tells the story—at least the official version of it—of “Martyr” Abbas Babaei’s role in the war and his rise from fighter pilot for the Shah to major general for the revolutionary Ayatollah.
Babaei, who died in the air over Iraq during the conflict, is a legend in Iranian media, with adoring fans and a burial place of honor at a shrine in his hometown of Qazvin.
We witness Babaei’s life through the prism of two unlikely modern-day biographers, the husband-and-wife team of Massoud and Leili. The two start out as the picture of lackluster patriotism, unmoored from Iran’s revolutionary ideals. Massoud lands a job in Canada and plans to bring his wife, still working on a book about Western sociology in Iran, along with him.
During their separation, Leili develops a curiosity about Babaei that turns into compulsion as she abandons her book project and begins work on a biography of the martyr. When she falls into a coma, Massoud retraces her steps and is inspired to finish her project.
Where Top Gun looked to reform a country’s attitudes about war, Passion of Flight tries to rekindle them. It’s a call for Iranians to rededicate themselves to their country, put aside their own interests and sacrifice for the greater good of the regime just as the marble men of yesteryear had before them.
If this comes off as thickly layered jingoism and propaganda, it should. The Foundation of Martyrs and Veteran Affairs, a nominally non-governmental organization which provides services to veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and has strong ties to the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, paid for the series.
The show thanks the Iranian military for its assistance—in the opening credits. It’s a sign of the military’s support for the project and an official endorsement of its message.
And it shows. The series’ emphasis on sacrifice and grace under hardship sounds propaganda notes that should be familiar to anyone who consumes Iranian state media. The pilots decry the perfidy of the West for arming Iraqi forces, with France sending Super Etendard jets and Exocet missiles to Hussein’s air force.
Meanwhile, the ever-important talking point that Iran’s ingenuity trumps its isolation is always apparent. “Innovation is born out of limitations,” Babaei reminds his officers after they struggle with the lack of replacement parts for their fighter jets.
Anyone expecting an historical drama will come away disappointed. Passion of Flight is an uncomfortable blend of soap opera and state-sponsored morality play.
Abbas is the hero in two dimensions, a caricature like the young George Washington of myth who simply could not tell a lie. He is endlessly kind, selfless and religiously devout, adored by all who knew him and possessed of superhuman martial skills—in short, utterly lacking in believability as a character or even historical representation.
In the show Abbas the leader eschews the privileges of rank as he moves up the ladder of Iran’s revolutionary military, giving up more comfortable officer housing and handing off his children’s beloved new color TV to their friends, newly fatherless as a result of the war.
He leads by example, astounding a gardener with forgiveness and religious counseling after the man gets caught drunk on base during the revolution.
Okay—the historical record paints a somewhat different picture of Babaei. While there’s little independent source material about his life, many accounts of his life attest that he was far from the gentle, forgiving and universally beloved commanding officer as he’s portrayed in Passion.
When aviation reporters Farzad Bishop and Tom Cooper wrote a history of Iranian F-14s in the combat, they found Babaei had a reputation for being “merciless” towards underlings who displayed anything less than total fidelity to the new clerical regime.
Many Iranian officers the two interviewed still view Babaei with contempt, some claiming that he never actually qualified to fly the powerful, twin-seat F-14.
The show’s action scenes are a mix of computer-generated footage and carefully-edited shots of Iranian fighter jets in flight. They show the Iranian air force surprising Iraqi jets at a secret refueling location and knocking invading aircraft out of the sky.
Passion depicts Abbas flying missions as both a pilot and a backseat radar intercept officer. But some believe he never made it out of the back seat of an F-5. Official details about Babaei’s missions are murky and incomplete Iranian media often cite a figure of roughly 60 missions in his career.
Of course, no Top Gun knockoff would be complete without an ill-fated buddy for its protagonist to play off and in this respect Passion doesn’t disappoint. Saeed Khojastefeh steps in as the series’ Goose to Babaei’s Maverick, right down to his blonde, Meg Ryan-esque American wife.
Abbas and Saeed meet in training before the revolution and bond during their training from the U.S. Air Force in Texas, where Saeed links up with his future wife.
In true Goose fashion, Saeed ultimately drowns after ejecting from his plane. Babaei watches in horror from a nearby jet as the tanker escort mission over the Persian Gulf goes south, Iraqi jets strafing Saeed’s plane into oblivion.
With mournful, Harold Faltermeyer-like synth music, the air force fishes Saeed out of the Gulf next to shots of a pensive Babaei against an ocean sunset. You’d be forgiven for half-expecting to see Abbas ride off from the scene with a motorcycle and bomber jacket.
But it’s Babaei’s martyrdom that forms the emotional core of the series. The final episode shows Babaei taking on a dangerous mission to take out an Iraqi radar base on the Eid holiday.
This parallels historical accounts, sparse as they are, that Babaei reportedly died over Iraq in the backseat of an F-5 in 1987. According to the memoirs of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the chairman of Iran’s parliament, he was hit in the head by anti-aircraft fire and died instantly.
If 16 hours of TV that’s long on plodding melodrama and short on action scenes and special effects isn’t quite your thing, don’t worry. Iran still has you covered. Fortunately, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is a generous, ahem, patron of the arts—subsidizing lots of propaganda thrillers besides Passion of Flight.