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Air Force tribute slips into recruiting mode

Top Flight CBS, Tuesday, 8-9 p.m. Host: William Shatner. Executive producer: Arnold Shapiro. Producer/writer/director: Carol L. Fleisher. Rambo would love every moment of this documentary. But are you ready for a full hour of patriotic flag-waving that focuses on the glories of war with only a hint now and then of the evils of warfare?

Certainly, military preparedness is essential and Americans ought to be grateful to those who protect the United States from attack. And on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the US Air Force, a reasonable tribute is in order, although one might suspect that its underwriters - USAA, a national insurance and financial services company for military officers - might also have a self-serving motive.

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But isn't a full hour of swashbuckling tribute going just a bit overboard? Now and then this action-packed, hero-rich, nostalgic birthday party does make a bit of an attempt to balance the glories of the victories with the sadness of the fatalities. But then it unfurls that flag and starts waving again and again.

Most fascinating is the film footage from war movies, recruiting shorts, newsreels. The documentary even manages to find room for footage of the moonwalks, and a tribute to Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochrane, as well as a look at the contribution of other women to the Air Force.

Many remarkable people appear on screen - Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, Col. Gabby Gabreski, Maj. Theresa James Sr., Master Sgt. Duane Hackney, Col. Gail Halvorsen, and Capt. Mike Snodgrass. All are heroes in their own right.

There's thrilling real-life combat footage as well as movie combat footage. And the heroes reminisce, too, about the ``good old days'' of traditional warfare. For good measure, there is a peek at the elite Fighter Weapons School, where pilots are now being trained to fly F-16s.

``Top Flight'' is an hour-long recruiting poster. It is frankly patriotic - something that perhaps we have seen too little of in recent years. But viewers should be aware that their emotions are being adroitly manipulated. As the caps fly in the air at the Air Force graduation ceremony at the end of the film, you may even be inspired to throw your own hat into the sky. That's the kind of effect skilled propaganda films are supposed to have on viewers.

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