There’s so much blather in these post-massacre days about how violence onscreen might or might not influence violence in the real world that it’s shocking how few commentators (not to mention legislators) have bothered to examine the fantasy behind the films they decry. There’s a template here, a recurrent theme that hinges on two things: violation and retaliation.
The roots go deep in American popular culture — and in film, back to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), the first blockbuster vigilante picture. It’s all there: a government that’s powerless or corrupt, women who are under attack by alien others, and enlightened individuals (here, the Klan) who are forced to take justice into their own hands to reclaim their rightful-righteous supremacy. Skipping ahead, we come to Death Wish (1974), starring Charles Bronson as a New Yorker whose wife and daughter are raped (his wife dies; his daughter goes mad) and who becomes a vigilante, the lone hunter in an urban jungle where the animals rule.
Fast-forward to 1988 and a new but related template in Die Hard. After an attack by foreigners on American soil, an emasculated New York cop — out of his jurisdiction (in La-La Land), with no gun (or shoes) and a wife who has reverted to her maiden name — scuttles around behind the scenes killing terrorists in defiance of arrogant bureaucrats in the police department and FBI. He wins, of course: He’s all American and all man. And so is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), the Secret Service hero of the incredibly brutal Olympus Has Fallen.
The movie is Die Hard squared — far more Die Hard–ish than any of the low-impact Die Hard sequels. Banning has been banished from the White House after a split-second decision to save the life of the president (Aaron Eckhart) at the expense of the First Lady (Ashley Judd). It was the right call — his superior (Angela Bassett) knows it — but not protecting one’s women is a big stigma in this kind of movie. This formerly treasured agent moves across town so as not to remind the POTUS and his son, Connor (Finley Jacobson), of that tragic night. But then comes the supreme violation and the chance to restore his honor. The North Korean supervillain even points that out in the course of taunting Banning about his past failures. Images of Lincoln and Kennedy abound to remind us of what the ultimate failure would be.
The plot: During a presidential meeting with South Korean diplomats, some kind of souped-up cargo plane invades D.C. air space, riddling people (Secret Service and bystanders alike) with bullets and firing into the White House. Half the Washington Monument crumbles — symbolic on a couple of levels. Olympus — the code name for the White House — falls. Terrorists shoot almost everyone inside and take the president, the vice-president, and the secretary of State (Melissa Leo) hostage in an underground vault. But one man drives like mad to the scene, dodges bullets and explosions as agents drop around him, and gets inside, alone but on his game.
The North Korean psycho mouths leftist-sounding slogans (globalization, Wall Street perfidy) and surrounds himself with an assemblage of Asians, Middle Easterners, and people of darker hues, plus a turncoat agent. A TV newscaster reports the Middle East response to the White House attack is “jubilant.” Yes, some on the “Arab street” rejoiced after 9/11, but the reminder here is gratuitous. What we Americans — personified by Banning — can do is defend ourselves. In one scene, he uses a bust of Lincoln to bust the head of a foreign terrorist. See how we turn our icons into weapons of destruction.
Olympus Has Fallen is a disgusting piece of work, but it certainly hits its marks — it makes you sick with suspense. The director, Antoine Fuqua, gave us Training Day and other movies that made a pretense of using violence as more than a means of getting us off. But this is straight-ahead red-meat right-wing xenophobic exploitation. The carnage is cruel and crude. Waves of people go down in showers of gore. The Stars and Stripes is shot full of holes and ripped down — it drifts to the ground in slow motion.
Waiting for word in the situation room is what’s left of the government — including Bassett’s Secret Service director and Morgan Freeman as the speaker of the House turned acting president, a role for which he’s well prepared, having shepherded us through a comet strike in the late-nineties. When Banning phones in from the Oval Office, some of the bureaucrats are dubious: They remember the First Lady’s death. And Robert Forster’s general scowls under his hair plugs and ignores Banning’s advice not to send in the SEALs or they’ll be slaughtered. Guess what he does and guess what happens.
Butler doesn’t evince much personality, but he’s solid — by which I mean he moves well and he’s all muscle. Of Banning, Bassett’s director tells Freeman’s president, “He will move mountains or die trying.” Banning doesn’t move mountains, but he shoots, stabs, and strangles a lot of bad guys. The preview audience loved it when he tortured a couple. When he plunged a knife in the throat of one to get the other to talk, they nearly died laughing. They also loved it when Melissa Leo — having been pounded to a pulp — spit through a mouthful of blood, “Fuck you.” She takes the punishment, well, manfully. Retaliation when it comes must hurt. We need to see in the violator’s eyes an acknowledgment of his — and, by extension, our — superiority.
Here I must admit that a lot of not-twisted people enjoy violent junk like Olympus Has Fallen, including, on occasion, moi. But I’m disturbed by the way in which these tropes hold sway over large segments of the populace. Obviously we face real threats, as individuals and a country. But to walk around waiting — and dreaming — of the assault (on our women, our homes, our flag) that will allow us to pull out our weapons and start blasting seems … maladaptive. The disproportionate number of violation and retaliation scenarios suggests an outright addiction. I don’t know what it means, but I know that these films don’t help us to understand and master our fears — they perpetuate those fears and then deliver surges of relief. They’ve helped create a class of men who wander around looking for a bloody fix.