(Article changed on August 21, 2013 at 12:26)
The action-thriller Olympus Has Fallen is now out on DVD, and just in time for the August exercises the U.S. and South Korea are conducting against North Korea. To clarify, Olympus Has Fallen is the besieged-White House flick that sold a lot of tickets this year. That it scored at the box office should be of grave concern to thinking people, for action pic director Antoine Fuqua has delivered the kind of movie whose main purpose seems to be to stir the country up to support war against the people it depicts as the enemy. It does for North Korea what 300 did for Iran. In other words, it's a propagandistic, bloodthirsty, button-pushing, racist, fascist, ultra-macho, oppressively violent, self-serving, and simplistic piece of patriotism porn.
Just like in regular porn, the dialogue in Olympus' patriotism porn is cliched, and the married screenwriting couple Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt apparently deemed no line too brazenly manipulative or Fox News-cheesy for inclusion. (This is their first produced feature film, though Rothenberger previously won the Nicholl Fellowship for a script about the Korean War.) The basic plot of Olympus Has Fallen is that the President of the United States is taken hostage by rogue North Koreans who have infiltrated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Of course he declares courageously that he will not negotiate with terrorists. Of course we're told that the reason they hate us is for our freedoms. Of course both the President (Aaron Eckhart) and, after he becomes incapacitated, the acting president (Morgan Freeman), make speeches about how the American way of life will not be compromised, and about how Americans never rise to the occasion more than when we are tested. The patriotism porn reaches a fever pitch when the female Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), after being brutalized by thugs, is dragged off to be raped, tortured, and/or murdered. As she goes, she defiantly spits out a guttural, disdainful mantra: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States." (It's a moment of sexism in disguise: whatever achievement the promotion of someone of her gender to this lofty portfolio might bring is undermined by the tacit message that a female Defense Secretary is vulnerable.)
In Olympus Has Fallen's scenario, we're supposed to believe that North Koreans can take over the White House by attacks from the air with a handful of fighter planes which look like they're from WWII -- and that somehow NORAD, the FAA, the Pentagon, the Secret Service, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, the Washington police, and Washingtonians themselves will all either fail in resisting them or cower in hiding. The principal initial battlefield of the invasion is the front lawn of the White House, where a gun fight takes place between the Secret Service and young-punk Koreans. (The motley group of hostile Koreans look like tourists and students before breaking through the iron gates -- the unspoken lesson of this sequence being: don't trust Koreans. Even if they resemble everyday assimilated Korean-Americans, they might be a threat from within!) Once the terrorists have snuck into 1600 Pennsylvania, they bypass all of the Secret Service's precautions and gain access to the Commander-in-Chief's military and communication consoles -- they don't have to take over the whole country, just its hub.
Like any classic work of fascist propaganda, the movie requires us to believe that we, the pure and principled ones, are small, helpless, beleaguered, and abused, and oh so brave to resist, while the enemy is gargantuan, venal, ruthless, and inhumanly powerful -- and oh so barbaric when they take up arms. (This is also the exact scenario in 300.) There's a recurring double-standard throughout the film which reveals North Koreans committing horrifying atrocities as signs of their savagery, yet when the film's American hero does almost exactly the same things, it's supposed to be because of his high principles.
Also revealing is the inclusion of Forbes, a well-educated, urbane peacemaker with White House access. He's up to no good, of course, because he argues that the North Koreans might have a point. (Message: you're either unbudgingly intolerant, or you're with the terrorists!) Forbes throws terms around meaninglessly; his objections to President Asher, who he feels has sold out to "globalization" and "Wall Street," are so fleeting they're like brand names rather than concepts. He's critical of the President for catering to the rich, but we are shown little by which to gage this complaint. And much like his copy in 300 -- a politician who tries to hold his fellow Spartans back from war with Persia -- Forbes turns out to be a traitor without a conscience. His veneer of reason masks a vicious heart. How lovely that the faithless turncoat isn't just in favor of foreign diplomacy, but also urges support for social justice at home! That's exactly the kind of guy we want on our side.
And there's President Asher, a basically good guy, a sensitive widower who has no more color or backbone than his plain name. He couldn't save his wife during a car accident in the prologue, and later when terrorists start torturing people in front of him, he breaks, too tender-hearted to watch others suffer. If the fate of the country were left in his hands, the film would end in Armageddon.
By contrast, Olympus elevates the brave he-man who sees things in black and white. Of course: he doesn't engage in "endless palaver," as Ann Coulter would say, but actually gets things done! Mike Banning, a buff, gruff, once top-level Secret Service agent defends the White House single-handedly against the foreign attack, and director Fuqua casts the same beefcake swaggerer as 300 did to spearhead its cult of machismo: Gerard Butler. Though Butler was effective in a feature directed by Ralph Fiennes which had striking anti-militaristic tones (the 2011 film of Shakespeare's Coriolanus), I take it that this Scottish actor has no speaking engagements at "Win Without War" rallies in his future: he was one of the producers of Olympus and spoke admiringly about how relevant the movie was -- it hit theatres this past spring, just when North Korea was using particularly bellicose rhetoric. (The fact that the U.S. and its South Korean ally were also waging mock-military exercises against it at the time is not supposed to matter at all. The U.S. government and the compliant mainstream media always manage to put the onus on North Korea regardless of America's actions -- just witness the first line of The Washington Post's Aug. 19th story on the current drills: "North Korea on Tuesday criticized South Korea-U.S. military drills with milder-than-usual language that is being seen as a sign of its interest in keeping up diplomacy.")
Olympus is Agent Banning's movie, though he's not witty like James Bond or even John McClane in Die Hard. Butler has little in the way of the dry one-liners we expect from big action movies -- this film is a bleak, humorless affair overall. But he has a few. Perhaps most indelibly, when Banning overpowers and captures a couple of armed North Koreans inside the White House, he questions them at knifepoint. One of them, terrified, starts to answer in Korean, so Banning stabs him in the leg and yells "In English!" This got a big laugh in the theater. If the CIA and the Pentagon were not already heavily investing in gaining access to Hollywood (they are) this moment alone would convince them to do so. It's a primer of bigotry-in-the-making; it's a paradigm of how brainwashing works under the guise of entertainment.
Of course a crucial part of the equation is that the Koreans in the film are inscrutable -- both the good ones and the bad ones. In the North Korean surprise attack on the seat of U.S. government, the fighter pilots wear helmets that are almost like masks, their mouths firmly set and their impassive faces robotic. The North Korean terrorist thugs who capture the President and some of his Cabinet mostly just brood, looking tough and mean; their main characteristic is their hatred of America. The only Korean character with any significant dialogue at all is the terrorist mastermind Kang (Rick Yune), the fiend who plots the whole assault and who wishes for nothing less than America's complete destruction. (And who seems unaware that nuclear radiation travels, that the scale he's arranging for would reach Korea.)
We don't even get a chance to absorb any characteristics of the South Korean Prime Minister. Screenwriters Benedikt and Rothenberger might argue that this is just efficient storytelling, but somehow there's plenty of time for backstories about Agent Banning's feelings of guilt for the death of the First Lady, for conversations between him and his lady love, and for scenes between the president and his son. Perhaps a substantive conversation with the South Korean Prime Minister might have led us to ponder too many things like: One group of Koreans are our friends but one group are our enemies. One is human and the other is inhuman... and yet they look so alike... Is it possible that even the inhuman ones are human?
Fortunately for Fuqua, the script provides him instead with scenes of Kang ranting incoherently about his grievances, all of which sound meritless. (A core belief of the movie is that the U.S. couldn't possibly have done anything, ever in its history, that could have harmed another country. It's the kind of America that is attacked for its goodness.) Kang's actions speak far louder than his words anyway. He talks about unifying the two Koreas, but the fact he shoots the South Korean Prime Minister in the head, live on TV, makes it clear he doesn't mean unify in a good way.
The film comes up with its own speculative scenario about how North Koreans could nab POTUS and ultimately try to get access to our nuclear arsenal, and it's cleverer and more realistic than the Red Dawn remake last year in which North Korean commandos just suddenly parachute into a remote field outside a school in Middle America, with little explanation of how the U.S. could have been taken over by such a tiny, starving country. (Red Dawn was actually filmed, in 2010, with China as the enemy -- till they remembered they'd be losing their Chinese market, and switched the villain in post-production.) But with a little more forethought, Olympus' writers Rothenberger and Benedikt realized they didn't have to suggest that the North Korean government itself would launch the invasion. They came up with a way round it by having an outlaw, a long-time terrorist on the Peninsula, spearhead the whole operation.
In this way, Fuqua and his scribes can make use of a more inventive and supple villain than a national army, and I suppose they can even pretend they're not beating the drums of war. But the subconscious effect is the planting of the idea that North Korea is even more solidly a part of the Axis of Evil than Bush Jr. thought they were: look! they have their own evil terrorists too! And it doesn't even matter how many nukes they have: they can use ours!
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