Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Should this exist? It’s one of the earliest questions an artist asks in the course of the creative process. The question isn’t inherently any loftier than when you ask yourself whether or not you should describe a dream to a friend. Oftentimes it’s tantamount to Would someone want to experience this? Would this be boring for the listener/viewer/reader? Sometimes, though, the stakes are greater. In the case of Olympus Has Fallen, Antoine Fuqua’s inflammatorily jingoistic and sentimentally violent new action picture about a group of North Korean terrorists taking violent control of the White House, the question should've been asked early and answered in the negative.
When the plane crashes through the Washington Monument and into the White House, the faces of the attackers appear onscreen: Asian men and women with machine guns and RPGs. One attacker executes a high kick maneuver that scans as martial arts, because, of course they’re doing martial arts to kill Americans. They’re Asian.
Essentially Die Hard set in the seat of American power, Olympus Has Fallen opens with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, of the similarly noxious 300) failing to rescue both the POTUS (Aaron Eckhart) and the FLOTUS (Ashley Judd) during a car accident near Camp David. He makes a decision and saves just the prez, which downgrades him to dull work at the National Treasury. Which is great, actually, as his new office now looks down upon the White House. When all hell breaks loose and the North Koreans siege the landmark by means of a large plane, dump trucks, and suicide bombers (just to name a few), he’s positioned perfectly to get into the building, John McClane-style.
The attack is the first sign that this is more than a bad shoot-em-up. On the day that the South Korean prime minister is visiting the White House, a large and ominous plane flies into D.C. airspace unannounced. American fighter jets can’t take it down. The large machine guns fixed to the plane gun down everything. They’re killing U.S. civilians, police officers, members of the armed services, secret service agents, and even dogs. They’re killing everything. (Luckily, Banning’s wife works in a hospital, so when the film needs to remind you how angry you should be, it can always cut back to her to, you know, announce that a 6-year-old has just been brought into the ER and she’s failing.)
When the plane crashes through the Washington Monument and into the White House, the faces of the attackers appear onscreen: Asian men and women with machine guns and RPGs. One attacker executes a high kick maneuver that scans as martial arts, because, of course they’re doing martial arts to kill Americans. They’re Asian. Later, when the dust has settled, Fuqua reveals that they’re a North Korean terrorist force. Of course.
When asked what drew him to the picture, Fuqua explained that his initial thought was, “If I could ground this and make it real, then I’d be interested in the project. I wanted to give it some substance and relevance, since terrorism is a part of our lives today.” When pressed about the implications of singling out a force from a particular (and real) country and how that might be received, he explained the focus should be on the individual terrorist and his particular motivation. He then proceeded to describe Kang in a slower, more thoughtful way than the film does. “North Korea itself is not attacking us in the film. It’s one individual with personal issues.” In the film, the fact that the lead terrorist’s mother was killed by an American land mine is a piece of information glossed over so quickly, never to be spoken about again, that it feels like nothing. Especially when compared with the national pain and suffering evoked when you show a plane crashing into an American landmark.
Meanwhile, in the popcorn-munching world of the film, the American hero is inside the White House collecting all the guns. He needs more of them, because he is one and they are many. Thus, get this man the guns. Yes, this is a film about the importance of having lots of the right firepower in case of an emergency. Given the current conversation about gun violence, the image of Butler seated in the Oval Office filling his waist with weapons is potent.
Don’t dwell on it, though. It’s not that potent an image after all, because this is entertainment. “You don’t want the entertainment to get buried under politics,” Fuqua said. “Because this is entertainment. It’s a fiction. I hope people won’t look at my film as a political statement. But I think it’s OK to make entertainment that makes you think.”
At Olympus you’re meant to cheer and feel excited when Banning—no joke—beats a North Korean terrorist to death with a bust of Abraham Lincoln.
Because so much of the marketing and awards talk around Zero Dark Thirty revolved around its accuracy and realism, the film came under fire for its depiction of torture. Invoking words like “documentary” invites a rigorous scrutiny (and in general the film is of such high quality, and deals with such difficult subject matter—the September 11th attacks and American shame—that it demands a conversation). ZDT director Kathryn Bigelow should’ve taken Fuqua’s approach and claimed entertainment status instead. That way, your film becomes untouchable. It’s fake, guys. Nothing to see here. Butler’s character can “interrogate” two men to death with a knife and no one will blink.
The most frightening prospect is that audiences won’t even notice these things. But in reality Olympus Has Fallen is more problematic than any ZDT-style picture, precisely because it’s billed as popcorn fare. “Entertainment,” Fuqua said. At least have the guts to call this fear-mongering motion picture what it is: propaganda. That’s what we call the North Korean-made videos uploaded to YouTube that depict similar scenarios to what Olympus serves up. Only at Olympus you’re meant to cheer and feel excited when Banning—no joke—beats a North Korean terrorist to death with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. It sounds like it must be parody, but it’s not. This is jingoism, and poorly executed jingoism at that.
In the film, a former Secret Service agent is revealed to be working with Kang. Why does the one American traitor choose to work for the terrorists? These are the exact reasons given, and in the order viewers hear them. Because “globalization.” Because “Wall Street.” Because he “lost his way.” That makes just as little sense in the film as it does here. He would’ve been a good man if somebody had been there to threaten him with a bust of a former president every minute of his life. But good men are hard to find. Either because the North Koreans are always killing them—remember, they kill everything, even dogs—or because they lack Banning’s guts. He’s a guy who can make the hard decisions.
What is the use of the film that invokes a tragedy like 9/11 and will surely fill the Internet with racist vitriol against Koreans, and probably Asians in general? This is exactly what North Korea does with its propaganda. Why do the same thing under the guise of fun and excitement? If there’s a lesson here, it’s “Hoard your guns. Only a strong white male can save us. The government is weak and won’t make the right decisions. It takes a courageous man who isn’t afraid to inflict harm to get things done.” This is the same quasi-fascist ideology of the action pictures of the 1980s, when Reagan was president. But Reagan isn’t in office now, so what gives?
Olympus Has Fallen is repulsive. It only hurts, only fosters antagonism and fear by superficially evoking past tragedies and failing to provide real discourse about the troubling realities of today. And it shouldn’t exist.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)