Part Kim Jong-un’s “the West must fall” fantasy come to life, part right wing wet dream and all around militarist anthem, Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen (2013) is an updated riff on John Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate (1962; though we’ve already had that in 2004, directed by Richard Condon) for a new, more merciless generation.
US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is taken hostage by North Korean fanatic Kang (Rick Yune) in the White House bunker, along with Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) and other members of the White House inner circle, and it’s up to disgraced Secret Service Agent and professional loner Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) to get him out and foil Kang’s plot.
Banning has fallen into official disfavor as the result of an accident in which the president’s wife, Margaret (Ashley Judd, in a brief cameo) plunges to her death in a frozen river on the way to a Presidential fundraiser on a snowy evening; though Banning really isn’t responsible, and saves the President from an equally watery grave, he’s racked by guilt – you know, he’s got to make up for it somehow.
Relegated to a desk job, Banning longs to get back into action, and the unfolding crisis gives him the perfect opportunity to pull a Bruce Willis/Die Hard riff and almost single handedly bring down the invading terrorist force. All around him, cops, civilians, and military personnel are being shot to ribbons, but somehow Banning survives the considerable amount of gunfire to worm his way into the White House basement, and start a counteroffensive.
Since the President and Vice President are both Kang’s hostages, it’s up to Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, projecting his usual effortless gravitas) as acting President to calm the nation, and oversee the often conflicted attempts by the military to end the crisis, aided by calm and confident Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett) and dyspeptic hawk General Edward Clegg (Robert Forster), as the usual shouting matches erupt in an attempt to ratchet up the tension.
Olympus Has Fallen is utterly United States centric, of course; though France, Germany, Russia and Great Britain are named as putative allies, we are left to fight the battle alone. Simultaneously, we are told that throughout the Arab world, mass celebrations and flag burnings have broken out in support of the terrorist attack. A non-stop barrage of ersatz cable news bulletins supplements all of this, of course, as the whole attack unfolds as entertainment on live television throughout the film.
For a time, the President’s son Connor (code named Sparkplug, played by Finley Jacobson) is in jeopardy, but he soon crawls out through a ventilation shaft with Banning’s help and vanishes from the film until a tearful reunion with his dad at the end. There’s also a Doomsday machine, something called Cerberus, which comes into play in the film’s last third; give it three code numbers, and it starts a self-destruct function that will, in Speaker Trumbull’s words, “open the gates of Hell,” causing all the nuclear missiles in various silos around the United States to self-destruct, killing hundreds of millions of people. Needless to say, this threat is averted, but only at the last possible moment – more suspense, I guess.
That’s Olympus Has Fallen in a nutshell, and from first frame to last, the outcome is never in doubt. Fuqua directs with a certain brutal style – the action sequences feature the requisite number of decimated national monuments, bullet ridden “collateral damage” casualties and exploding helicopters – and the always-dependable Conrad Hall photographs the proceedings with his usual confident mastery.
But ultimately Fuqua offers competent yet faceless direction; the actors show up, do what’s required of them, yet the film seems curiously passionless, even in its political views, unless it concerns violence. When it comes to murder, ritualistic executions, and mass mayhem, Fuqua seems right at home; these sequences have a certain second-hand kinetic intensity, something akin to a 1940s Republic serial on a larger scale, but just as simplistic. The film is so jingoistic, in fact, you’d think it was a call to war with North Korea. And, indeed, it certainly seems to lean in that direction.
Gerard Butler plods through the proceedings (which he co-produced) with an air of weary intensity, while his putative, long suffering girlfriend Leah (Radha Mitchell), a nurse, works in a Washington hospital tending to the wounded and dying. Yune is suitably repellent as the North Korean zealot, while Bassett, Freeman, Leo and Dylan McDermott as Forbes, a White House staffer revealed early on as a traitor in league with Kang, all acquit themselves perfectly well in their roles.
Incidentally, it’s never really clear why Forbes throws in with Kang, though he does tell President Asher, when asked for his motivation in doing so, “I never voted for you.” Well, perhaps that’s enough – who knows? It gets one from point A to point B. All of the dialogue in Olympus Has Fallen is strictly “advance the plot,” but what struck me the most about the film was the non-stop firepower, the endless waves of killing, the ruthlessness and brutality of the project, all in supposed service to a message of patriotism in the film’s final moments.
Fuqua never once passes up a chance to show us someone shot in the head at close range with maximum splatterific panache which would give even Sam Peckinpah pause, and he also resorts to that hoariest of clichés when the President’s wife falls to her death, as the President screams “nooooooooo” in slow motion as the Secret Service agents restrain him from plunging off the bridge after her in a vain attempt at rescue.
Olympus Has Fallen is also heavily reliant on CGI; indeed, it could not exist without it. The White House is nearly destroyed, the Washington Monument toppled, planes and helicopters blow up with distressing regularity, and none of it moves the viewer in the slightest. It’s just the spectacle of destruction writ large, and nothing more. It’s like a video game; there are always new targets to take out, and as in a video game, they keep on coming, and where the entire Armed Forces fail, only Banning is capable of battling the enemy effectively on a one-on-one basis.
There’s also a telling scene early on in the film in which President Asher polls the members of his staff on what to do about North Korea’s escalating saber rattling – missile launches, threats to the South, and calls for the all out destruction of the United States. While Secretary of Defense McMillan and Vice President Charlie Rodriguez counsel diplomacy, Speaker Trumbull more or less suggests that the President lay down an ultimatum, and if it isn’t heeded, then back it up with force.
President Asher brushes this aside, but as events unfold, it would seem that as Brecht put it, “only violence helps where violence rules,” and so Trumbull’s take on how to handle Kim Jong-un’s threats is seemingly viewed by the film as the only way to handle the situation. And given this, perhaps it’s no accident that later in the film, Kang executes Rodriguez on a live video feed with a bullet to the head. Pacifism; it never works.
That said, Olympus Has Fallen is initially at great pains to link the terrorist incursion to Kim Jong-un, but at the same time, steps back from this linkage as the film progresses, identifying Kang as a rogue terrorist with no real ties to any government – just a well financed lunatic operating on his own, but still, with the aim to reunite North and South Korea, and simultaneously bring the United States to its knees.
My ultimate takeaway on Olympus Has Fallen is one of ruthless calculation; take a real life tinder box situation (North Korea), and then spin a more paranoid fantasy out of it than even Kim Jong-un could come up with, and implicitly endorse the use of violence as the first, not last, resort. But even at this, the military keep screwing up throughout the film, launching missions that are doomed to failure despite all their gung-ho machismo, most notably when six or more helicopters swoop in on the White House to pick off the enemy sentries, only to be met by a massive, RoboCop-style machine gun, code named Hydra, that effortlessly downs all the copters, killing nearly all of the soldiers.
It all ends fairly well, of course; the President, though wounded, survives, as does Secretary of Defense McMillan, the President’s son Connor, and, of course, Banning, who at the end of the film is put back on active duty as the President’s bodyguard, with more than a touch of bromance added to the mix. The audience I saw the film with seemed bored much of the time. They laughed at the predictable attempts at “tough guy” humor right on cue, yet by the end filed out with almost no emotion, completely desensitized to the violence in the film, but not the film’s overriding political message.
In this, Olympus Has Fallen also reminds one of John Milius’s original version of Red Dawn (1984), a choice piece of Reagan era paranoia; they’re out there, they want to get us, and we have no choice but to go to war to stop them. The sad thing, of course, is that this is all that’s playing at the multiplex, and so this is what people see in the guise of entertainment, but make no mistake.
Olympus Has Fallen is loaded – perhaps overloaded is a better term – with scare-tactic ideological freight, and while the over-the-top brutality and cruelty of the film is the hook to bring in thrill-hungry viewers, the political message is the real meat of the film – “this could happen to you!” so to speak. It harkens back to Red Scare/McCarthy era films like Alfred E. Green’s Invasion U.S.A. (1952), in which the Soviet Union invades the United States disguised as American paratroopers; you can’t trust anyone.
And though Olympus Has Fallen is resolutely rated “R” – and a very hard “R” at that considering the incredible amount of violence on the screen, coupled with non-stop “soldierly” profanity – I saw more than a few minors at the screening. But that’s legal – as the MPAA says, an “R” rating means “children under 17 require accompanying parent or adult guardian” to attend the screening with them.
But that’s what’s on offer at your local cinema these days. Kill or be killed, or once upon a time in a land far, far away. As far as viewing choices for mass audiences these days, it’s either visions of the apocalypse, or escapist fantasy the whole family can enjoy – unless, of course, they all enjoy visions of the apocalypse.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. He is the author of Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema, which considers similar films that revel in orgies of destruction.