The Vile, False Patriotism of 'Olympus Has Fallen'

Morgan Freeman, Gerard Butler, and Aaron Eckhart's new movie imagines North Korea attacking the White House—and exploits every stereotype about the American id.
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There is good in America. Our ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality have inspired nations and individuals in every part of the globe. People like Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Mildred Loving, Martin Luther King, and yes, Barack Obama, have worked and sacrificed for the cause of American anti-racism, one of our great gifts to the world. We certainly do not give enough to humanitarian aid, but we give a lot. We don't always put ourselves on the side of peace and justice, but sometimes we do, and we should be proud of those times.

I kept telling myself this, somewhat desperately, throughout Antoine Fuqua's new shoot-'em-up, Olympus Has Fallen, which is both a shameless exploration of the worst aspects of the American psyche and, in consequence, one of the most depressing and despicable films I have ever seen.

That probably makes the movie sound more interesting than it is. Trust me, there is nothing interesting about it. It is simply Die Hard in the White House. With that synopsis, you could pretty much write the script yourself. On the one hand, it's just another dumb, by-the-numbers action movie. And yet, there's something particularly, tellingly horrifying in the way it takes that dumb, by-the-numbers action movie, and turns it into a paean—or if you prefer, an exposé—of our national character.

The opening of the narrative works quickly to off a female character, knowing that there's nothing like dropping a dead woman on the screen to provide any males nearby with wounds, motivation, and depth. In this case, though, the males so provided are two: U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and Secret Service tough dude Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Other than the tragedy that unites them and a supposedly irresistible regular guy machismo, neither of them has any particular character to speak of.

Once we have established the transcendental rectitude and sympathy of the most powerful man on earth, we can get down to hating the foreigners. Again, this is accomplished in the expected manner. Inevitably and repulsively, the film has us watch the destruction of the Washington Monument in a scene that deliberately evokes the World Trade Center collapse. More subtly, it runs the old War of the Worlds dodge, unleashing our imperial excesses upon ourselves. Long set pieces focus on airborne attackers with superior technology mowing down U.S. civilians. The antagonist is North Korea, not Afghanistan, but surely the inspiration here, at least semiconsciously, is our drone-strike program. Studiously avoiding any reference to America's ongoing use of terror bombing, we imagine ourselves as victims of our own aggression, ever innocent and powerless, and ever newly justified in violence.

The controlling paranoid fantasy here is, again, that North Korea is somehow our technological and military superior. In the real world, North Korea is nearly as incompetent as its leader is insane; it can barely fire a rocket, much less orchestrate a massively complicated, multi-stage, higher-than-high-tech (no box cutters here) split-second operation deep in the American homeland. But whatever. The main point is to somehow—anyhow—set up that Die Hard in the White House pitch, so that we can access the vast portion of the American cowboy hindbrain that spasms when we see a lone hardass struggling against the odds.

The enemy is North Korea, not Afghanistan, but surely the inspiration here is our drone-strike program. The movie imagines ourselves as victims of our own aggression, ever innocent and powerless, and ever newly justified in violence.

Gerard Butler is no Bruce Willis, and his character has none of John McClane's scrappy vulnerability or cleverness. Instead, the Special Forces trained Banning is simply uber-competent (because... he's America!) and unflinchingly brutal. The film is pretty much an unbroken series of low points, but if I had to pick the absolute worst scene, I would have to go with the one where Banning gleefully tortures two captured terrorists. There's no Zero Dark Thirty shilly-shallying here, no oh-water-boarding-is-just-enhanced-interrogation, or does-torture-work-or-doesn't-it. Our hero stabs one guy in the throat to get the other one to talk, then stabs the remaining fellow in the knee, all the while boasting about how the US has trained him in information-extraction techniques. The audience reaction in my theater was jubilant; people gasped and laughed as Banning stabbed the guy in the throat and then, as the interrogation got bloodier, they broke into spontaneous applause. Torture—it has to work! It's too fun not to.

And so we slog on. There are stupid bureaucrats who won't listen to our hero and waste lives needlessly. There's the traitor who spouts garbled and obviously hypocritical Occupied talking points and then meets his bloody comeuppance. There's the timed countdown to Armageddon. And, god help us, there's Morgan Freeman who, even playing the House speaker turned acting-president, remains the sad-eyed second-string retainer. Though he's introduced as being fairly hawkish on Korea, when he actually gets into that executive chair, he suddenly doesn't care about the U.S. geopolitical position, or global balance of power, or negotiating with terrorists. All he seems to care about is saving his superior. Because, even if in actual fact the US has a black president, in Olympus Has Fallen Morgan Freeman still has to play Lucius Fox, loyal first and foremost to the white guy, world without end, hallelujah.

The film winds down with an almost-but-not-quite smooch between our wounded male leads. And then finally, there's the speech—blah blah freedom, blah blah ideals, blah blah renewal. Our president is great, our military is great, and we all love America because we blow things up and murder and torture the bad guys, but only when the plot says we have to and they started it and it's not our fault. I really want to believe that America is not as smug or as stupid as Olympus Has Fallen suggests. That's why I'm hoping that the people of this great nation stay away in droves from this evil, cynical picture and its vile vision of our country.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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