In the aftermath of 9/11, Hollywood has been very… shall we say “specific”… about the kinds of Terrorism on American Soil projects that get the greenlight. To a certain extent the reasoning was soaked in a kind of jingoistic-based censorship (the twin brother of patriotic propaganda) that has always rankled me as an artist. I remember being upset that FoxTV altered the opening plane explosion at the climax of the first episode of 24 (it was a few weeks after the al-Qaeda strike, so it’s somewhat understandable), but after 11 years in Afghanistan and 10 years in Iraq (which was probably the worst policy mistakes America has and will ever make, as it distracted the US for a decade and gave China a chance to step on the gas unfettered) the sting of America getting its ass handed to it — even in a fictional context — is something that I thought I was numbed to.
However, Antoine Fuqua’s new film OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN struck odd chord when I watched it last weekend. Story and filmmaking critiques aside (overall its worth seeing), watching the key buildings of Washington, DC get mangled and blown to shit definitely had the impact that Fuqua wanted. This “what if” scenario hit surprisingly close to home and didn’t feel entirely fictionalized… we’ve imagined that scenario far too often than we care to admit.
*Spoiler Alert* When the Washington Monument gets clipped by the Korean assault plane and crumbles in on itself, it so eerily reminded me of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers that I was sucked into the movie all the more, but also taken out of it. Is that image too sacred to echo? I would argue, “no”, because it’s ultimately a symbol of American fallibility and a smack at the native aggression and overblown American Exceptionalism that has resulted in lots of countries getting stepped on over the last 60+ years.
Even in Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, she refrained from showing images from the 9/11 Attacks (just played audio recordings of people who were clamoring for help) — and of all the movies that have come out post-9/11 this was THE movie that could have shown the tragedy in the right context, and yet Bigelow chose not to.
[Side note: during the Rodney King Police Beating Trial 20 years ago, the jurors who acquitted the cops claimed that the repeated viewing of the vicious beating desensitized them to heinousness of that crime, so I’m going to wager that one of the reasons why we hardly ever see the WTC collapsing is to prevent this numbing from occurring -- that crime must forever be a wound that never heals].
Way back in the mid ‘90s, when Roland Emmerich’s banal INDEPENDENCE DAY came out, I remember thinking when the White House blew up in the trailer, “wow, that’s a bold image! It’s sure to get a lot of people into the theater” (I don’t remember if anyone applauded the destruction during the actual screening though… but I know that happened). And since then I’ve wondered what other images could stab at the soul of America and create the same kind of visceral impact (I think I found one, but it has to stay under wraps for the time being as it might appear in project that we’re developing)? Jingoism is most certainly a visceral emotional reaction; it’s so primal that most of us don’t think that we, as Americans, are extra jingoistic, and yet we are.
Flag burnings don’t sit right with us and that is why it is an effective means of protest, because torching the Stars & Stripes is a big “fuck you, America! Your values and ideals are a sham! And don’t mean shit!” This is usually the POV of those who burn the flag, because the core concepts of what America preaches to the rest of the world is incongruous with actual American actions and deeds.
That’s the case with OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, the arch villain is a North Korean terrorist who wants to teach America a lesson for intervening in the Korean civil war in the early 50s (which as never truly been solved) and thus being the prime reason why North Koreans to this day live under shitty socio-economic conditions (although, what’s lacking in the North Korean terrorist’s argument is that North Korea has been run by two crazy despots since the armistice — we don’t know how the current boy leader is going to be — and the whole Korean peninsula would have been subjected to Kim Il Song and Kim Jung Il’s barbaric, egomaniacal and gross antics & mis-governing without American intervention. Is that even a fathomable and acceptable alternative to the un-unified Korea?).
This is one of the great failings of the film; it doesn’t present the rationale for the villain’s anger effectively to establish him as anything more than a near-anachronistic terrorist — by presenting the villain as sympathetic (to a degree) the film would have had a more cogent impact… at least on a intellectual level, but that would mean indicting the US and its foreign policy. John Perkins did a fantastic job showing the pink of America’s ass in his phenomenal book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”, and this could have been cribbed to give a better rationale for taking over the White House!
Although a more pertinent is question is, does Hollywood have the influential reach that it had 12 years ago when al-Qaeda struck? The internet, specifically social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, seem to have more an immediate and wider reach… I can only imagine what and how 9/11 would be flash mob-documented today with the ubiquitousness of camera phones and social media streams. Imagine the inappropriate photo-bombing…
Maybe the vast majority of today’s cinema is just banal and expensive storytelling that is completely disposable, but the twinge I felt in OLYPMUS HAS FALLEN was real… and I yearn for that in movies. Although it could be that I’m like a long-running junkie where the needle full of smack never satisfies the way it used to, because I’ve consumed too much of it. Now let’s see if Roland Emmerich will be able to achieve the same level of impact with his 2nd to the market WHITE HOUSE DOWN (starring Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum)… which seems like it will be the same movie, but with a bigger budget and a higher-caliber cast, but don’t these people know that cardinal rule of position/marketing 2nd to the market is destined to fail… unless it can do it SO much better, but is that really possible in this case?