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Thursday, August 29, 2013

The North Koreans Are Coming! The North Koreans Are Coming!: review of "Olympus Has Fallen"

by Jennifer Epps

Originally published on on August 21, 2013.


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 cousin 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 knife-point. 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!

Kang blames America for the famines back home and the destitution of his people, but doesn't talk about immediate and rectifiable concerns like the regular South Korean/U.S. drills against North Korea -- which look very much like real invasions, send fleets into the adjoining waters, involve tens of thousands troops , and fly Stealth B-2 and B-52 bombers which enact simulated nuclear bombing attacks on the edge of North Korean territory. By not mentioning this kind of provocation, Olympus, like the mainstream news media, can make everything the other guy's fault, like the U.S. would be minding its own business if Pyongyang just wasn't so aggressive.

Moreover, Kang's ambition to unify the two Koreas is part of his dream of "one-world government." However much the terminology might please Libertarians, it obviously vilifies the actual unification sentiments on the peninsula, a region which after all used to be one country before it was divided between the Soviets and Americans in 1945. "No one really asked any Koreans, do you want to be divided and stay like that for over 60 years?" The Guardian of Britain quotes a Seoul professor in an article this May. And the article's author explains: "The peaceful pursuit of unification is inscribed in South Korea's constitution. Questioning it would be political suicide for public figures, say analysts, because ethnic nationalism is a key element of political belief across the spectrum." There's nothing underground about dreams of re-unifying the two Koreas, the way Olympus implies. Both sides at least pay lip service to it: Pyongyang has an official Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea and Seoul has a Unification Ministry. The cost of reunifying would be most expensive for South Korea, and young South Koreans tell pollsters they're not that keen on the idea, but the goal of reunification is far from a one-sided Communist plot to dominate the region as the movie suggests.

That MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell would participate in this movie (he has a brief cameo on a TV as a news anchor announcing the invasion) is especially galling because he was in Washington -- as Chief of Staff of two key Senate committees -- during the Clinton Administration, and ought to know full well that there was a time when Washington diplomacy was actually working with Pyongyang. In 1994 North Korea had only one nuke, and Clinton got them to sign an Agreed Framework, which was effective for 8 years. That's right, the Clinton Administration actually got North Korea to cease producing plutonium. They began again because Bush Jr. cancelled the treaty in 2002. Thanks to Bush's approach, North Korea's arsenal grew to 8 -- 10 nukes.

In Olympus Has Fallen, serious, professional, highly-trained men and women like Angela Bassett's Secret Service Director and Robert Forster's General Clegg discuss the crisis with Freeman's acting president and paint North Korea as incomprehensible, with off-hand remarks like "assuming that the Koreans are rational, which isn't at all certain..." They express bafflement about what North Korea could possibly want. But given the indelible illustration in Iraq of what the U.S. was willing to do to countries that didn't have nuclear defenses, it's not hard to fathom why Pyongyang pursued a nuclear arsenal, nor is it a mystery why they've responded negatively to negative stimuli, like the demonstrations of bad faith in the cancellation of treaties, or the massive displays of force in the threatening military drills. Noam Chomsky states in an article this summer: "North Korea may be the craziest country in the world.  It's certainly a good competitor for that title."  But he also adds that "it does make sense to try to figure out what's in the minds of people when they're acting in crazy ways. Why would they behave the way they do? " And he notes a recognizable pattern in postures from Pyongyang: "You can read it in straight, mainstream American scholarship.  What they say is: it's a pretty crazy regime, but it's also following a kind of tit-for-tat policy. You make a hostile gesture and we'll respond with some crazy gesture of our own. You make an accommodating gesture and we'll reciprocate in some way."

Tit-for-tat has no place in Fuqua's film, however, because it's a movie without context. Kang angrily condemns the U.S. for interfering in their "civil war," by which he obviously means the Korean War of 1950-1953. This implies that Kang still wishes (60 years later) that North Korea could just finish what it started. Such an assumption completely ignores the fact that 3.5 million North Koreans were killed in that asymmetrical war and that the vast majority of those deaths were civilians. As Chomsky has put it: the country was "totally leveled, everything destroyed by a huge superpower, which furthermore was gloating about what it was doing." It also ignores the fact that North Korea has asked repeatedly for a real peace treaty -- the armistice which brought a halt to the Korean War is a mere ceasefire. (It leaves the entire area in a holding pattern, even though the terms of the agreement stipulated that a proper treaty would be negotiated in 3 months time, and that all foreign forces would be withdrawn from the Peninsula. China did in fact remove theirs, but the U.S. maintains 40 bases and almost 30,000 troops in South Korea.)

One can't expect such facts to occur to the filmmakers of a movie which wallows in a bombastic orgy of self-pity with images of the Washington monument crumbling and a tattered American flag falling to the ground. You can't expect a movie with as stereotypically nationalistic a soundtrack as Fuqua has chosen for Olympus to care that, for instance, credible commentators like the former Ambassador to South Korea have deemed North Korea's message of friendship, dismissed by the Obama Administration, as a serious overture.

You can, however, interpret a movie which paints one of Washington's official enemies as brutal and crazed as war propaganda. You can conclude that a film which dehumanizes an entire people is an effort to make it acceptable to kill them.

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