This week, I watched the 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen, described somewhat aptly by one critic as “a lumpy version of Die Hard but with Gerard Butler instead of Bruce Willis.” In my opinion, it was a bit disappointing, even rating it on the exclusive criteria of a stock action movie. For one, the plot was questionably constructed—for instance, the American government’s failure to notice a North Korean military aircraft until it was within Washington D.C.’s airspace is hardly realistic, and exceeded my personal capacity for willing suspension of disbelief. While I’m told frequently that action movies aren’t meant to have logically convincing foundations, I still think that incoherent plotlines are distracting. More problematic was the sore lack of character development: The protagonist resembles a ruthless killing machine driven by vaguely nationalistic sentiments, with few dimensions of personality (and an uncompromising adherence to heteronormative action hero cliches).
I think the more dangerous quality of this film, though, is the failure to properly characterise or explore the intentions of its antagonists. Early on, terrorists surround the White House and begin violently attacking, without any proposed explanation. Plotwise, this is a poor choice in that the random appearance of North Korean insurgents in the Washington D.C. is a strange and confusing premise.
Less trivially, it reinforces the reductive American portrayal of terrorists as unscrupulous criminals. Apart from the 10 seconds which suggest that he had a sad childhood, the main antagonist is portrayed as cold, unremorseful, and irrational. His political ambitions are never really explicitly stated, and he appears to be driven by a vengeful desire for destruction. The problem with ignoring any kind of political intention behind acts of violence is that it reduces perpetrators—and by extension, the entire ethnopolitical groups they are supposed to represent—to villains, acting solely in pursuit of their iniquitous objectives. It is worth noting that this is the same narrative which Western politicians use to rationalise aggressive counterterrorism policies and rally xenophobic sentiments. Terrorism is constructed as an ambiguous threat, one that can only be explained through blurry rhetorical generalisations of evil, and this ambiguity enables governments to engage in relatively unchecked political behaviour without substantial scrutiny. My point is not that films ought to justify violence or push some contrived version of moral relativism onto viewers, but rather that aggressors should be portrayed in a more human and multidimensional manner. Crime always has reasons behind it, whether morally defensible or not. In that sense, a discussion of the socioeconomic and political realities behind political violence is grievously absent both in politics and in film.
At the movie’s suspenseful apotheosis, the American flag is depicted atop the White House, having been lit on fire by terrorist bombing. The not-so-subtle symbolism positions terrorism as a profound existential threat to the American identity, and while nationalism is perhaps not a surprising feature of an American action film, the racialised ideological subtext is far more concerning. Notably, the protagonist and most of his allies are white, while the terrorist enemies are almost exclusively from Asian backgrounds. The noble (and Caucasian) defenders of American national security are juxtaposed against the dangerous foreign invaders. Memorably, there is an early sequence in which a group of Asian individuals emerge from a crowd of White House personnel and begin attacking random civilians. And while the use of a North Korean political cause creates some distance from the usual Islamaphobia invoked in portrayals of terrorism, the association is still there: One scene features terrorist planes destroying the Washington Monument, bearing a suspicious resemblance to 9/11. At its core, the film revolves around a violent manifestation of xenophobic paranoia, and the insistence on decoupling terrorism from specific political beliefs suggests a broader misunderstanding of why violence occurs.
I understand that some movies are intended to be brainless entertainment, but I also question whether it is true that most viewers enjoy the stale and morally vacuous monotony of the modern thriller. It is a disservice, in my opinion, to condense the action genre into guns, bombs, and nationalist political messaging; films should also aim to inspire deeper discussions of political consciousness and morality.