Hollywood’s retreat into self-directed suspicion following the attacks of 9/11 and the launch of multiple wars has been well documented elsewhere: Ross Douthat’s 2008 essay for the Atlantic, “The Return of the Paranoid Style,” remains required reading on the topic. Rather than a rash of flag-waving epics dedicated to American righteousness following the murder of nearly 3,000 people, the vast majority of them Americans, the biggest politically tinged blockbusters were the Bourne movies, about an American assassin who turns against his panopticon-wielding handlers after they betray him.
“Such ‘fear thy government’ anxieties are always laced throughout American pop culture,” Douthat wrote. “But they belong most of all to the 1970s, when the one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate sparked recurring visions of isolated Americans trapped in the gears of an irreducibly complex conspiracy.” Douthat wrote his treatise. That was before the comic book boom hit full stride, but you can see strains of the paranoid style throughout even the supposedly fluffy fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the plot line in which a group of Nazis overran a U.S.-backed intelligence service.
One film that didn’t fit this mold was “Tears of the Sun,” Antoine Fuqua’s 2003 action-adventure film starring Bruce Willis as a SEAL who defies orders to conduct a more limited mission and instead defends a group of African villagers from ethnic cleansing. “The plot was a straightforward brief for moralistic interventionism … righteously patriotic, confident in American might, and freighted with old-fashioned archetypes,” Douthat noted, highlighting its patriotism for its rarity.
Fuqua returned to these motifs in 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” best thought of as “Die Hard” meets “Air Force One.” Gerard Butler starred as Mike Banning, a disgraced Secret Service agent forced to infiltrate the White House after a North Korean commando captured it — and President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). The plot, involving a plan by the Korean forces to detonate every U.S. nuke in their silos, irradiating the American heartland and forcing the Great Satan to its knees following its decades-long humiliation of Pyongyang, was modestly ludicrous. But it was also rousingly straightforward in its approach to U.S. power and its depiction of a threat emanating from without rather than within.
“London Has Fallen,” similarly, had a rather direct villain perfectly suited for a dangerous world in which Americans are constantly under threat: a Pakistani arms dealer distraught that his family died in a drone strike targeting him. The arms dealer hopes to execute the U.S. president via live webstream, combining two potent modern fears, that of terrorism and technology run amok.
But “Angel Has Fallen” succumbs to the paranoid style that has so dominated the movies in recent years. Banning, the hero of Washington and London, is framed for an assassination attempt on new president Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). The Blackwater-like contractor firm Salient, headed by Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), is behind the frame-up and has made it look as though our hero is on the payroll of Russia in an effort to gin up a profitable war — one opposed by Trumbull, who was elected following interference in our most recent election, at least according to Vice President Martin Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Kirby, who ominously says he wants to “make America strong again,” organized the assassination. Still, there’s something amusingly complicated and ideologically incoherent about the whole movie.
A false-flag attack organized by a private company to justify endless war (along with a jokey scene about incompetent militia members failing to apprehend Banning) feels like progressive agitprop, a sort of reaction to the previous films’ reactionary stances. But the fact that the Russians are falsely accused of this attack and directly accused of aiding Trumbull’s election efforts, combined with Trumbull’s relative dovishness and a shot at the end of the film showing Trumbull yukking it up with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 meeting, give Freeman’s president a rather, well, Trumpian air.
Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m giving “Angel Has Fallen” more thought than the screenwriters or director. Still, the confusion here reflects a fundamental difficulty of our moment, one in which those who normally support reducing tensions with foreign powers argue for ramping up aggression and inadvertently aid those very same foreign powers whose primary goal was to reduce trust in the U.S. system. Those who normally support hard-nosed responses to even minor affronts seem willing to let a little bit of meddling in our elections slide since it probably didn’t have that large an impact anyway.
Meanwhile, each side distrusts the other a bit more every day, scanning social media for affronts and searching for yet another reason to write off their domestic opponents as tools of a foreign power. “Angel Has Fallen” isn’t a good movie, exactly. Indeed, it’s borderline ludicrous. But it does feel perfectly in tune with our increasingly confused moment.