Propaganda in Hollywood blockbusters isn’t the most sophisticated beast. The adulation of the military; extolling the virtues of “might makes right” while breaking the rules to “get the job done”; the simplistic deliniation of good guys (the Americans, of course) and bad guys (whichever target the Empire has its sights on at the time, and whose people it wishes to dehumanize) – these tropes are as instantly recognizable as the stars on the screen.
One of Hollywood’s great directors who could be said to have defined what it was to be American more than any other film maker, John Ford, became a top advisor to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner to the CIA) following World War 2. 50 years later and the relationship between Hollywood and the American military and intelligence establishment has become closer and more blatant than ever, with their direct involvement in movies like Zero Dark Thirty about as subtle as a Die Hard explosion.
This year’s summer blockbusters are proving to be no exception – Olympus Has Fallen ranks as one of the most egregious examples of Hollywood propaganda lighting up the big screen.
You’d be hard pushed to find a movie which encapsulates the way in which Hollywood functions as propaganda more so than Olympus Has Fallen. North Korean terrorists take over the White House and hold the President hostage, while demanding a complete withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula in the hope of bringing about reunification. Only ex-Secret Service agent Mike Banning can save the day, and what follows is as mind-numbingly cliched and predictable as that brief synopsis sounds.
Director Antoine Fuqua appears to have modeled the look of the film on military recruitment advertisements – soldiers and their gleaming hardware are warmly shot against the setting sun, military brass and snares dominating the soundtrack. Burning American flags drift down in slow motion as patriotic White House security valiantly defend the building from the approaching terrorists.
Gerard Butler – no stranger to quasi-fascistic movies with crude racial stereotypes, as in 300 – spouts a string of trite one-liners when he isn’t taking out the terrorists with such ease as to render the action completely devoid of tension. As a modern “hero” he represents little more than brute force; a grunting cipher for US military aggression. It’s been a staple of action movies since the days of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and, with the likes of A Good Day to Die Hard, appears to be reaching execreble new lows.
Of course, we have the stock “President” character familiar to audiences from films like Air Force One, this time played by Aaron Eckhart, who shouted his way through his own pro-military propaganda blockbuster in 2011, Battle Los Angeles. With Olympus Has Fallen, he replaces the shouts with leaden, sometimes completely absurd, dialogue – if you look back through Eckhart’s filmography he appears to worsen over the years, his by-the-numbers performances a far cry from his early work with Neil LaBute on films like In The Company of Men. One can only assume jingoistic propanganda pays considerably more.
It’s to be expected that a movie such as this which trades on notions of violence and patriotism ultimately has very little to say about any of it. But then, propaganda is only concerned with using symbolism to invoke a particular ideology, for instance the necessity for the American presence in South Korea – after all, only mad terrorists would demand a withdrawal, regardless of the truth that US presence – not to mention the war games – are the main obstacle to peace in the region. Hollywood projects and bolsters the perennial myth of America as peacebroker, yet in reality it is the US who have consistently blocked North Korea’s moves towards establishing a peace treaty and normalizing relations with the south.
Olympus Has Fallen perhaps isn’t as ludicrious as the recent remake of Red Dawn, which saw a full on invasion of America by the North Korean army (Hollywood scriptwriters aren’t too concerned with plausibility), but with its unsubtle blend of xenophobia and triumphalism it’s certainly approaching the apotheosis of American propaganda.
And we still have White House Down to look forward to…