Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoSunTimes (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Chicago SunTimes (B. Zwecker) review

While certainly improbable and Parents take note at times needlessly violent, Olympus Has Fallen [2013] (directed by Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by Creighton Rothenburger and Katrin Benedikt) is an action thriller about a fictional North Korean surprise strike on the White House as a prelude to a renewed war on the Korean Peninsula.  It appears to evoke the shock and surprise of the Tet Offensive in 1968 during the Vietnam War when suddenly even the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon was attacked by North Vietnamese commandos (that attack quickly proved to be a suicide mission...).

The film also appears to me to be a psychic vestige of the shock of the actual 9/11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., attacks that were experienced by our nation to have come out of nowhere, indeed, "out of the clear blue sky."  Finally, stories like this may even serve a reminder that in the Biblical Prophetic tradition and more recently in the Jungian School of Psychology (Carl Jung came from the German speaking world after all...) peace/security doesn't really come from strength.

In the Bible, mountains and buildings of all kinds are expected to come down eventually:  "All that is high will be brought low" (Isaiah 2:12) and "As Jesus left the temple area and was going away, his disciples approached him to point out the temple buildings. He said to them in reply, 'You see all these things, do you not? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.'" (Matt 24:1-2).  And in the Jungian school of thought, greater reliance on one's strength and other gifts just makes one ever more paranoid as one's "Shadow" rises even as one's own conscious/acknowledged abilities increase.

The Biblical psalmist summarizes the situation in this way: "Some rely on chariots, others on horses, but we on the name of the LORD our God" (Psalms 20:8).  This is not to say that the Lord will save "Olympus" (the Greek home of the Gods) from "falling." After all Jesus himself was crucified.  It's just that one learns to continue on without "the Temple"/"Jerusalem," or "Olympus"/"the White House."   God/Jesus continues to be with us, even when all kinds of things, big and small, come crashing down around us throughout our lives.

But we're not there yet.  So we have this films like this one about a surprise, indeed dastardly strike against our White House and then our battle back to regain it.   

The film begins 18 months before the attack.  Trusted Secret Service agent Mike Banning (played by Gerard Butler) is boxing with President Benjamin Ascher (played by Aaron Eckhart).  They are at Camp David.  It's around Christmas time and it's snowing.  The First Family has to make an appearance at a Fund Raiser back in Washington.  During their trip from Camp David back to the fund raiser, an accident takes place and Mike Banning, who's first priority was always for the safety of the President, finds himself to blame for the death of the First Lady Margaret Ascher (played by Ashley Judd).  So despite having previously been President Ascher's favorite Secret Service agent and also the favorite of the Aschers' 10 year old son Conner (played by Finley Jacobsen) after the death of his wife, the President doesn't want to see Banning around and so Banning is demoted to a desk job at the Secret Service's main office at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Such it is until July 5 (the day after the 4th of July) some 18 months later... when with tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula (what else is new...?), President Ascher has invited the President of South Korea Lee Tae-Woo (played by Keong Sim) over to the White House as a show of continued U.S. support for South Korea.

While the President of South Korea is over at the White House, North Korean agents and commandos take the opportunity, often using American weapons including a Korean piloted AC-130 arial gunship, to launch a lightning and coordinated assault on the White House succeeding it overrunning it in 13 chaotic minutes.  (North Korean intelligence had previously discovered, from hacked or otherwise stolen documents that American military contingency plans anticipated a 15 minute response time to get "boots on the ground" to the White House in an emergency, hence their planning and need to over-run and secure it in less time than that). 

How could a raid like this possibly succeed?  Well North and South Koreans speak the same language and were the same people.  There's always been a concern about how much of South Korea's intelligence and military establishment has been compromised/infiltrated by North Korean agents.  (I would think that the concern has been diminishing as it has become patently obvious over the years that South Korea's political and economic system has been far more successful in meeting the needs/aspirations of its people than North Korea's regime.  Hence even if there were a fair amount of North Korean agents operating in South Korea in the past, one would suspect that a fair number of those agents would have "turned" or simply decided to stop working for North Korea).  However, the film assumes that there would be enough highly motivated North Korean agents burrowed into South Koreas intelligence and military institutions to pull this thing off.  (As I mention above, a similar assault was actually conducted by North Vietnamese sponsored commandos on the U.S. Embassy in Saigan during the infamous Tet Offensive in 1968.  However, the South Vietnamese regime in 1968 was far weaker (and far more infilitrated) than the South Korean government today).

In any case, the film envisions that lightning well-coordinated strike on the White House was possible perhaps precisely because we would not expect it.  (Consider again that before 9/11 almost no one would have envisioned the kind of coordinated attack involving hijacked aircraft that occurred on that day). 

Led by a super-deep cover North Korean intelligence commander named Kang (played by Rick Yune) whose name had apparently shown-up in U.S./South Korean on occasional intelligence intercepts but had previously never been positively identified, the raid succeeds in not only overrunning the White House but also in capturing U.S. President Ascher, U.S. Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez (played by Phil Austin) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (played by Melissa Leo) as well as the South Korean President even as they head down to the White House's previously assumed to be utterly secure command bunker. (I'm not going to mention here how the North Koreans manage to pull that feat off as it's somewhat key to the story).  Kang makes quick work of the captured South Korean President who he summarily executes after communicating his demands to outside U.S. officials assembling at the Pentagon's command bunker using the secure closed-circuit television connection between the two bunkers.

His demands involve the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the DMZ in Korea and the standing-down the U.S. 7th fleet in the area.  Soon it also becomes clear that he wishes to beat the self-destruct codes for U.S. nuclear missiles out of the key U.S. officials he has captured in the White House command bunker.  Again, Parents take note that this is an R-rated movie and some of the violence/beatings in the film is/are quite and IMHO needlessly brutal.

It would seem, Kang has actually "pulled this thing off..." But ... good ole Secret Service agent Mike Banning upon witnessing the beginning of the shocking assault on the White House from his window at the U.S. Treasury Building next door to the White House, instinctively runs out to the Mall and then into the White House during the chaos of the attack seeking to do what he can to help defend it.  At the end of the initial raid, he actually finds himself inside the White House and since he used to work there, he knows where the weapons and the communications gear are ...

Soon he makes contact with the Defense Department's command bunker at the Pentagon where his boss, Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs (played by Angela Bassett) has gone (After all, it was her people who were defending the White House and she and her people would still know the ins and outs of the White House better than anyone).   Also arriving at the Pentagon bunker is the Speaker of the House named Trumbell (played by Morgan Freeman) who, since the President and Vice-President have been captured has become the acting President of the United States.  Since it appears that pretty much all of the Secret Service agents at the White House have been killed, that the formerly demoted Secret Service agent Mike Banning actually finds himself INSIDE the White House becomes important...

What follows is a story that resembles a mash-up of the first Die Hard [1988] movie with Kang playing the role of the nefarious villain and Under Siege [1992] with Mike Banning playing "former U.S. Navy SEAL now humble cook" Steven Seagal's role in that movie with, yes, a James Bond like "clock ticking scenario" playing out at the end.

I don't think it'd be that much of a "spoiler" to report that "the Good Guys win," that we recapture the White House and the formerly demoted / "exiled" agent Mike Banning succeeds in redeeming himself in the process ;-)

Again, it would seem to me that films like this are driven by both the psychic scars left-over by the 9/11 attacks (After all, we were surprised before...) and then lingering fear that no matter how strong we are, we'll never be truly safe.  So we play out scenarios that both scare us and ... perhaps help us be more prepared. 

But I do honestly believe that our security (big and small) is not in "chariots or horses" but:

"Though the mountains may fall 
and the hills turn to dust, 
the love of the Lord will stand 
as a shelter for all who call on his name.
Sing the Praise and the Glory of God."
     -- Dan Schulte, S.J. "Though the Mountains May Fall"

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