For a couple months, in every subway station in New York City, emblazoned on the sides of buses and atop taxi cabs, was the White House on fire. Old Glory, reduced to bullet-ridden tatters, floated before it. Across the bottom the ad read, “Olympus Has Fallen.” (A good piece of film criticism would have been to cover up that text with a big “Coming Soon.”) Olympus Has Fallen made $100 million in the United States, which means something like 10 million people saw the movie. But how many millions just saw the poster?
The poster is indicative of a recent turn in the U.S. film industry. In the thirty years from 1981 to 2011, Hollywood depicted D.C. getting destroyed five times: aliens did it twice in 1996 and once in 2011, an earthquake destroyed it in 2009, and global warming froze the city in 2004. This summer alone it was destroyed three times, and it was done by people. People with politics.
In all three of those films, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, White House Down, and Olympus Has Fallen, the drama centers on a U.S. president kidnapped by people who want control of America’s nuclear arsenal. In all three, the White House is taken over by political forces hostile to American global hegemony, although all three villains ultimately end up caricatures of said hegemony—holding the world hostage to their desires through the immediate threat of total nuclear destruction. Against them is arrayed the threatened but ultimately victorious image of America as a just, democratic superpower—appearing in both the calm wisdom of the presidents and the badass violence of their saviors. Thank God the U.S. government has control of the bomb, these films suggest, and not these megalomaniac German super-terrorists (G.I. Joe), leftists and North Koreans (Olympus Has Fallen), or aggrieved parents who lost a son in combat(!) and military-industrial complex goons (White House Down).
White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen are basically identical movies: their protagonists are wannabe Secret Service agents who single-handedly save the White House and the president (becoming his fast friend in the process) and defeat the nuclear-bomb-coveting terrorists, thus getting jobs as the film ends; if you can’t end a movie with a marriage, it’s always good to end it with a hire. They even have basically identical action pieces: in both, terrorist anti-aircraft guns fend off helicopters—sent in when the military overrides the civilian executive’s command—one of which crashes into the White House, setting it aflame. In both movies, one terrorist spends most of his or her time “hacking” into the “mainframe,” and in both the terrorists deploy unmanned drones to monitor the White House.
What separates the two films—other than Olympus Has Fallen being slightly more nuanced and White House Down being significantly funnier—is the avowed political nature of the presidents and terrorists. In Olympus Has Fallen, Aaron Eckhardt plays a right-wing president who has “ended American dependence on foreign oil.” He’s taken captive by North Korean nationals who claim they’re “working for justice. To give millions of starving men, women, and children a chance at more than just subsistence…And yes, for a united and prosperous Korea.” The Koreans are joined by a turncoat Secret Service agent, who, upon being accused by the president of treason, yells, “Me? What about you? You sold this country out long before I ever did. Globalization, and fucking Wall Street!” In name-dropping the last two major American social movements, we know exactly where his allegiances lie.
White House Down, on the other hand, is a sort of gonzo action role play of the deepest liberal Obama fantasy. We learn that White House Down’s president, played by a handsome middle-aged Jamie Foxx, is withdrawing all American troops from the entire Middle East. This is unacceptable to the military-industrial complex, which hires a rogues’ gallery of right-wing global terrorists that, with the help of the aggrieved head of Secret Service, whose son was killed in a paramilitary operation in Pakistan, take over the White House and obtain the president’s launch codes. The most psychopathic of these far-right terrorists bears a large and prominent circle-A tattoo on his shoulder, which the camera lingers on more than a few times. But anarchist jabs aside, the story is about a right-wing conspiracy holding back a lefty, black, peace-loving president.
It has been a long time since we’ve seen, even briefly, people taking control of the U.S. government on the basis of counter-ideologies. Threaten it, even destroy it physically? Sure. But political usurpation? Not so much.
These sort of moments lead some critics to look for an insurrectionary undercurrent in these films—as if, in the absence of a mass movement, we can discover that the people want revolution by correctly reading the tea leaves coming out of Hollywood. Such readings are often built on the market-populist myth that Hollywood is “giving us what we want,” or that it is instead producing some sort of blanket false consciousness, rather than engaging in a series of shifting strategic processes of identity and desire production, with inconsistent and often unreliable effects. These readings also sanctify the relationship between movie and moviegoer, assuming that the production of cinematic meaning occurs exclusively between the individual audience member (or worse, some mob-like group of homogenous moviegoers) and the images on the screen.
Though this method can take into account aesthetic, generic, political, and historical currents, it ignores how movies are a social relation integrated into our daily lives through marketing, critical discourse, celebrity gossip, movie news, conversation, and more. It isn’t that valuable or interesting things can’t be said about individual movies, or that individual films shouldn’t be read at all, but if the goal is a political engagement with cinema, nine times out of ten the helpful question is not, “What do these movies mean?” but, “What are these movies used for?”
Last year Hollywood answered that question by openly recognizing itself as a tool of ideological reproduction, as an extra-state governmental apparatus. When Michelle Obama, flanked by a dozen soldiers, appeared at the 2013 Oscars to name Argo best movie of the year, the White House and the film industry were announcing the continuing collaboration of their efforts in a way no individual film could. Zero Dark Thirty was often accused of being just such a film, and its filmmakers got special access to classified materials even Congress couldn’t see; Argo, with its less obvious ideological content, did not get called out by critics and moviegoers nearly so much for this relationship, and thus ended up more appropriate to the task, despite the fact that, in isolation of these facts, you would call Zero Dark Thirty the more effective propaganda. The political function of a film occurs well beyond the film’s actual content.)
If many of the films from 2012 engaged, among more persistent commitments, in the reification of global state intervention (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Red Dawn, Act of Valor) and the idealization of the executive (Lincoln, The Dictator, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), this summer we’re seeing Hollywood grapple with the eruptions of civil unrest, riot, and class struggle that happened in 2011. But the goal is not to discover revolution when the lights go down: if people are drawn to movies by the promise of the White House’s destruction, they are also there to see it saved. In White House Down, when the hero’s daughter waves the flag of the presidential seal on the South Lawn, thus deterring approaching jets and saving the White House from total destruction, half the audience in the screening I was in applauded. How many of the silent half agreed? How many were ambivalent, or at least had been until that moment of extra-diegetic cinema? How many were aghast at the applause?
What does it matter if, in 2013, for the first time in decades, we are suddenly seeing the American government overthrown, the capitol building and White House destroyed by ideologues? It might be tempting to argue a fluke; we see this from time to time with blockbusters, like Armageddon (asteroid disaster) and Deep Impact (comet disaster) in 1998, where one studio tries to take advantage of marketing and buzz surrounding another studio’s movie (this process is evidenced by the fact that both White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen went into development in March 2012). But these films are part of a whole series of releases this summer, films that went into production in 2011 and early 2012, that evoke class war and the dynamics of 2011’s uprisings.
One such movie is the zombie flick World War Z. In its opening scene, Gerry’s family watches a news report about an unnamed third-world country where social unrest has gotten so dramatic that they’ve declared martial law—uprising foreshadowing the coming zombie apocalypse. Later in the film, Gerry (Brad Pitt) is selected to help a vital research mission because of his experience as a UN peacekeeper who, among other deployments, helped put down the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. In the aircraft carrier operations center from which this mission springs, riot footage, standing in for zombie attack imagery, plays on screen arrays in the background.
The Purge responds to the rioters of 2011, and in doing so recognizes in their actions something natural, even righteous. What is dystopian about the film is not this naturalization of unrest, but rather that the system could recognize and capture this instability.
World War Z is totally unlike the majority of zombie movies, in that most of its action takes place as combat between the organized remnants of national militaries (which continue to function in a relatively stable, governmental fashion) and giant crowds. Zombie hordes almost always form into massive swarms, often in city centers, before attacking lines of soldiers. It was sold as such: in the trailers, you don’t see a single individual zombie attack, but you do see lines of riot cops and military going into action and crowds swarming and charging. This is not a zombie apocalypse, it’s a global war between the infected populations and their states.
But no Hollywood film in recent memory has taken on the social inevitability of riot and class violence so directly as The Purge. By 2022, when the film is set, the United States has gone through some sort of constitutionalist revolution, and the “New Founding Fathers” have more or less ended crime and unemployment through the introduction of the “Purge.” For twelve hours, one night a year, all emergency services are suspended and all crime becomes legal—except for murdering government officials at “Level 10” and above. The government and media actively encourage people to “vent their anger” through rape, robbery, and especially murder, and a whole range of services have sprung up to protect the rich. James (Ethan Hawke), the head of the film’s protagonist family, is in just such an industry: he sells full lockdown home security systems. On the night of the purge, his son rescues a black homeless man from the street, and a group of young white “purgers” who had chosen that homeless man as their target ransack the house.
The white savior narrative and overbearing morality of the good bourgeois family—James and his wife don’t kill anyone during the purge, though their neighbors do—reinscribe all of the features of bourgeois subjectivity, the main ideological concern of Hollywood cinema. But the film also slowly reveals that the purge lowers unemployment and crime by thinning out the surplus labor population through killing the poor, derelict, and violent—a Marxist analysis of labor. The Purge states outright that violence and civil unrest are a natural part of the capitalist social structure and envisions a way in which that violence could be more effectively deployed toward governmental control. The opening credits of the film feature a montage of grainy scenes of violence, perhaps meant to be images of previous Purge nights, perhaps merely evoking the “natural” violence of society. But among these are recognizable images: famous moments from both the LA Riots of 1992 and the London Riots of 2011.
This movie responds responds to the rioters of 2011, and in doing so recognizes in their actions something natural, even righteous. What is dystopian about the film is not this naturalization of unrest, but rather that the system could recognize and capture this instability in order to totalize its control—the way policing laws are made more stringent in the aftermath of riots indicates how this process already occurs—increasing the governability of the populace by producing governed and economically productive moments of ungovernability.
These movies function, as a group, by assuming the “natural” desire of the public to witness unrest and even to see the government destroyed, and then by creating scenarios in which these desires are ultimately proven undesirable, frightening, and dangerous. The audience members, of course, always knew order would be restored—unless they’ve never been to a movie before, no one went to White House Down expecting Jamie Foxx to be murdered and the United States to be completely destroyed by nukes. But desire is a strange thing, and these images, once unleashed, can be turned against their original ideological content: witness the Anti-Banality Union’s film Police Mortality, which recuts dozens of cop movies into an anti-police revolutionary parable.
Excuse the old canard, but if it is harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world, surely a part of that is the insistent and repetitive imagining—through movies, TV, books, and video games—of apocalypse, and the almost total lack, even within apocalyptic narratives, of non-capitalist worlds that aren’t fascist or a violent, atomized state of nature (both of which just reflect the logic of the liberal individual played to extremes). The construction of the individual as a consistent psychological totality is so endemic to protagonist-driven narrative—and the pleasures we anticipate from narratives are so deeply based in character identification—that revolutionary cinema has usually done away with narrative and even protagonists as such.
But lest we fall into the old all-mass-culture-is-silencing critique, it is important to reassert that the deployment of cinema goes beyond the politics of its content. The revolutionary imagery in the 2005 movie V for Vendetta is made secondary to the film’s liberal politics, but does that matter in the face of what the Guy Fawkes mask has become? Similarly, protest songs that helped reinforce counterculture and resistance in the sixties became recuperative and nostalgic when the movement ended, even though the songs remained exactly the same. If people were to take over a movie theater and turn it into a genuinely social space, making all the movies free, the ideological content of the culture would be secondary. There’s no reason you couldn’t screen White House Down in an occupied multiplex, but would people still applaud the saving of the White House? And if so, wouldn’t such applause become the basis for a debate among the audience, who would no longer be alienated individual consumers?
The fact is, Hollywood almost never willingly produces images of unrest. But once they have been produced by history, those images can, perhaps must be appropriated by Hollywood, reducing the dream to a nightmare, punishing the dreamer for her desire while selling tickets through its partial enactment. But with this development, what counts as an “acceptable” image is beginning to change. On August 6, after this piece was completed, the movie Elysium came out, in which the 1 percent have escaped to an orbiting, terraformed satellite called Elysium while everyone else is trapped on an environmentally devastated Earth, producing resources and wealth for the space colony. Matt Damon, a lowly prole, becomes a cyborg and flies off to Elysium to wage class war. And in a less fantastical vein, this summer also saw the release of Fruitvale Station, a film about Oscar Grant, the man murdered by BART police in 2009, sparking riots in Oakland. A trailer for Fruitvale Station played before the screening of White House Down.
As revolt continues to shake the globe, as images of mass protest and riot become the norm on the evening news, they become a part of the global consciousness and, as such, produce a new series of images for Hollywood to attempt to capture. But in putting a flaming White House in every subway station in America, not to mention in dozens of nations abroad, what desires could Hollywood unleash? How many more Guy Fawkes masks will it unwittingly produce?
Willie Osterweil is an editor at the New Inquiry and singer for the punk band Vulture Shit.