In the age of worrying about terrorist attacks, one primal national nightmare is that the White House itself would be a target, and that the terorrists would succeed, despite our best efforts.
“Olympus Has Fallen” is the code that a dying Secret Service agent manages to mutter through his microphone, meaning that the worst has, in fact, happened. The film is actually divided into two parts: the cleverly devised and perfectly executed assault on the White House, and then the tense negotiations afterwards. The fact that the perpetrators are Korean just means that they’re the enemy du jour.
Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a former Secret Service agent who left the presidential guard detail in disgrace after losing the first lady on an icy bridge near Camp David. He’s been stuck in a desk job in the Treasury Department, which he hates, but he understands the realities of failure. You don’t get a second chance in the presidential security profession. Until now.
When the attackers come, first by outfitting an old propeller plane with machine guns, then by what at first appear to be tourists throwing off their disguises and charging the North Lawn, Mike Banning, like everyone else, is still trying to process what he is seeing out the window. But his instincts prompt him to run toward the battle, not away from it, as the screaming crowds are doing. Somehow he manages to be the only American left standing among the rubble and debris, and here’s where his familiarity with the layout of the White House helps preserve him. Meanwhile, the attackers have overwhelmed the president’s personal guard detail, and sequestered him down in the bunker, and since the vice president was killed in the attack, then the acting president is … the speaker of the House?
Enter a somber and subdued Morgan Freeman, as Speaker Trumbull. He has to decide whether to give in to the terrorists’ demands to stand down in the counterattack, or else they will kill the captured president (he reluctantly accedes). Then he has to decide about meeting their demands for American forces to immediately withdraw from the DMZ separating North and South Korea (guaranteeing a chaotic civil war), and also withdrawing the Seventh Fleet (assuring our continued non-response). Oh, and an escape helicopter, of course.
Meanwhile, the rogue agent Mike Banning is the only hope for someone to create havoc on the inside. Yes, he’s former Special Forces, and not only highly skilled, but highly motivated. Of course, if we, the viewers, have already willingly suspended disbelief this far, then it’s a short additional admission to watch Mike Banning play superhero, with an aura of personal invincibility reminiscent of Rambo. Or the “Die Hard” series. Or any of those indestructible action hero formats. No macho joking around here, though. This is serious business throughout.
“Olympus Has Fallen” takes full advantage of the CGI opportunity of destroying half the White House. It also features some personal torture scenes, and stark assassination renditions, including some violence against women, which many will find difficult to watch. But it’s a flag-waving Yankee Doodle Dandy of a patriotic fightfest.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.