Throughout the past century, American film has become an essential medium for engaging with the masses. Stories are told and retold, hegemonies are reinforced and deconstructed, and communities are represented and misrepresented all through the American film. It is this massive impact on American society that warrants critical analyses of its filmic content. A genre of American film that can be considered among the most popular and well-performing is the action film. Lennart Soberon (2021) defines the action film genre as including a “rigid organization of several core components, such as sequences of spectacular action, conflict between heroes and villains and dramatic scenarios of escape, confrontation and revenge” (p. 58). The American action film genre is one that is particularly broad, as marvel movies like Black Panther (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), children-oriented films like The LEGO Movie (2014) and Cars 2 (2011), and man vs. creature classics like Jaws (1975) and Jurassic Park (1993) can all be thus defined as action films. Because of its broad scope, the action film is typically divided into several different subgenres. For example, Black Panther andAvengers: Endgame would fit under the superhero film subgenre of action film, since they both are centered around heroes with supernatural capabilities.
A relatively new subgenre of the American action film could be considered the patriotic film. These include action films that are specifically imbued with concepts relating to contemporary American patriotism in a post-9/11 world. Such films include blockbuster hits like American Sniper (2014), Patriots Day (2016), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). These films follow the same action film format--a hero/villain conflict that builds in intensity and usually leaves the hero victorious--but adds elements of patriotism in a variety of different ways, varying from the carrying out of American military missions, the portrayal of American tragedies and how then country overcame them, and/or the inclusion of American symbols as a focal point. Such a subgenre warrants a closer analysis, especially in the post-Trump world, which has made the topic of American patriotism more tumultuous than ever.
The patriotic film has its roots in similar American film genres that came before it, most notably the war propaganda films of the 1940s. These were films reviewed by the U.S. Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures and whose intention was to “sell war to the American public” (Weikle, 2020). These films, like the “Why We Fight” series that aired between 1942 and 1945, sought to use imagery and storylines that glorified the American military in order to ensure that “shared, communal feelings supported America’s participation” in World War Two (Weikle, 2020). The American war propaganda film would continue to be a prevalent genre as the country entered into the Cold War with the release of films like The Green Berets (1968), that starred John Wayne and centered around the American involvement in Vietnam. While such films have mostly faded into irrelevance today, there certainly exists parallels between them and the contemporary patriotic films of our post-9/11 world.
One approach that can be taken in order to analyze the contemporary American patriotic film involves looking at the films, Olympus Has Fallen (2013), London Has Fallen (2016), and Angel Has Fallen (2019)--three films that are part of a franchise colloquially referred to as the “Has Fallen” franchise--as a case study. Olympus, directed by Antoine Fuqua, introduces us to the franchise’s central protagonist, Mike Banning, a rugged, tough ex-secret service agent who, despite being fired from the secret service, must now save the president after a North Korean terrorist organization attacks and infiltrates the White House, taking the fictional President Asher hostage in the bunker. The organization, led by a man named Kang Yeonsak, carries out this attack in an attempt to pressure the United States to withdraw their forces from the Korean Peninsula so that North Korea can invade and subsequently take over South Korea. Kang also uses the President and his cabinet to get the codes for a fictional nuclear defense fail-safe system called Cerberus that, when activated, would allow the American military to self-destruct any nuclear missiles as a last resort solution in the event of a misfire. Kang’s plan is to activate Cerberus in order to set all of the country’s nuclear missiles to self-destruct in their silos, which would cause tremendous amounts of devastation that would leave America in disarray. Banning, however, ultimately thwarts Kang’s plans and manages to save the President and deactivate Cerberus mere seconds before its set to go.
London, the second film in the franchise and directed by Babak Najafi, moves the story forward, now with Banning back as a secret service agent, but considering resigning. Before he can discuss it with President Asher, though, he is enlisted by the director of the secret service to accompany the president to London where he is set to attend the funeral of the late British prime minister, along with several other world leaders. In London, though, with all of the world leaders invited at different parts of the city, a Middle-Eastern terrorist organization headquartered in Yemen and led by a man named Amir Barkawi launches several all-out attacks targeting each world leader, including a shootout at the church where Banning and President Asher are. Banning and Asher manage to escape their assailants but are unable to leave the city, so the rest of the film follows them as they attempt to traverse the city and find a way to get back home to America. However, this plan is ultimately thwarted once President Asher is captured by Barkawi’s men, shifting Banning’s mission from protecting the president to saving him, like in Olympus. London ends with Banning successfully saving President Asher before he is executed live on-stream by Barkawi’s men and the U.S. military retaliating with a drone strike on Barkawi’s compound in Yemen.
Last, but not least, Angel, the third film in the franchise and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, picks up a few years later, with former fictional speaker of the house, Allan Trumbull, now the current president and Banning still a member of the secret service, still considering resignation. This time, an attack on the president occurs while he and his secret service agents take a fishing trip out to a nearby lake. While fishing and once Banning is separated from President Trumbull, explosive drones attack the secret service agents in the area, killing all but Banning, whom they are specifically programmed to leave alone. They then attempt to kill the president but Banning manages to save him at the last minute, although he still ends up in a coma following the attack. In the subsequent investigation, the FBI finds the equipment used in the attack covered in Banning’s DNA, prompting them to place him under arrest for orchestrating the attack. However, Banning manages to escape and the rest of the film follows him on the run as he tries to figure out who framed him and how he can clear his name. Eventually, Banning learns that Wade Jennings, founder of a fictional private military contracting company known as Salient, is responsible. It’s revealed that Jennings wanted to frame Banning and make it seem like he colluded with the Russian government in an effort to prompt a war between America and Russia so that the U.S. Department of Defense would contract Salient for the war effort. Miraculously, Banning is then able to infiltrate the hospital President Trumbull is staying at in order to inform him of this once he has woken up from his coma. The film ends with Banning saving President Trumbull from an assassination attempt by Jennings and Salient and deciding to accept his promotion to director of the secret service instead of retiring.
The three films of this franchise all encompass aspects definitive of the action film genre and add elements of contemporary American patriotism, thus making them perfect tools for an examination of the patriotic film. This case study asks two primary research questions:
How can the contemporary American patriotic film be defined?
- What are the genre’s semantic elements?
- What are the genre’s syntactic elements?
How are ideas and concepts of patriotism represented in the contemporary American patriotic film?
The first part of this case study will attempt to define the patriotic film. It will find that the patriotic film genre employs cinematographic elements such as overhead, establishing, and tracking shots and sequences, as well as tonal montages. It will also find that it employs dialogic elements such as fictional codes and xenophobic rhetoric and utilizes the plot-driving character archetypes of the rugged American male protagonist and the reckless anti-American antagonist. Additionally, it will reveal that such films include themes of war and militarism, an antagonism of capitalism, and a hero fighting for his country and/or its ideological alignments while simultaneously having to fight against its bureaucratic systems.
The second part of this case study will assess the way in which American patriotism is represented in the patriotic film. It will assert that the patriotic film has a tendency toward representing patriotism symbolically as opposed to in a way that denotes an unequivocal support for American policy.
Defining film genres has been a point of discourse among film theorists. Rick Altman (1984) claims that there is not an adequate theory for film genre that film scholars can use to categorize films. In response to this problem, Altman presents his semantic/syntactic approach, wherein he posits that both a film’s semantic and syntactic characteristics should be used to define a film genre or categorize a film into a specific genre. Altman (1984) defines semantic characteristics of a film genre as “common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like” and syntactic characteristics of a film genre as “certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders” (p. 10). He elaborates how his semantic/syntactic approach helps to solve issues with other earlier genre theories. Primarily, he describes that the current issue with film genre theory is that some film scholars use only semantic elements to define a genre or categorize a film whereas other scholars use only the syntactic elements to do so. Altman’s theory, therefore, in proposing to consider both kinds of elements, outlines a more specific and inclusive method for tackling film genre. Furthermore, he theorizes that a film genre’s syntax develops only after a set of semantics has been established, which would make sense logically and account for growing and ever-changing audience expectations. Altman (1984) also attempts to establish a clear distinction between semantic and syntactic elements, stating that the semantics regard the “primary, linguistic elements” of the film text and that the syntax regard the “secondary, textual meanings” not explicitly stated in the film text (p. 15). He clarifies, however, that his theory is not perfect but he hopes more research and analysis will come out of it. Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach to film genre can be used to define the contemporary American patriotic film genre by looking at the Has Fallen films’ shared semantic and syntactic elements.
Defining patriotism can also be a rather arduous task. Christopher S. Parker (2010) claims that there exist two forms of patriotism--symbolic and blind--that informs whether Americans will display unwavering support for democratic ideals or not and what Americans’ perceptions of different social groups will be. Parker (2010) defines symbolic patriotism as “a relatively abstract, affective attachment to the nation and its core values,” while defining blind patriotism as “more concrete, indexing uncritical support for national policies and practices” (p.97). He explores this idea by looking at the history of American patriotism, which traces its roots from the country’s inception and independence in the late-1700s and evolves throughout the years due to national and global events such as the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, and the War on Terror. Despite conceding that one sole model of patriotism could be an adequate way to look at topics regarding patriotism, Parker asserts that a two-part model is much more efficient at taking into account the complex nature of patriotism. This two-part model of patriotism can be utilized as a basis for understanding elements and symbols of patriotism, in turn making it easier to spot them in the Has Fallen films. It can then be evaluated whether these films embolden ideas related to blind patriotism more than symbolic patriotism or vice versa.
Moving beyond definitions of film genre and the concept of patriotism and into discourse on the American action film, Lennart Soberon (2021) claims that such films tend to have a common structure that positions the hero and their actions as undoubtedly just and the villain and their actions as undoubtedly unjust. In doing so, he explains that these films execute their goal of engaging the spectator in the narrative by allowing them to put themself in the position of the hero, making the villain all the more hateful. Soberon explains his methodology in analyzing two such films--Lone Survivor (2015) and London Has Fallen (2016)--by describing Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory. This theory involves how meaning is attributed to certain signifiers in order to establish antagonistic structures. Soberon explains that, according to the theory, there are certain central signifiers, known as nodal signs, that cause other signifiers to adopt certain meanings. This is what allows for certain ideas to become hegemonized, or subject to a dominant power, through the antagonization of certain key nodal signs. In applying this to an action film context, Soberon identifies four key nodal signs: warfare, the self (or the hero), the enemy, and the victim. In analyzing Lone Survivor and London Has Fallen, he is able to identify how, in the beginning alone, the self is crafted as one to be sympathized with through an initial experience of victimization wherein the enemy launches an attack on the hero in a vulnerable position. Simultaneously, the enemy is crafted as one to be regarded with antipathy through their immoralistic and radical behavior or ideology. Soberon believes that this leads to a geopolitical hegemonization where certain out-groups, particularly those of Middle-Eastern identity, are deemed as dangerous to the dominant in-group, particularly white Western society. Furthermore, he points out how both participants in this antagonistic relationship tend to use extreme violence, yet only the self’s violence is justified and civilized while the enemy’s is seen as evil and vicious. In Lone Survivor, for example, Soberon explains how the protagonist and the American troop’s militarized violence is seen as righteous and organized in comparison to the antagonist’s--the Taliban’s--violence in the form of decapitations, which is seen as unethical and heinous. Soberon goes even further explaining how, in these action movies, the only way to resolve the problem caused by the enemy is for the hero to annihilate them completely. This is undertaken in London Has Fallen as the narrative follows the hero killing every last member of the terrorist organization culminating in a mass-annihilation of them in the end and an additional drone strike on the leader’s base of operations out in the Middle East. Overall, Soberon (2021) demonstrates how the signifiers of the self or the hero and the enemy are created in a way that establishes a societal “perception of the enemy and strengthens an antagonistic discourse” (p. 66). This can be utilized to determine whether this constructed relationship between the hero and the enemy is instrumental to the patriotic film’s representation of patriotism.
Adding on to Soberon’s analysis of character roles in American action films, Richard Sparks (1996) claims that the portrayal of the male hero in these films informs and is informed by how our society views and discusses masculinity. He argues that the masculine protagonist in Hollywood action films is catered towards the male spectator, who is able to see himself in the hero and attach himself to that image. He then goes on to bring up film genres such as the Western, Police and Private Eye films, and Urban Crime films, explaining how, in each instance, the masculine protagonist is seen as a man fighting for justice against an unrelatable villain, but also against seemingly-ridiculous systems of authority. The male protagonist is thus the lone hero, appealing to the male spectator’s potential sensibilities and fantasies wherein they are frustrated with bureaucracy and long to live as untethered to today’s world as the men they see onscreen. Sparks (1996) goes further to list some other ways the male hero protagonist is displayed, such as through a “‘hyperbolized’” masculine physique, narrow emotion expressed through vengeful violence, feelings of “anti-establishment,” and literally explosive conclusions (p. 356-357). Finally, he addresses what the potential ramifications of these representative figures of masculinity in film could be, creating an unrealistic and harmful ideal for male spectators to align themselves with or strive for. Sparks’ analysis here of masculinity in Hollywood action films can be applied to the Has Fallen franchise and contemporary patriotic American films generally. The Has Fallen films follow a lone male protagonist, Mike Banning, who heroically saves the U.S. president in crisis, despite being a fired secret service officer, thus making him a man fighting not only against the terrorist enemy, but also the bureaucratic systems of the American government.
In order to attempt to define and categorize the contemporary American patriotic film, the three films of the “Has Fallen” franchise will be utilized as a sample for textual analysis: Olympus Has Fallen (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2013), London Has Fallen (dir. Babak Najafi, 2016), and Angel Has Fallen (dir. Ric Roman Waugh, 2019). These films are some of the most recent American patriotic films, the oldest of which only having been released nine years ago, so their utilization as this analysis’ sample would keep the definition in the realm of the contemporary. Focusing on this franchise alone will also provide the analysis with some controlled variables in the form of recurring characters, narrative structure, and one single timeline. This will make it easier to spot common and contrasting semantic and syntactic characteristics as it gives us a consistent foundation for investigation. Additionally, each of these films were produced and released in a post-9/11 world. In order to keep this research focused on the patriotic film in a post-9/11 context, it is imperative to use a sample of films that were not only released but also conceived, written, produced, and filmed after 2001. This franchise in particular also centers around hypothetical terrorist attacks on Western landmarks, furthering it’s relevance for this study.
In the analysis of each film, common semantic and syntactic elements that are present throughout all three films, as well as some that may be unique to one or two of the films as opposed to all three as a point of possible contrast within the franchise, will be noted. It will then be assessed whether each film’s representations of patriotism are examples of symbolic or blind patriotism and use specific scenes and moments to prove this.
The fact that this analysis uses three films of the same franchise can also be a possible limitation of this study, particularly when discussing character semantics. Because the protagonist is the same character across three films, it is possible that the semantics of this protagonist may not be the exact same semantics of the protagonists in other American patriotic films. Nevertheless, this case study aims to build on previous research on patriotism in American cinema, using the “Has Fallen” franchise as one of many different lenses.
A Semantic/Syntactic Approach
Film scholar, Rick Altman (1984), described problems with how film scholars wrote about and defined film genres. He stated that some solely utilized a film genres “common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like”--otherwise known as their semantic elements--while other scholars merely examined a film genres “certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders”--otherwise known as their syntax (p. 10). In response to this discourse over which elements to prioritize when defining a film genre, Altman (1984) proposed to utilize both such elements, instead of just focusing on either semantics or syntax, in what he calls “a semantic/syntactic approach to genre study” (p. 11).
To explicate further what a film’s semantics and syntax are, Altman (1984) uses the Western film genre as an example. Pulling from other film scholars definitions of the Western, he writes that the genres semantics are commonly said to include action “situated in the American West...between 1840 and 1900,’” an atmosphere emphasizing “basic elements, such as earth, dust, water, and leather,’” recurring archetypal characters such as “‘the tough/soft cowboy, the lonely sheriff, the faithful or treacherous Indian, and the strong but tender woman,’” and specific cinematographic elements like the “‘use of fast tracking and crane shots’” (p. 10). In contrast, pulling from more film scholars, Altman (1984) writes that some syntactic elements of the Western typically include “a dialect between the West as Garden and as Desert,” a frontier “where man encounters his uncivilized double,” and a figurative “border between two lands, between two eras, and with a hero who remains divided between two value systems” (p. 10-11). Altman (1984), in the proposal of his semantic/syntactic approach, posits that film genres like the Western should not be defined solely by their “primary, linguistic meanings” nor through just their “secondary, or textual meanings” that are acquired “through a structuring process internal to the text or to the genre” (p. 15). Instead, film genres should be analyzed and defined through combining both of these meanings--both semantics and syntax--in order to adequately categorize films and film genres and ask “some of the most important questions of genre study” (p. 11).
A Semantic Analysis of the Has Fallen Franchise.
With Altman’s (1984) semantic/syntactic approach in mind, we can start to analyze the three “Has Fallen” films in terms of their semantic elements. It should come to no surprise that these three films share quite a few semantic elements, since they are all of the same franchise. The semantic elements that are probably the most common throughout each of these films are their cinematography, dialogue, and characters.
First, regarding cinematography, each of the films include the use of overhead shots establishing the setting, tracking shots and sequences of the protagonist in battle, and short tonal montages of the aftermaths of attacks. In Olympus, the D.C. setting of the film is established through overhead shots of D.C. landmarks like the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the White House. These overheads continue during and after the initial attacks on the capital occur, as we see the Washington Monument getting sliced through by the enemy plane wings and we see overheads of the White House under siege throughout the rest of the film. Additionally, the audience is included in the action via tracking shots that follow Banning as he cautiously traverses the White House armed and prepared to take out any enemy attackers who have the displeasure of running into him. The audience is also rendered speechless in short tonal montages of the wreckage that the North Korean enemies have brought upon D.C., including shots of the field in front of the Washington Monument on fire and shots of the dead bodies on the White House lawn.
In London, similar establishing overhead shots can be seen, but this time of London’s landmarks, including Big Ben, the Thames River, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. Also, tracking shots following Banning continue, with the inclusion of a long take tracking sequence following Banning as he shoots and kills enemies in order to gain entry to their secret headquarters. And once again, short tonal montages of the wreckage brought on by the enemy attackers continue, this time of a burning Westminster Abbey, a devastated Tower Bridge, and a Buckingham Palace whose front is covered in dead bodies.
Angel does not stray far from these cinematographic trends, as we continue to see overhead shots establishing the various settings throughout the film, from the lake where the attack is about to happen to the hospital in D.C. where the president is under strict security. Tracking shots of Banning also continue as we see Banning complete a military training exercise, evade police, FBI, and SWAT officers, and fight Salient’s forces. Finally, there is also a short tonal montage after the attack on the president at the lake where we see fires burning and the bodies of secret service agents floating in the water.
Secondly, the three films also include similar dialogic elements including fictional codes and xenophobic rhetoric. In Olympus, a secret code language is established in several instances. Some of these include Banning referring to the President and his family as “the package” when speaking to other secret service agents through his headset, one secret service agent referring to the White House as “Olympus” when communicating through his headset, and secret service members using “Code 999” to refer to an incursion taking place (00:37:00 & 00:22:55). Additionally, there are a couple instances of xenophobic rhetoric, a prominent one coming from Banning when he interrogates the North Korean attackers that he captured, saying “They teach you English where you come from? ‘Cuz you know what they teach me? Is how to extract information from people like you” (1:08:10-1:08:26). Shortly after, Banning menacingly says “In English” after covering the mouth of one of the attackers as he begins to shout in Korean after Banning removes his mask (1:09:00-1:09:09). There’s also an instance of such rhetoric being used towards Middle Easterners later in the film through news reports being overheard in the background, where a report recites, “In the Middle East, response to the attack on the White House is jubilant. Crowds of thousands are celebrating in the streets and American flags are burning.” (1:34:38-1:34:43).
Similar codes and language are present in London as well. At one point, when Banning and the president reach an apartment complex where an M16 agent resides, Banning uses the code “is Auntie in?” in order to be let in (00:54:27). Banning also uses what the characters in the film refer to as an M16 hand signal facing directly above him in the president so that a satellite image of them can be picked up and sent to the Pentagon as a way of communicating with them while communications technology is disconnected throughout London (00:50:13-00:50:31). Adding on, there are more instances of xenophobic rhetoric, as well as xenophobic imagery, throughout the film. At one point, Banning, while speaking to one of the attack’s orchestrators through a walkie, says “So why don’t you boys pack up your shit and head back to ‘Fuckheadistan’ or wherever it is you're from?” (00:48:40-00:48:58). Later, around the end of the film, this same orchestrator is about to commit a live execution of the American president, the method of which was left unknown until this point, where it is revealed that it will be a beheading, alluding to Islamic State beheadings of American soldiers, despite these attackers being Pakistani and based in Yemen and not in Syria or Iraq.
Angel also sees the inclusion of xenophobic rhetoric, but contrastingly does not see much usage of a fictional codic language. At one point in the film, Vice President Kirby, in contributing to a debate about private military contracting, talks about these contracted troops in saying, “Hell some of these guys aren’t even American...It’s not the same fighting for money like fighting for your flag” (00:11:00-00:11:10). Despite not being directly xenophobic, the nationalistic emphasis on having ethnically American troops fighting the country’s wars discourages the inclusion of ethnic foreigners working for the American government.
Thirdly, each of the films are semantically similar regarding characters, with the inclusion of a recurring American rugged male protagonist and an anti-American villain who recklessly endangers his men. In Olympus, we are introduced to the protagonist, Mike Banning, an ex-secret service member whose mission it is to save the President. Banning is present as well in London and Angel with ultimately similar objectives despite the respective plots having clear differences. Banning is a white, undoubtedly American male with a deep, mature voice and a rugged, tough build. He is made out to be the highly-skilled and at times reckless masculine hero of all three films who always comes out on top in the end in spite of his enemy.
Moreover, while the villains in Olympus, London, and Angel are not recurring, they all have similar characteristics that solidify them as a certain villain archetype. In Olympus, the villain is Kang, a leading member of a North Korean extremist group unaffiliated with the North Korean government. Being from North Korea, Kang is instantly pitted as anti-American before his objectives come into question, as North Korea is a country that is ideologically and politically opposed to America. Kang is highly-skilled, but even more so highly intelligent as he is quickly able to realize the threat that Banning poses and act accordingly. His motives and the means through which he acts to these motives, however, are rather vague and reckless. He cites his motive as fighting for “a unified Korea,” but under whom or what is left undisclosed (00:45:18). He also plans to exact revenge on the U.S. by activating a fail-safe defense system called “Cerberus” that would cause all of the country’s nukes to self-destruct at once in their silos, which would turn the U.S. into a desolate wasteland. One thing he doesn’t account for though is his escape, as he plans to simply slip away to safety from the depths of the White House bunker all within the mere 5 minutes of the Cerberus countdown.
Moving on, in London, the villain is a man named Amir Bakawi, a Pakistani man who leads a fictional terrorist organization based in Yemen. Being from the Middle East, Bakawi is also instantly pitted as the anti-American villain due to America’s ongoing War on Terror in the Middle East. While Bakawi’s physical skills are unknown to us, we know that he must be highly intelligent in order to plan such a carefully orchestrated attack on several areas of London. Still, Bakawi’s motives and means are also vague and reckless. Bakawi’s motives are strongly aligned with the idea of vengeance, as he says at one point in the film, “Don’t forget his family. Vengeance must always be profound and absolute” (00:03:24-00:03:30). Aside from this, what exactly Bakawi thinks he will get out of such an attack on the West is unclear, except that he wants to bring the war to “the comfort zone of [the West’s] shopping malls” (00:42:53). In addition, though his attack was intended to take out the leaders of the Western world, such actions were clearly done with a reckless disregard for civilian life, as a staggering amount of onlooking civilians are killed as a result.
Finally, Angel’s villain is slightly different, since he is the only American villain. Still, his characteristics align well with those of Kang and Bakawi. Angel’s villain is Wade Jennings, the owner of the fictional private military contracting company, Salient. He is undoubtedly made out to be anti-American not through his identity, but through his actions, as he plans a full-scale assassination attempt on the president, killing nearly all of his secret service staff. Jennings is also portrayed as highly intelligent through his orchestrations and highly skilled through his military training. Being the owner of a private military contracting company, Jennings’ motive is to get America to go to war with Russia by framing Russia as the culprit behind the assassination attempt he carries out. By doing this, he plans for the Vice President, who’d become the new president after the current president is assassinated, to contract Salient to fight this war, thus allowing him to make a substantial profit. While, unlike Kang and Bakawi, Jennings’ motive is much more clear, his motive and the means by which he achieves his motive are still just as reckless. The sheer amount of human life lost in the assassination attempt, combined with the potential ramifications and loss of life that would amount from a war with Russia, are all aspects of Jennings’ plan that go unconsidered.
Overall, the three films of the “Has Fallen” franchise have semantic similarities, especially in their cinematography, dialogue, and characters. Although, there are a few semantic outliers that are worth mentioning. For starters, while all three films have varying amounts of political discourse, none of the films get as specific with their political discourse than Angel Has Fallen. Whereas Olympus and London discuss American foreign policy and militarism in very limited amounts, Angel seems to delve more into American foreign policy and militarism, discussing topics like the growing Russian threat, the business of military contracting, and the prospect of American intervention in certain global conflicts. There is also a scene where the president is having a press conference and he starts to deflect when being answered some tough questions about American foreign policy, which could be seen as a critique of how political discourse is addressed by the American government. Additionally, another semantic outlier also comes with the inclusion of Angel in the “Has Fallen” franchise, which is computer hacking elements and language. Throughout the film, hackers working for Salient interrupt communications technology, disable vehicles, and hack into geolocation technology in the process of hunting down Banning. This heavy emphasis on hacking is unique to Angel Has Fallen, along with their specificity of political discourse.
A Syntactic Analysis of the Has Fallen Franchise.
Moving forward, we can now use Altman’s (1984) semantic/syntactic approach to analyze the franchise’s common syntax. Just as these three films are semantically similar, they are also syntactically similar, with some prominent syntactic trends including themes of war and militarism, antagonism of capitalism, and a hero fighting for his country and/or its ideological alignments while simultaneously having to fight against its bureaucratic systems.
First, themes of war and militarism are at the forefront of each “Has Fallen” film. In Olympus, these themes are conveyed through the North Korean threat and the threat of all-out nuclear war. Kang’s orchestrated attack on D.C. and the White House embodied the fear surrounding tensions between America and North Korea that still persist over fifty years since America intervened in the Korean Civil War. These tensions have only worsened as both North Korea and America have greatly developed their respective nuclear arsenals within these fifty years, which has made the threat of an all-out nuclear war even more potent. This is also embodied through Kang’s plan to activate a fictional American nuclear defense fail-safe system that would cause all of America’s nukes to self-destruct and decimate the country.
Themes of war and militarism continue in London as well, this time conveyed through the threat of a terrorist organization based in Yemen. Barkawi’s planned assassinations of major world leaders emboldens ideas of violence and vengeance from the Middle East towards the Western world, a fear that has become the justification for rampant Western--mostly American--military presence in the region. Such tensions between America and the Middle East have grown out of conflicts such as the Afghanistan Conflict and the Persian Gulf War, coming to a head after the terrorist group, Al Qaeda, orchestrated attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. Since then, America has launched its “War on Terror,” waging wars on countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing its military presence throughout the Middle East in an attempt to dismantle terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The mere fact that Barkawi heads a terrorist organization in the Middle East already evokes themes of militarism and war to an American audience before he even announces that his mission is to bring the war to the West.
Lastly, themes of war and militarism are also present in Angel, conveyed through the potential Russian threat and the inclusion of subject matter involving private military contracting. In Angel, Banning is framed for carrying out an assassination attempt on the president, with allegations that he colluded with the Russian government. This collusion allegation is significant because of America’s recent tense history with Russia--formerly known as the U.S.S.R. or the Soviet Union--wherein from 1947 to 1991, the two countries were involved in a tumultuous cold war. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. supported opposing sides of proxy wars worldwide and built up their respective nuclear arsenals in anticipation for an all-out nuclear conflict that thankfully never occurred. Since then, the relationship between the United States and Russia has been awkward--to say the least--with the most recent resurgence of the idea of the Russian threat at the time of Angel’s release being accusations that Russian hackers interfered with America’s 2016 Presidential Election. Additionally, Angel deals heavily with the subject of private military contracting, wherein the U.S. Department of Defense hires private contractors to fight its wars or add to the country's already-present defense systems, which is another way America engages in militarism.
Moving forward, each of the “Has Fallen” films engage in some form of antagonization towards capitalism to varying degrees. Starting with both Olympus and London, errors of capitalism are mentioned, but never extrapolated on. In Olympus, it is implied that Kang’s attack is not just in response to American intervention in the Korean Peninsula, but also American capitalism, as assistant to Kang and former secret service agent, Dave Forbes, cites “globalization and fucking Wall Street” as some of his reasoning for betraying the United States and fighting alongside Kang (00:45:30-00:45:35). “Wall Street” in this instance is most probably referring to the New York Stock Exchange, which is located on Wall Street in New York and is considered the epicenter of America’s economy where shareholders, businesses, and corporations trade, sell, and exchange stocks, thereby engaging in American capitalism. From this, it can be inferred that Olympus attempts to establish a negative perception of capitalism, but it does not go much further than this quote. Similarly, in London, the attack at the center of the film is implied to have come out of a disdain for Western capitalism, as Barkawi cites that Western peoples have for too long enjoyed the safety “of [their] shopping malls” while their countries’ governments “send [their] poor” to fight wars elsewhere around the world (00:42:53-43:06). The references to shopping malls and the exploitation of members of the working class connotes a disparagingly negative attitude towards Western capitalism. There is also a moment at the very end of the film where Charlotte Riley’s character, an MI6 agent, confronts one of her partners, Lancaster and informs him that she knows how he contributed to Barkawi’s plan. Lancaster vaguely cites broken systems and things needing to change as his reasoning for defecting, “that and 20 million euros,” he says (1:27:00-1:27:40). Again, the film attempts to display a common critique of capitalism that posits it as a broken system. However, in both of these examples, the critique of Western capitalism does not go much further. Despite the critiques and antagonism of capitalism in Olympus and London not being expanded upon, they continue to imbue the conflicts between American values and the foreign threat included in each film.
Angel is where the audience is finally introduced to a deeper critique of American capitalism due to the discourse it arises about private military contracting. In the film, the private military contracting company, Salient, is behind a major plot to assassinate the president and his entire secret service team and then frame it on Banning and the Russian government. Jennings hopes to use this Russian threat to push American public opinion to favor war with the country and motivate the American government towards such a declaration of war, with the help of Vice President Kirby, who is secretly working with him. Jennings knows that this will make the U.S. Defense Department enlist the help of Salient, allowing him and his company to make a massive profit out of war with Russia. The direct motivator of the action in Angel, then, is capitalism and its errors, enabling a man like Jennings to profit off of the potential deaths of millions in an all-out global conflict.
Finally, one last striking syntactic element throughout all three films is the implementation of the lone hero fighting for his country and/or its ideological alignments while simultaneously having to fight against its bureaucratic systems. First, in Olympus the lone hero in Banning is called to fight Kang and save the president, but not without frequently having to go against the country’s bureaucratic systems and procedures. In one instance, Banning, in the White House, is communicating with the president’s cabinet at the Pentagon when the speaker of the house mentions Cerberus. Banning then asks what Cerberus is, to which the Army General cites such information as classified, prompting Banning to say, “Classified? Really? Well I believe I have the proverbial need-to-fucking-know” (00:55:25-00:55:31). Here, Banning is trying to communicate effectively with the cabinet members at the Pentagon in order to better be able to save the president and fight Kang. Yet, at the same time, Banning is having to push back against the cabinet and the government’s procedures on “classified” information in order to get all the information he needs to accomplish such a task. Additionally, another instance of this occurs later in the film when the cabinet members tell Banning that they are planning a coordinated mission to recapture the White House with U.S. military forces. This comes almost immediately after Banning discovers that Kang’s men have readied an advanced machine gun turret on the roof of the White House. As a result, Banning urges the cabinet to reconsider this decision, at one point directly addressing Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs saying, “Jacobs, you gotta abort this mission” (1:22:20). It would later turn out that Banning’s call to reconsider and abort was correct as the turret grounds all of the military helicopters in a matter of minutes. Again, Banning is trying to fight for his country in urging for this doomed mission to be aborted, but again finds himself at odds with the government forces that ultimately allow the mission to proceed.
Similarly, In London, Banning fights for America ideologically in his mission to protect and save the president while having to also fight against bureaucratic systems and procedures, though this time such systems and procedures come from America’s British ally. While Banning is not in much direct communication with the president’s cabinet as he is in Olympus, he is in direct communication with a lot of British forces, one of which being a Scotland Yard commander. He comes into contact with this commander after he and the president were struck by a truck whilst attempting to drive away from Barkawi’s men. After the president is consequently captured, forces from Scotland Yard arrive to assist Banning out of the overturned vehicle. The commander then tells Banning that they know where Barkawi’s men are taking the president and urges him to stay behind and let them handle it, to which Banning resists, saying “how many times have you saved this man’s ass” (1:08:03). Here, Banning aims to continue fulfilling his mission to protect the president, thus fighting for America ideologically. However, he has to simultaneously fight against Scotland Yard and their claim to jurisdiction over the situation, thus fighting against the bureaucratic systems of an American ally. This tension between this Scotland Yard commander and Banning continues to a later point, when Banning tells him that he plans to infiltrate Barkawi’s base of operations with c4 explosives, handing the commander a device with a button and telling him to push it on his say-so. When Banning later tells the commander to press the button as he’s escaping Barkawi’s men with the president, he resists, telling Banning that he cannot do such a thing with him and the president in the building, to which Banning pushes back, telling him that there’s no way the president and himself will be able to get out of the building if he doesn’t (1:22:40-1:23:00). Again, Banning is trying to exact his mission to save the president and fight for America ideologically while being forced to also fight against the bureaucratic systems of its British ally that prevents Scotland Yard from doing something that has the potential to harm the American president, despite it also having the potential to ultimately save the president.
This conflict where Banning must fight for his country and against its systems at the same time is perhaps the most apparent in Angel. In Angel, Banning acts heroically and quickly in his attempt to save the president from being assassinated in Salient’s attack at the lake. However, after both he and the president are rescued and brought to a hospital nearby, the FBI launch an investigation of the attack and find evidence supposingly putting Banning as the perpetrator of the attack. FBI agent Helen Thompson then greets Banning at his hospital bed once he wakes up telling him that he’s under arrest for orchestrating the attack, which prompts Banning to violently refute Thompson’s claims and demand to see the president (00:31:58-00:32:25). Banning is attempting to continue his mission to protect the president as his most reliable secret service agent here, but is having his mission thwarted by the country’s bureaucratic systems and procedures embodied in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the results of their examination of the attack. This conflict becomes a major driving force throughout Angel, not culminating until Banning finally breaches the hospital after days of evading local and federal police forces. Once he breaches and makes his way to the president’s room, he is met with secret service agents immediately restraining him and placing him under arrest while he attempts to explain that he has been framed. It is not until the president himself permits Banning to talk to him that Banning is finally able to get his point across and clear his name. Throughout Angel and up until this point, Banning attempts to fight for America ideologically and literally once he learns Jennings’ plan to kill the president in the hospital, but is frequently thwarted by being forced to fight against America’s bureaucratic systems declaring him as the country’s most wanted.
Altogether, the three films of the “Has Fallen” franchise have similar syntactic elements, including themes of war and militarism, antagonism of capitalism, and a hero fighting for his country and/or its ideological alignments while simultaneously having to fight against its bureaucratic systems. There are some syntactic outliers, though, that are worth mentioning. First, in London, a major syntactic element is the concept of the Western world being simultaneously the beacon of strength and the target for the world’s hatred. This is most notably articulated in a moment where Banning and the president are hiding out in the apartment of an MI6 agent. The president tells Banning about a drone strike attempt on Barkawi’s life that occurred two years earlier that failed to kill Barkawi, thus explaining Barkawi’s attempt to exact revenge on the West, recruiting men from “the United Nations of every-fucking-body that hates us,” as the M16 agent puts it (00:56:00-00:57:00). The West here is portrayed as being undeniably strong, capable of launching drone strikes on its enemies, while simultaneously being portrayed as a target for the world’s hatred. Another syntactic outlier is present in Angel, with the inclusion of complex concepts of war veteranship. In Angel, Banning tracks down his father, Clay Banning, a Vietnam War veteran who is living off the grid. Clay describes to Banning the trauma he experienced fighting in Vietnam and the way he was mistreated by the American government once returning home from the war. It is the first time throughout the franchise where the idea of having fought for your country is not attached with a metaphorical badge of pride as it has been up until this point, mostly in response to Bannings’ heroism.
America as The Constant Victim & The Global Superpower.
Before wrapping up this syntactic analysis of the “Has Fallen” franchise and moving forward to an analysis of the franchise’s representations of patriotism, it is important to note one last common syntactic element present throughout all three films. This is the films’ portrayal of America as simultaneously the constant victim and the global superpower.
In Olympus, this portrayal of America as both victim and superpower is seen throughout the film, but notably through the ineffective and delayed response to Kang’s initial attack juxtaposed with mentions and displays of America’s military technology and arsenal. At the very beginning of the film, before the attack even occurs, we see the massive plane controlled by two of Kang’s men entering the American airspace at Chesapeake Bay with no immediate response. It is not until a little later that F-16 fighter jets finally appear alongside the plane, demanding that the pilots divert their course. These demands prove unsuccessful once the plane begins to fire at the F-16’s, grounding both jets in a matter of seconds. Instantly, we are introduced to America as the victim, practically defenseless as the enemy plane makes it way to D.C. uninhibited, wreaks havoc on the capital, and then is followed by an all-out ground siege on the White House, ending with Kang’s men taking full control of the building. Throughout the film, however, this image of America is contradicted with references to America’s enormous nuclear arsenal through mentions of how a Cerberus activation would leave America as a “cold, dark nuclear wasteland” (1:41:00). In this way, Olympus portrays America as both the victim defenseless to the sudden terrorist threat and as the global superpower with an advanced nuclear arsenal unmatched to that of any other nation.
In London, this dual-portrayal of America continues through the perception of America as constantly under attack by Middle Eastern terrorists while also being percieved as the frequent purveyor of destruction in the region. In the very beginning of the film, an audio montage of news reports detail attacks from Middle Eastern terrorist organizations around the world, painting the world, including America, as under attack by these terrorists (00:00:00-00:01:02). This is expanded upon further through the carrying-out of Barkawi’s attack on world leaders, including the U.S. president. However, in the scene directly after this montage of news reports, a drone strike takes out an entire wedding in Pakistan, followed by a shot of American flags, directly establishing America as the striker (00:05:16-00:05:26). Here and throughout London, America is perceived as the constant victim--in this case of Middle Eastern terrorists--while simultaneously being shown as the global superpower that drone strikes innocent civilians.
Lastly, Angel showcases America in a similar way, this time through America as militarily helpless in comparison to private military contractors while simultaneously being portrayed as ready and willing to declare war on another major global superpower. Time and time again, Salient’s forces are able to outsmart and overwhelm American military and police forces, carrying out their mass-murdering of the president’s secret service with ease and later being able to corner U.S. military forces in the massive shootout in the end. Yet, once it is alleged that the Russians might’ve been involved in the assassination attempt on the president, the American government is willing to consider a declaration of war with the one other global superpower with a nuclear arsenal that could match their own. The idea that a country whose own military cannot stand up to private militias would consider engaging in a war against a country whose military could easily stand up to theirs highlights these two contradictory portrayals of America in Angel.
This portrayal of America throughout the “Has Fallen” franchise will inform an analysis of the franchise’s representations of patriotism in subsequent sections, allowing us to better spot and categorize such ideas.
A Symbolic/Blind Approach
Before undertaking an analysis of American patriotism in the “Has Fallen” franchise, it’s important to establish what American patriotism is. William A. Galston (2018) defines patriotism as “a special attachment to a particular political community, although not necessary to its existing form of government” (p. 1). It can be established, then, that American patriotism refers to a form of support for America, either as a political community or a governing body.
Going further, though, representations of patriotism can be divided as relating to one of two forms: either symbolic patriotism or blind patriotism. C. S. Parker (2010) defines symbolic patriotism as “a relatively abstract, affective attachment to the nation and its core values,” while defining blind patriotism as “more concrete, indexing uncritical support for national policies and practices” (p. 97). Simply put, symbolic American patriotism refers to an attachment to American values, while blind American patriotism refers to unwavering support for America’s actions and policies both within the country and towards foreign entities.
Using this two-pronged definition of patriotism is helpful in analyzing representations of American patriotism throughout the “Has Fallen” franchise as it allows us to specify how exactly patriotism is being represented, not just what is representing patriotism. From categorizing these representations, a more specific discourse on the ways in which patriotism is represented in American cinema can be cultivated--one that thoughtfully considers the impacts both forms of patriotism has on an American audience.
Categorizing Representations of Patriotism in Olympus, London, & Angel.
Starting off, Olympus employs several examples of symbolic patriotism mostly through imagery and dialogue. Throughout Olympus, images related to American concepts and history are present. One example pertains to the various shots with the American flag on the roof of the White House. First, we see this flag in a still shot by itself during the initial attack, where it gets shot through and covered with bullet holes from the plane’s machine gun fire (00:26:00). Not much later, after Kang takes control of the White House, we see the same flag being taken down off its pole and thrown off the building in a slowed-down shot by some of Kang’s men (00:40:35-00:41:00). By the end of the film, after Kang has been defeated and the White House has been restored, we see a new flag being hoisted up the pole as soldiers at the base of the pole salute (1:49:20-1:49:50). This flag embodies symbolic patriotism as the flag itself is seen as conveying the concept of American resilience. The flag gets damaged and then displaced, but in the end the flag is ultimately restored, representing America’s perseverance through tragedy. Another example occurs in a scene inside the White House, when Banning finds himself hiding in the Oval Office awaiting one of Kang’s men to enter. Once he does, Banning picks up a bust of Abraham Lincoln’s head and bashes it over the man’s head (00:50:45). Abe Lincoln’s bust is being used in this instance as a patriotic symbol for America’s history of perseverance. Abraham Lincoln was president during the American Civil War, a very tumultuous time for the nation. By the end of the war, though, America remained unified, demonstrating its perseverance through internal conflict. Therefore, the bust of Abraham Lincoln being used as a weapon against the enemy terrorist signifies America’s history of resilience, and suggests that America will be able to overcome this tragic day just as well.
Furthermore, Olympus uses dialogue that are examples of symbolic patriotism. First, in response to the attack on the White House, the speaker of the house--the current acting president due to the president and vice president being held hostage in the White House bunker--issues a formal statement, saying “We will remain united and strong. God bless you all and God bless these United States of America” (1:07:32-1:07:41). Key words and phrases like “united and strong” and “God bless these United States of America” signal ideas of American resilience and unity, as well as refer to Christian values which are often considered American values (reference quote needed). Additionally, later in the film, as Kang’s men take the secretary of state and drag her through the halls of the bunker and the White House, she screams, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America!” (1:31:57-1:32:10). Here, the film is referencing America’s pledge of allegiance, a pledge that is commonly recited in spaces like schools while facing toward an American flag. The recitation of the pledge here is being utilized as another patriotic symbol representing American values regarding allegiance to the country itself.
In contrast, there are few elements of blind patriotism in Olympus. The premise of the film could be considered the most relevant implementation of blind patriotism, as it relates directly to the tense relationship between the U.S. and North Korea that exists in our real world. Without any clarification of context, Olympus positions the U.S. as the morally-sound superpower and North Korea as the immoral enemy. This positioning most notably occurs after Kang relays his demands to the president’s cabinet in the Pentagon, one of which being that the U.S. pulls its troops from the demilitarized zone, or the border between North and South Korea. A member of the cabinet, in reaction to this demand, says that “Seoul, all of South Korea could fall within 72 hours” (00:51:40). In this way, the U.S. is framed as not only a strong global superpower, but also the only entity keeping South Korea protected from its brutal Northern neighbors, who would invade immediately if given the chance. Ultimately, this conveys a blind support of America’s foreign policy, since the film does not go into specifics as it pertains to any involved country’s military forces and why such a withdrawal from the U.S. would be catastrophic for South Korea.
Moving on, London similarly employs examples of symbolic patriotism through its usage of imagery and dialogue. Starting with the film's use of imagery, like Olympus, a big component of that imagery has to do with the American flag. One particular inclusion of the image of the American flag occurs at the start of the film, in the aforementioned transition from the drone strike on the wedding to the image of American flags. Immediately, the flag is being used here as a symbol for the American ideal of strength and power. Additionally, London also implements symbolic patriotism through the three helicopters, Marines One, Two, and Three. This is especially shown in the scene where Marines Two and Three are escorting Marine One, all while all three are trying to evade enemy missile fire. In the scene, Marines Two and Three inevitably end up “sacrificing” by flying behind Marine One and taking a hit from the missiles before Marine One, which is carrying the president and Banning, is forced to take a hit and go down (00:38:00-00:39:30). The three helicopters, which are decorated in American Air Force seals and American flags, being in this intense situation reflects the severity of the film’s rising action to an American audience as they symbolize American strength. This utilization of symbolism even continues after Marine One has gone down, when we see that the president and Banning have survived the crash. This symbolically conveys the idea that American strength is unwavering, even in moments where it seems the odds are against it.
Moreover, London also implements symbolic patriotism through its dialogue. Two of the most prominent examples of this occur near the end of the film. First, as the president is being primed for execution by Barkawi’s son, Kamran, he is asked to give his last words to the execution’s global live audience. In response and as Kamran begins to punch his face repeatedly, the president begins to recite his presidential vows, stating, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will do the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend-” (01:18:30-01:18:47). Here, the film uses President Asher’s recitation of these vows in a very climactic moment to illustrate the idea of American resilience, once again even at times when it seems the odds are against America. Second, shortly after this moment, as Banning is punching Kamran repeatedly after infiltrating the execution, Banning makes a speech of his own in saying, “You know what you guys don’t get? We’re not a fucking building. We’re not a fucking flag. We’re not just one man. Assholes like you have been trying to kill us for a long fucking time. But you know what, a thousand years from now, we’ll still fucking be here.” (1:20:20-1:20:50). This speech is filled with references that point to the usage of symbolic patriotism, from referencing the September 11th attacks and the Middle Eastern terrorist threat in “We’re not a fucking building” and “Assholes like you have been trying to kill us for a long time,” referencing the American flag in “We’re not a fucking flag,” and referencing the president of the United States in “We’re not just one man.” All of these references culminate in the largest signal of symbolic patriotism, proclaiming that America will stand the test of time in contrast to its terrorist enemies due to its resilience.
Contrastingly, London uses few examples of blind patriotism. Like in Olympus, London’s usage of blind patriotism could be boiled down to a few plot points alluding to the real conflicts between America and enemy terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Perhaps more interestingly, though, the film can be seen as articulating a blind support for American foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East through the language of drone strikes. London begins and ends with drone strikes launched by America targeting Barkawi’s terrorist organization. While America fails to kill Barkawi via drone strike in the beginning, they succeed in doing so by the end. Yet, despite one strike being a failure, both strikes are justified by the film as undoubtedly necessary acts of violence on a foreign entity in order to rid the world of a terrorist leader. The film does not, however, make a concrete effort to discuss how such acts of violence have the potential to endanger and do in fact endanger the lives of innocent people caught in the crossfire. One could argue that Barkawi’s act of revenge alone addresses the ramifications of America’s military recklessness. Ultimately though, Barkawi’s motives and his own reckless execution of his plan distance him too much from an American audience, rendering such an audience incapable of seeing these nuances in the topic of American militarism in the Middle East through Barkawi alone. Hence, London purports a blind support of American foreign policy in this regard.
A point of clear distinction within this franchise’s representations of patriotism occurs with Angel, specifically in its decreased prevalence on symbolic patriotism compared with its prevalence on blind patriotism. Examples of symbolic patriotism in Angel are limited to just two scenes. First, in the wake of the attack on the president at the lake, the Vice President is sworn in as the country’s current acting president while the actual president is in a coma. Interspersed between the VP reciting his presidential vows with his hand on a bible are shots of the physical aftermath of the attack, showing the dead bodies of secret service men on the ground and floating in the water (00:26:55-00:27:36). Like in London, the presidential vows are used as a patriotic symbol. This time, however, it is used as a symbol not referencing American resilience, but referencing the weight of American leadership, displaying the horrific extent to which enemies of America resort to in order to try and undermine it. The second scene, on the other hand, primarily uses imagery rather than dialogue. This scene occurs halfway into the film, when Banning and his father are at a gas station out in the American wooded countryside. Scattered throughout this general area are American flags, as well as the flag’s colors in other decorative items (1:09:23-1:10:41). This usage of American paraphernalia doesn’t directly put the film in a patriotic context at this moment, but it does nonetheless remind the audience of such symbolic patriotism.
Conversely, Angel implements more elements of blind patriotism, mostly through dialogue. The first instance of this occurs in the beginning during a press conference the president holds where he is questioned by a reporter on America’s response to Russia’s increased militarism. The reporter says, “Mr. President, with Russia continuing to extend its military well beyond its borders, what is your strategy to stop them from reforming the old Soviet Union?” (00:09:57-00:10:06). This is one of few moments throughout the franchise where specific terminology and aspects associated with America’s foreign policy are discussed. Regardless, it is still framed in a way that implies common attitudes in America support increased militarism in response to Russia’s increased militarism without addressing the many ramifications and nuances included in such discourse. Furthermore, another instance of this occurs halfway through the film, where the Vice President is addressing the nation in response to the growing suspicions that Russia was supposedly involved in the attack on the president. In his speech, he states that “America needs to show strength,” implying the necessity of a declaration of war with Russia as a response (01:10:56-01:11:00). Once again, the film implements a blind support for American foreign policy as those in power call for war before the attack is investigated thoroughly enough to make a solid claim as to a foreign entity’s involvement or lack thereof. It is important to note, though, that instances like these are included by the film to add to the villains’ execution of their plan. Concern towards Russian militarism fuels Jennings’ and Vice President Kirby’s use of Russia as a scapegoat and the blind support of an American declaration of war is pushed through the fear-mongering implicating Russia as the perpetrator of the assassination attempt on the president. In this sense, it could be plausible to assert that Angel uses examples of blind patriotism to position such unequivocal support for American policy in a negative light, thus further distinguishing it from Olympus and London.
The President as a Patriotic Symbol.
One last point in analyzing representations of patriotism in the “Has Fallen” franchise is addressing the character symbolism in all three films, particularly as it relates to the character of the president. In all three films, the president is used as a symbol for American patriotism. In Olympus, we follow Mike Banning in his mission to save the president from Kang. In doing so, Banning is less saving a single person and more so saving the idea of America. The country quite literally stops functioning once the president is in danger. It is thus up to Banning to rescue the president and return the country to its former stability. Once this mission is accomplished, the country not only is able to rebuild, but the film itself becomes brighter. We hear triumphant music bring us into the falling action and subsequent conclusion of the film and see a rebuilt America in much brighter lighting, conveying a sense of optimism in the road ahead. Similarly, in London, Banning is given nearly the same mission--to protect the president and then to save him after he gets captured. London also stops functioning due to the terrorists in the film keeping it under seige as they search for the president. It is only once the president is rescued in the end that London too adopts more triumphant music and brighter lighting as he is finally able to safely return to America and London is up and running once again. Finally, in Angel, while the context of Banning’s mission is drastically shifted, at the heart of it is still the need to save the president, especially after he learns of Jennings’ plans to attempt another assassination of him. Despite all odds being against Banning, he manages to eventually get to the president and save him from Salient’s forces. With the help again of triumphant music and brighter lighting to close out the film, once the president is saved, stability is restored. Ultimately, throughout the franchise, the president is the driving force of each film’s respective plots and is utilized as a prominent symbolically patriotic element, emphasizing the ideas of American resilience, leadership, and democracy.
In attempting to define the contemporary American patriotic film, the semantic and syntactic elements of the films of the “Has Fallen” franchise were analyzed. It can thus be concluded that the American patriotic film can be defined semantically through the inclusion of overhead and tracking shot sequences, tonal montages, dialogue involving fictional codes and xenophobic rhetoric, and the plot-driving character archetypes of the rugged American male protagonist and the reckless anti-American antagonist. Syntactically, the American patriotic film can also be defined through the inclusion of themes of war and militarism, an antagonism of capitalism, and a hero fighting for his country and/or its ideological alignments while simultaneously having to fight against its bureaucratic systems. These semantic and syntactic definitions can be used in tandem to describe the American patriotic film in the most accurate and in-depth way.
In addition, the “Has Fallen” franchise was used in order to assess representations of patriotism in the American patriotic film. This was done using a framework of patriotism dividing the concept into two counterparts--symbolic patriotism and blind patriotism. The first two films, Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen were shown to depict ideas of patriotism in a way that aligned more with the concept of symbolic patriotism rather than blind patriotism. The third film, Angel Has Fallen, however, represented ideas of patriotism in a way that aligned more with the concept of blind patriotism rather than symbolic patriotism. Nevertheless, it can be asserted that American patriotic films are more likely to be imbued with symbolic patriotism as all three films still represented the concept of patriotism in this way, with two out of three of them doing so to an overwhelming extent.
It is important to execute critical analyses of American cinema for the same reason that it is important to critically analyze any form of mass media--the concept of cultural hegemony. James Lull (1995) describes this concept comprehensively:
Mass-mediated ideologies are corroborated and strengthened by an interlocking system of efficacious information-distributing agencies and taken-for-granted social practices that permeate every aspect of social and cultural reality. Messages supportive of the status quo emanating from schools, businesses, political organizations, trade unions, religious groups, the military and the mass media all dovetail together ideologically. This inter-articulating, mutually reinforcing process of ideological influence is the essence of hegemony. Society's most entrenched and powerful institutions--which all depend in one way or another on the same sources for economic support--fundamentally agree with each other ideologically (p. 34).
Those in positions of power--economically, politically, or socially--are capable of cultivating hegemony in a variety of forms, including forms of media such as cinema. This hegemony is intended to ensure these people and institutions remain the prominent forces driving mainstream culture. With the amount of influence American cinema has, not just within American society but in societies around the world as well, America’s film industry is certainly no exception to cultural hegemony. Therefore, critical reviews of American cinema, especially as it pertains to representations of ideas that regard an ideological or unequivocal support for the country’s governing principles and policies, are crucial to remaining aware of how media is able to reinforce a long-standing hegemony within American society.
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