A Living Cinematic Fossil: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

You don’t need me to tell you that Angel Has Fallen (2019), directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is pretty damn shitty. The incoherent action sequences (edited by Gabriel Fleming), including one that’s so underlit as to be literally incomprehensible (cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin), is par for the course in today’s action blockbuster (or “blockbuster”) landscape, but you know something’s really wrong when even the dialogue scenes are confusingly shot. Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) returns for another round of mayhem in this third installment of a franchise whose first installment was already inferior to another film released around the same time and with the same premise, White House Down (2013). I wish Jamie Foxx had gotten the threepeat treatment instead.

The reason I’m writing this instead of just ranting on Twitter (the thread branches in the penultimate tweet) is because the film and my reaction to it raises a question that’s been nagging me for almost a fortnight: Is it possible to make a good film entirely from a right-wing perspective?

This is a film where Morgan Freeman, playing the president, regresses into a Magical Negro almost, comatose for most of the film and waking up just in time to side with Banning against everyone else (Banning’s framed for an attempted assassination, even though he’s the sole reason it failed); then he gets shoved around like the VIP package he is, before finally allowing Banning to have his honor cake and eat it too, by letting him tender his resignation and then refusing it. The only things standing between Freeman’s character and a literal instance of the Magical Negro trope are the character’s presidential authority and Freeman’s own commanding presence.
This is a film where the bad guy (Danny Huston), who tries to kill the president thrice, shoots two FBI agents (Jada Pinkett Smith and Joseph Millson) at almost point blank range, decimates the secret service, blows up a hospital (hello Heath Ledger!), and gets the national guard mobilized against him—this guy gets a hero’s death by fair fight, mano-a-mano. Banning throws away his machine gun and pulls out a pistol fer chrissakes! That quickly devolves into a knife fight, and finally the homicidal villain gets a noble death, in which he’s forgiven because (a) he’s an old friend and (b) he just missed being on the battlefield.

This is a film where only two moral goods are recognized as such: patriotism and personal loyalty (e.g., that of family and friends). Not saying these aren’t moral goods, but other commonly recognized moral goods such as life, liberty, mental health, communal bonds, and property integrity are acceptably violated so long as those first two are upheld. The bad guy is only the bad guy because he isn’t patriotic and threatens the Banning family (Piper Perabo as wife Leah, Jessica and Maisie Cobley as daughter Lynne), but he’s still redeemed by the bonds of friendship.

Now, this is a poorly made film, but can a good film be made according to this moral framework?

My instinct says that, as social values advance, things taken for granted in such a film (such as, here, Freeman’s characterization and the fact that we only ever see Leah doing the dishes) would grow ever more distracting, to the point where we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the merits and artistic value of the hypothetical better film. It would become a historical artifact, like I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (Bugan Genni Jiang / 不敢跟你講 1969).

But it could be salvaged. If said film were to expand its moral horizons and acknowledge more than only two moral goods; if it were to take pain to flesh out stereotypes, including racial and gender ones; and if it were to seriously explore the complexities in treating both the morals and the identitarian roles—then we’d have a proper film on our hands.

As it stands, I’m not quite sure where the 121 minutes of Angel Has Fallen went; or rather, I know where they went (set piece after set piece after set piece), but few of those minutes feel invested. The film is an empty spectacle and a piece of right-wing masturbatory fantasy. Your mileage (and politics) may vary.

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.

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