I recently re-watched the film Falling Down. I’m sure many Puffins will have watched and enjoyed this film. Upon re-watching it, I asked myself a couple of questions: What were the writers trying to say back in 1993? And how should I interpret the film today?
What follows is an unapologetic deconstruction of the film from a right-wing perspective in 2022.
Falling Down is a drama/dark comedy directed by Joel Schumaker. Released in February 1993, it was a box office success taking the top slot from the comedy Groundhog Day. The film also won Best Motion Picture Screenplay at the Oscars. Watching it again, I found it well made, with strong performances and a tightly crafted script.
Michael Douglas plays the lead role as William ‘D-Fens’ Foster, a middle-aged recently sacked white-collar worker whose life spirals out of control after he abandons his car in a Los Angeles traffic jam. He is referred to as ‘D-Fens’ after his number plate. D-Fens attempts to trek across the city to visit his young daughter on her birthday at his estranged wife’s house. On the way, he has a series of encounters which become increasingly violent. The film uses this setup to explore social and racial issues in 1990s America, which at the time had just experienced the LA riots.
D-Fens encounters latino gang members, an ethnic shopkeeper, a black man denied a loan by the banks, and other characters intended to represent one social issue or another. With each encounter the schtick is that society has taken a turn for the worse and D-Fens rather naively longs for a return to some prior sense of order. Property rights are a recurring theme in the film as different characters stake out their rights to control a part of the city and deny access to others they dislike – be it a shop, gang territory, or a gated community. D-Fens frequently challenges this balkanisation, invoking a more communitarian past that has been destroyed by multiculturalism and economic inequality.
D-Fens also confronts the deracinating nature of modernity in scenes such as the fast food restaurant (where he famously pulls out a submachine gun after they stop serving breakfast) and a road crew needlessly repairing the road (where he sends a bazooka down a construction pipe). The narrative cuts between the Douglas character and Robert Duvall, who co-stars as a retiring police detective attempting to track down D-Fens during his day of destruction.
The normie take on Falling Down is to debate the extent to which we should sympathise with the protagonist, ‘D-Fens’. Is he an everyman anti-hero figure who is “not going to take it anymore”, or is he the bad guy who must be stopped? At one point, D-Fens asks with incredulity “I’m the bad guy?” In some scenes D-Fens takes aim at easy targets, and the decay of urban America is seen as victimising everybody to some extent. But in other scenes he is clearly over the line of acceptable behaviour, such as bullying immigrant shopkeepers. At the time of the film’s release, this duality left critics somewhat confused but they praised the film because of what they saw as its moral complexity. Kirk Douglas described his son’s character as “the villain and the victim.” More recent re-appraisals by mainstream commentators condemn the film for its lack of political correctness. The edgy moral ambiguity that critics liked in 1993 is now seen by progressives as reflective of unreconstructed 1990s’ prejudices. Conversely, this has resulted in some on the right seeing D-Fens as the hero of the film after all. A shallow viewing of the film may simply revel in the dark humour. I would argue that all of these interpretations are misguided.
Deconstructing the film from a dissident right perspective
I want to propose an alternative political analysis of the film, and examine what it was trying to achieve in 1993. I’d summarise the film as follows:
Falling Down is ultimately a Boomer propaganda film aimed at Generation X. Its purpose was to indoctrinate Gen Xers in progressive ideology. It did this by channelling their understandable frustrations with a corrupt and atomised society toward progressive solutions and re-enforcing progressive prejudices.
Like all propaganda, the film is a product of its time, which I would think has much less impact on millenials or zoomers today. However, many of its progressive themes found a political expression in the Clinton presidency that followed it, and are still highly relevant to today. Let me explain what I mean by the above summary.
The main theme of Falling Down is a familiar one in American movies. We have a corrupted society and various conflicts between groups of people. Confronting this we have a white man who feels compelled to act: to restore order in some way. You can see this motif in the genre of the western. A good example preceding Falling Down would be the Dirty Harry films. In these, Clint Eastwood faces similar sorts of societal issues and deals with them in a direct manner. Moviegoers like these storylines because they appeal to deep psychological urges. The political left, however, sees this trope as right wing and fascistic in nature. It does not want society’s problems being solved by a strong man with a gun exerting his authority in the service of what you might view as traditional morality. The left sees this as a slippery slope to an authoritarian and anti-progressive society.
This conflict between the entertainment people want, and what progressives consider off-limits explains the popularity of comic books and superhero films. The comic book hero represents this dangerous desire for the strong man of action but it can get away with it by safely placing him in a cartoonish format and by making the villains even more right wing and authoritarian than he is.
By the early 1990s in particular, following the fall of communism, ‘fascism’ became seen as the ultimate foe under liberal democracy, and this fear was reflected in the wider culture.This trend has only grown stronger in recent years, with the left seeing the spectre of ‘fascism’ in almost everything exhibiting a will to power that is not on its side. The dominant political narrative of our times is anti-fascism.
D-Fens worked in the defence industry, defending America from communism. The political message of the film is therefore that those men who helped us fight communism are the biggest threat now that we face internal social issues.
Bait and Switch
Falling Down can therefore be seen as Hollywood acknowledging the attraction of the right – expressed in this case through a form of vigilantism – whilst using the film’s story arc to neuter the threat that attraction creates. It does this by presenting the man of action trope and pitting it against a set of contemporary social issues (both realistic and exaggerated). It then keeps this under control through its liberal biases, which are ultimately the stronger force in the film. The film gets you cheering – or at least sympathising – with the protagonist, but then teaches you the real lesson you need to learn. A bait and switch. Hollywood would be a lot more reluctant to do this now – it would be too likely to backfire. But back in 1993, the Boomer generation making the film was prepared to use an edgy approach to appeal to the cynical Gen-X target audience of the time.
The film therefore admits real examples of societal failure in order to resonate with the viewer and allow us to empathise with D-Fens. For example, we see him stuck in traffic with no hope of an exit – a metaphor for the lack of control over his own life. There is the soul-destroying consumerism of the fast food restaurant, the intimidation of ethnic gangs taking over parts of the city, the failure of bureaucracy and economic inequality. We too must sense D-Fen’s contempt and frustration at the modern world and the feeling of liberation that rebelling against it can bring. These are the things boomers were comfortable recognising as social ills. The scene on the golf course where D-Fens confronts arrogant old white golfers wearing silly clothes exemplifies these boomer biases well. The most powerfu boomer symbol however, is the white supremascist.
The film uses the character of Nick the white supremascist army surplus shopkeeper, with his secret stash of Nazi memorabilia (including Zyklon-B cannisters), as a way of marking out the moral boundaries of the film. Nick represents a caricature of ultimate evil – he is anti-gay, anti-semitic, racist, sexist, fanatically pro-Nazi and also very weird to boot. The full bingo card! The comic book villain. Nick kicks a gay couple out of his shop, pointing out that he has the right to do this on his property. If we are left in any doubt, the gay customer calls him a redneck and fascist.
Nick assumes D-Fens is on the same side as him, but of course boomer D-Fens is appalled by this suggestion and eventually kills Nick to avoid being turned into the cops. The Neo-Nazi Nick character therefore does a number of things: he increases sympathy for D-Fens by showing that he is against such extremism; he reminds (and teaches) viewers that Nazis are the ultimate evil and the slippery slope end-point of rejecting liberal values; and the scene also starts to introduce the theme of mental illness, which will play an increasing role in the narrative. On this final point, we can see that Nick is clearly deranged. D-Fens tells him that he is sick.
Gen X cynicism, and dissent as pathology
Having created empathy for D-Fens through him confronting various issues that most people would sympathise with, the film has to then steer the viewer away from seeing the story as a straightforward Dirty Harry romp. There are a number of subtle and not so subtle ways that this is done, which I think are designed to especially appeal to the cynical Gen X’er watching.
Michael Douglas does not play D-Fens as a cool character in the mould of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. His overly straight 50s haircut, briefcase, striped tie, pens in shirt pocket, are all oddball throwbacks. More importantly however, we learn that his separation from his family was due to him being abusive (although not violently so) and this theme builds until we realise that his attempt to find his ex-wife and daughter is to forcibly reassert his role as the patriarch in a delusional way.
The film therefore steers the story into an area that is increasingly used to control society – dissent as a psychological pathology. The motivation behind D-Fen’s rebellion is tied to his underlying damaged psychology. He is deep down mentally ill, as shown through his harmful personal relationships and his eventual suicide by cop in the closing scenes. (Dissent as pathology has also been used during the Covid pandemic, where dissent is linked to suspect reasoning and mental illness.) Just as Nick the Nazi is sick, so is D-Fens, as his wife tells him at the end. And that is why he goes against the system the way he does.
The Real Hero – Boomer Retiring Cop (BRC) and the Therapeutic State
Who are we meant to view as the real hero of the film? The always watchable Robert Duvall plays Sergeant Martin Prendergast, or who I have coined ‘Boomer Retiring Cop’ (BRC) on his last day on the job before early retirement. BRC’s background mirrors D-Fens’: BRC has lost his daughter as she died at a young age; BRC also has a difficult relationship with his wife who is neurotic and badgering; and he also has to live in the same flawed world as D-Fens. However, unlike D-Fens, BRC stoically deals with his lot in life. He says to D-Fens : “They lie to everybody, but that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.”
BRC pieces together the identity of D-Fens from various clues and is able to intercept him as he reaches his ex-wife’s house at Venice Beach. If D-Fens is mentally ill, BRC represents the counter to this. He is the personification of the authoritarian arm of the therapeutic state in the film. The concept of the therapeutic state has been developed by writers such as Paul Gottfried. If society’s problems are caused by an underlying pathology in people, then the role of a progressive administrative state is to treat this. “You need help” says D-Fens’ ex-wife. Again, we have seen this being applied with Covid with the state directly attempting to control a viral pathology within the populace. The tragedy espoused by Falling Down is not that the world has been ruined by multiculturalism and modernity, but that the progressive administrative state didn’t prevent D-Fens’ mental collapse. The death scene where D-Fens sets up a western style pistol draw against BRC captures this point. BRC is not heroic in killing D-Fens because D-Fens purposely draws a toy gun. His killing of D-Fens is therefore administrative in nature – police officers are required to shoot in those circumstances.
What are the moral lessons we are intended to take from the storyline? All of these point towards progressive solutions (as seen in 1993) rather than conservative or traditionalist ones. Although it’s true that BRC ends up killing D-Fens, this is to be regretted. Menacingly though, the film acts as a warning that even a progressive therapeutic state will do what it needs to if all else fails. What then are some of the preferred solutions the film offers up?
BRC’s way out is through the promise of retirement – to escape society rather than to fix it. Similarly, the way out for D-Fen’s wife is to escape the marriage and be a single mother. D-Fens does not appear willing to take this approach, partly because he has nowhere to escape to, but because he can only see his “home” as a now unattainable past. But as an atomised individual he is insufficiently organised to fix society through his will to power. The only capable unit of organisation in the film is the police force, but it is shown as more interested in celebrating the retirement of BRC and it only seems to deal with the symptoms of the broken society. It also escapes – into insular bureaucracy.
The unavoidable message of the film therefore is to either endure a problem, or to escape it in a way that the system endorses. Let the authorities deal with it, and support giving them more resources to do so, even if they are useless. It’s reminiscent of the advice we get for terrorism: run, hide, tell. What you do not do is confront something yourself whilst appealing to the past. D-Fens must stay in his car and not follow a route that has not been planned out for him. The priority of authority, when it does deal with a problem, is to confront prejudiced white males because they have a dangerous pathology beneath the surface.
The solutions to the underlying social problems are hinted at but never explored. President Clinton was elected shortly before the film’s release and we can see how his subsequent political policies were foreshadowed within the film. The black man screwed by the bank would soon be given the loans that would lead to the 2008 financial crisis; anti-discrimination laws would force Neo-Nazi Nick to serve his gay customers; gender equality would continue to progress to undermine the prejudices of several male characters; and the underlying poverty and failure of bureaucracy is addressed through more state spending and a drive for economic equality.
The Family & Gender Roles
One thing that is striking about the film is how the traditional family is never presented as a viable answer. Compare this to earlier action films such as Die Hard or Lethal Weapon where traditional family units are shown as fortifying the will of the male protagonists in their fight towards order. The lead characters in those films directly protect their families from external threats. In Falling Down, D-Fens’ desire to re-establish his family structure is the threat in the film. He reminds his ex-wife that in some countries the husband is allowed to kill his wife. In Die Hard, the policeman John McClane wins back his family by demonstrating his heroism to his wife. In Falling Down, BRC as a representative of state authority is childless. Instead, he protects D-Fens’ family from D-Fens himself, an example of the therapeutic state in action.
The treatment of feminism in the film is reflective of the early 90s. There is a strong pro-feminist streak but it is not a one-way street like we tend to get in drama today. For example, BRC’s wife is neurotic and possessive and he starts the film being overly submissive to her. When BRC eventually stands up to her she suddenly meekly obeys. We have both a nagging/hysterical wife trope combined with a kind of female managerialism message in the film. There are several sassy female cops who are the female role models. BRC explains his wife’s mental problems because she has lost her looks but never had a career to give her life meaning.
The Symbolism of the Snow Globes
When BRC’s wife rings him up to nag him, he bizarrely plays her a snow globe with the tune of “London Bridge is falling down” to soothe her histrionics. They plan to retire to the place in Arizona where the old London Bridge was famously bought and moved to. This symbolism is paralleled with D-Fens when he buys the same unicorn snow globe which he intends to give to his daughter. However, we have seen his daughter playing with a water pistol rather than such sentimental toys. D-Fens sees his daughter through a lens of traditional femininity and innocence, whereas she is probably growing up to be more like the gun-toting female cops. The snow globes therefore represent for both BRC’s wife and D-Fens a contained and idealised world, but one which we are shown is fake and never attainable. The snow globes are linked to traditional femininity – through BRC’s wife as a fading beauty queen and D-Fens’ conception of his daughter. This more traditional view of what it is to be female, however, is also linked to a psychological pathology through both of these flawed characters. Being less traditionally feminine – having a career in the police and playing with guns – is seen as healthier. D-Fens’ ex-wife falls between these camps. She has had the wherewithal to divorce her oppressive husband but is still caught in a mindset that allows him to victimise her.
The women are therefore shown as either being sassy and confident in a man’s world, or feminised which results in them either being victimised, or passive aggressive and neurotic when their beauty fades.
The Role of Masculinity
BRC’s character arc mirrors D-Fens in that he too becomes more assertive as the story plays out. BRC is seen as too passive at the start of the film but this changes in his hunt for D-Fens – he finally stands up to his wife and punches a loudmouth cop for insulting her. Interestingly, BRC has no gun when he intercepts D-Fens but is given his female partner’s gun after she has been wounded, symbolising that he now has the necessary force to take out D-Fens.
For men to be overly passive is therefore (somewhat confusingly) also presented as a problem by the film. How can we reconcile this? How can men channel the right level of masculinity to please the filmmakers? What the film really wants, as does progressive society, is for men and women to be the same. It wants aggression to be used appropriately to fight against the prejudices preventing a more progressive society. i.e aggression is OK in the pursuit of anti-fascism. When D-Fens punches a chauvinist motorist, this swings us back to cheering for D-Fens because in that instance he is fighting for the right cause.
In the final analysis, I found Falling Down a depressing film, and a failure of narrative. It constantly wants to have its cake and eat it – setting the protagonist up as heroic but then punishing him with a mental disorder for rebelling. It does this whilst offering no meaningful solutions to the real problems he confronts. The message we are left with is that you must not try to fix society according to your own suspect instincts. Look what a mess you will make of it if you do, and, by the way, you are probably mentally ill anyway for thinking like this. Yes, the system is rotten, but it’s rotten because it’s still transitioning to a more progressive future and you’re part of the problem unless you agree with us.
I’ll let readers decide how this has panned out in the 30 years since the film was made.
© JimmySP 2022