“Falling Down” and the End of the American Dream

Slightly off-topic here, but I was recently looking through some of my old files from my undergraduate days and I came across a couple critical film analyses that I wrote for a political theory class. The professor was a bit of a film buff, and he assigned his students the task of watching a couple films to extract and articulate the political messages contained within. For my assignment I selected Falling Down and Black Hawk Down. I will post both reviews in their [relatively short] entirety.

Keep in mind that each analysis is a slight distortion of my own political thinking. The professor certainly did not punish students for disagreeing with him, nor was he an ideological activist, but like any cautious PoliSci undergrad, I semi-consciously wrote papers in a manner that would give the instructor what he wanted to hear. So for what it’s worth, my undergraduate political analysis of the 1993 film Falling Down:

Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down tells the story of a seemingly genteel defense engineer’s violent day-long adventure in the Los Angelas of the early ’90s. The film is a wide-ranging criticism of contemporary culture, raising issues of social justice, civility, the decay of Western society, and the evanescing of the “American Dream.”

William Foster – portrayed by Michael Douglas – is a recently unemployed engineer living in Los Angeles. He has been divorced from his wife for some time, with his daughter under his wife’s custody. Stuck in traffic on the hottest day of the year – incidentally also his daughter’s birthday – he suddenly abandons his vehicle and decides to “go home,” despite his wife having a restraining order against him. Making his way across the city of Los Angeles on foot, he encounters various social ills, and having decided that he would no longer tolerate them, violently lashes out at all of them. Committing various crimes in the process, he gains the attention of Detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a police officer on his last day of work before retirement. Married to a very disturbed woman who was apparently responsible for the death of their only child, Prendergast abandons his office job that he never really enjoyed and pursues Foster. The film culminates with a confrontation between Foster and Prendergast, in which Foster commits “suicide by cop.”

Los Angeles is depicted as dystopia: the city is polluted and unclean, dominated by criminal gangs, ruled by corrupt bureaucrats, inhabited by the diseased and homeless, with a severe gap between the haves and the have-nots. Essentially, Schumacher uses Los Angeles as a microcosm of American society at large, which in the early 1990s was experiencing numerous negative social indicators, including recession and high crime rates.

One of the strongest themes in the movie is the decline of civility in society, which contemporary social scientists prefer to call “social capital.” Throughout the film, Foster is confronted by intolerant, angry, and arrogant characters that show no politeness or courteousness whatsoever. Foster’s reaction varies in each of these situation, but his patience with them declines as his day continues, and the resolution of each one is increasingly violent in character. Ironically, the only man who speaks to him intelligently and with respect, Prendergast, would be the man that kills him. The implication of this theme is that civility is crucial for the survival of any society.

Another theme is the severe gap emerging between the upper and lower classes in America. Having traveled through low-income districts of the city and encountering the violence and crime prevalent in such areas, Foster then crosses into high-income regions and is faced with the shameless arrogance of the upper class. As Foster attempts to cross a golf course, an elderly golfer who was so angered by his momentary encounter with someone from the lower orders attempts to strike him with a golf ball. Foster responds by retrieving a shotgun from his bag, giving the old man a heart attack in the process. Outraged, Foster screams at the golfer,

What the hell are you trying to do? Kill me with a golf ball? It’s not enough you have all these beautiful acres fenced in for your little game, but you gotta kill me with a golf ball? You should have children playing here, you should have families having picnics, you should have a goddamn petting zoo. But instead you’ve got these stupid electric carts for you old men with nothing better to do.

After this encounter, Foster jumps the fence of an upscale estate as he continues his journey. Injuring himself on the barb wire, he exclaims to those he finds on the other side, “Why are you putting barbed wire on that fence? Is this how you rich people amuse yourselves? You put barbed wire on the fence so innocent people like me can hurt themselves looking in?” Thus, the film has a strong theme within it that is highly critical of the economic situation facing society, with a growing divide between the rich and poor.

Tying into this theme is a strong commentary on social justice. Los Angeles is depicted as a place where one’s value to society is determined solely by their financial worth. While traveling through the city, Foster witnesses a black man protesting a bank which refused him a loan on the grounds that he was “not economically viable.” Foster adopts the term to describe his own situation; having no employment, he discovers that society assigns absolutely no value to him, a particularly tormenting realization. Unable to pay child support, not even his estranged family values him anymore. Overall, this theme resonates especially strong with the audience, raising disturbing questions about how others regard the value of our own lives.

A final theme that is the culmination of all the others is Foster’s realization that the “American Dream” – an idea that he believed in and remained loyal to – had never really existed, or worse yet, had betrayed him. When he is finally confronted by Prendergast, he whimsically complains, “I helped build missiles. I helped protect this country. You should be rewarded for that. But instead they give it to the plastic surgeons. You know, they lied to me.” Prendergast replies that had been lied to as well, but that didn’t give him any special right to lash out as Foster did. Prendergast’s line in this exchange was delivered with the sincerity of a disclaimer that was inserted by the filmmakers in an effort to discourage the audience from acting out in the manner they witnessed in the film.

Despite the presence of Prendergast’s character – a man who acknowledges the injustices of society yet is able to adapt himself and survive in a productive manner – Falling Down remains a scathing criticism of contemporary society. Furthermore, the film effectively points out aspects of American political thought that, while still valued in the minds of many Americans, may not exist in reality.

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