Scotland is small, as I’ve written before. Before he became a Hollywood A-lister, Gerard Butler studied law at the University of Glasgow with my high-school best friend’s dad. He even lived with her parents for a short while in the 1990s when she was a baby. She likes to tell people that he’s seen her naked, which is literally true — Butler changed her diapers (or “nappies,” as we call them). Now every time I see a movie he’s starring in, I cannot help but think of how my friend’s dad would say, “Ha! There’s Gerry.”
“Gerry’s” latest movie is Angel Has Fallen, an action thriller of the Fallen film series directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Preceded by Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016), Angel features Morgan Freeman as a convincing politician and Butler as a less-than-convincing (at least to me) American. The basic plot is thus: Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent, who, after saving the president of the United States (Freeman) from an assassination attempt, is framed by the bad guys. From then on, Banning must act fast to clear his name while also rescuing the POTUS, who is likely going to be finished off at any moment.
Ordinarily, it’s polite to include “spoiler alert” when reviewing movies. However, the plot of Angel is so predictable that I feel I needn’t bother. In a wholly unsurprising twist, for instance, the criminal mastermind turns out to be — dun dun dun — the vice president (Tim Blake Nelson), who hired contractors from a paramilitary company (yes, the sketchy ones we met in Scene 1) to do the dirty work.
Whichever aspects of the story did remain a mystery were soon ruined by the friend who accompanied me to the theater, one of those self-appointed movie commentators. As it happens, her father once ran a semi-successful presidential bid — not entirely successful, given that he didn’t win, though he did come impressively close — and, as a result of this, she has firsthand experience with the U.S. Secret Service. For some reason her family has a British telephone box — a bit like the police box in Doctor Who, except narrower and red — in their backyard, which her dad once told me a Secret Service agent would stand in whenever it rained.
At any rate, after the vice president had entered the president’s hospital room (where he was sworn in as acting president), she whispered in my ear, “Ridiculous! They’d never have them in the same room right after an assassination attempt.” As I slurped wide-eyed on our soda, she added, “In fact, the very first thing they’d do is separate the chains of command.” I nodded knowingly, though regretting the root beer, which (I’d managed to forget) was revolting.
There were some surprisingly moving touches in Angel — for instance, Banning’s relationship with his father. A war veteran, Banning’s dad, we learn, struggled with PTSD and abandoned him and his mother. He lives in a remote forest, convinced the government is going to come after him. His preparedness and paranoia come in handy, however, and allow Banning to escape the contractors.
Movies such as Angel are, in many ways, mere footnotes to The Thirty-Nine Steps — the original “man on the run” action thriller, originally a novel by John Buchan, a Scotsman, and later made into a famous movie by Alfred Hitchcock. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, the stoic Richard Hannay is also caught between a rock and a hard place, fearful of the legitimate authorities (due to a misunderstanding) and the bad guys (due to his being a good guy). And because the film is little more than an action-movie archetype, the mind tends to wander.
When John W. Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at Reagan on the 70th day of his presidency outside the Washington Hilton, Reagan became the fifth sitting president to be shot, and the only one to survive. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy turned to shield the president and was shot in the chest. The leading Secret Service agent, Jerry Parr, then threw the president to the floor of his car, whereupon the door was slammed shut by agent Ray Shaddick — and the car hurtled at breakneck speed to the hospital. In Angel, the assassination attempt is carried out by drones. These are altogether more terrifying than the idea of an assassination attempt by guns. What protections do today’s Secret Service have in place in order to keep up with the new technology?
The day after seeing Angel, I was working from National Review’s office in Washington, D.C., the rooftop of which is right across from the White House. As I stood there I imagined — accurately, I’m sure — that I was being watched by Secret Service agents on the president’s roof. I thought about the drones from Angel, the men who were shot while protecting Ronald Reagan, and the unsung heroes of Pennsylvania Avenue.