Film and TV

Falling Down: 25 years Later, Does America Get That Michael Douglas’ Flat-Topped Avenger Was the Villain?

Wait, people think he;s the hero?
Wait, people think he;s the hero? Warner Bros.

It’s April 1992, and ABC commentator Judith Miller’s voice has an exasperated tinge as she reports to her audience that not one of the officers who beat Rodney King on that infamous videotape has been found guilty of any charges. Soon, riots break out in Los Angeles. Thousands of stores are destroyed. At least 55 people are killed. And less than a mile away, Joel Schumacher is directing Falling Down.

Starring Michael Douglas as “D-Fens” — that’s the name on the character’s vanity license plate — Falling Down is, on the surface, about how much a single human can take before he loses it. But underneath the clever quips and expensive explosions, this film is a prediction of what the ’90s would birth: Toxic, indiscriminate white male rage and what would become the Fox News generation. Whether Schumacher and white audiences saw the avenging D-Fens as this film’s anti-hero or villain (or both) remains up for debate 25 years later — Roger Ebert in his review at the time laments that a steady diet of revenge films, from Death Wish on, may have primed audiences to too strongly identify with D-Fens. Today, Falling Down remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right.

That Falling Down was filmed in L.A. amid the riots is both ironic and telling: D-Fens’ entire narrative is driven by his misconception that he is the true victim, even as he marauds through the city, terrifying fast-food cashiers, construction workers and immigrants — people who have far less privilege than the white, college-educated D-Fens does. The riots, of course, were a reaction to the jury’s and public’s sympathy for the white police officers who beat Rodney King; the cops were portrayed by some media outlets as the real victims with everything to lose, even as King himself suffered unquantifiable brain damage. The film itself is a caricature, but it carries the stain of this reality in every frame.

Like most of Falling Down, the opening scene, where D-Fens is stuck in downtown traffic on the 110/101 interchange, unfolds before a particularly smoggy sky. But that industrial, ’70s-thick air is actually from that April’s blazing fires — the smoke from real black rage backgrounds this manifesto on white paranoia. Falling Down is a Los Angeles a long way from La La Land. But anyone paying attention to white rage today will find familiar the ways that the film couches D-Fens’ behavior in economic anxiety. Not that he’ll say that himself.

It’s D-Fens’ mother who spells out what the flat-topped, tight-lipped white avenger can’t bring himself to say, that he’s a laid-off DoD contractor stiff who was previously “defending the country from the communists.” The Cold War had officially ended a year before Falling Down was filmed in 1991, and defense workers with few transferable skills had been laid off. Elsewhere, unions were declining. The Environmental Protection Act of 1990 was being scapegoated as the culprit of declining “dirty” energy jobs like coal mining. And AOL’s 1991 internet rollout into the home-computer market signaled a digital age that would leave many stubbornly analog folks behind. Plus, jobs were already going overseas long before NAFTA. Women and people of color were negatively affected by these changes, of course, but for the first time in the postwar United States, white men were finding themselves destabilized — not guaranteed a place on top. And some were angry and looking for someone to blame.

Contributing to this feeling of victimization, of a country being stolen, was the death of the Fairness Doctrine, in 1987; since 1949, this FCC policy had demanded anyone holding a broadcast license air discussions of controversial issues in an “honest, equitable and balanced” manner. Rush Limbaugh went national in ’88 and boomed in ’91, sucking American dads into his black hole of hate and thinly veiled racism and sexism; suddenly, white resentment was hugely profitable. In 1976, Travis Bickle was the fringe. In the ’90s, he was going mainstream.

D-Fens is portrayed as an amalgam of all those economic woes, which Schumacher uses to elicit the audience’s sympathy. As D-Fens stews in his Chevette, it takes not more than the film’s first five minutes for him to break, and though Limbaugh’s belligerent ramblings are absent from D-Fens’ car radio, it’s easy to imagine them there. That opening scene — mimicking Fellini’s 8½ — is an object lesson in editing tension: A close-up shot of D-Fens’ sweaty upper lip cuts to a Latina child listening to Spanish radio cuts to rowdy children in a school bus draped in the American flag and on to two rich, white assholes yelling into a car phone. Then come insert shots of bumper stickers reading “Financial Freedom?” and “He died for our sins” and “How am I driving — call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Full dissertations could stem just from the glimpses we get of a Tropic Sun billboard emblazoned with the company’s 1990 tagline: “White is for laundry.” Schumacher continually zips back to D-Fens to get his agitated reactions to each new outrage in this buffet of symbolism. To be clear, this is the world from D-Fens’ claustrophobic POV — not reality — and the message he thinks he’s receiving is that he’s no longer welcome in this country.

Suddenly D-Fens proclaims he’s “going home” and abandons his car on the highway to travel by foot to Venice, where his ex-wife and young daughter live. (Leaving the rat race must have been at the fore of white America’s minds back then, as REM’s music video for “Everybody Hurts,” featuring hundreds of workaday folks fleeing the expressway on foot, premiered almost simultaneously with Falling Down.) Going home becomes a central theme of Schumacher’s film, and as D-Fens travels across Los Angeles, we come to understand that “home” means the past, that simpler, fictitious time politicians invoke when they want to win elections, and pundits hammer on when they want to drum up fear and paranoia.

D-Fens’ first stop is a convenience store, where he argues with the Korean-American owner about the price of a can of soda. His knee-jerk reaction is to yell, “Do you know how much money my country has given your country?”

The owner shouts back in a heavy accent that, actually, he’d like D-Fens to tell him how much.

“I dunno,” D-Fens says, “but it’s gotta be a lot.”

The exchange highlights D-Fens’ paternalistic, ethnocentric ignorance, so at first the audience is cued to identify with the store owner — we don’t want to be the fools here. But then D-Fens grabs the owner’s baseball bat and bashes in shelves of merchandise, complaining about inflation. Everyone can agree that things just cost too damn much — Schumacher’s rallying the audience to identify with D-Fens.

In real life, just a few months earlier, teenager Latasha Harlins’ killer — Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner who shot Harlins in the head after a mere unpleasant encounter — was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation and community service. In an L.A. Weekly story about his film Rodney King (premiering April 28 on Netflix), actor Roger Guenveur Smith recalls the tension leading up to Du’s conviction and how the LAPD chose to focus its statements and press conferences on Du’s crime, as if to scapegoat the immigrant group for violence against blacks and take heat off the white police officers on trial for King’s beating. As Schumacher was filming this scene of a Korean-American store owner cowering in fear of his life, Korean-American Angelenos were being called to K-town to defend their stores with improvised weapons and shotguns. Why did the rioters want to destroy Korean stores? Because the shop owners were seen as taking American money out of the community, an idea Schumacher himself exploits here.

The confrontation in the convenience store is one of many that force the question: Which side is Schumacher — and the audience — supposed to be on? Later, at a fast-food restaurant, when D-Fens orders a breakfast Whammlette, Sheila at the register tells him Whammyburger stopped serving breakfast two minutes ago. His everyday frustration with arbitrary rules enforced by corporations seems meant to unify all the little guys in the audience — “Ain’t that the truth!” — even though D-Fens goes on to wave around a semi-automatic weapon , causing one customer to vomit in fear.

Please don't do this.
Warner Bros.
That scene might sound shocking today, in our age of open-carry troublemakers patrolling the Walmart parking lot, or at the very least tone-deaf. But Schumacher’s apparent insensitivity masks a fascinating experiment: These scenes seem designed to test how far down the road white or male viewers are willing to hitch a ride with this character before they realize, wait, he’s not the good guy here.

In one scene, Schumacher takes his experiment to the extreme when D-Fens visits a surplus store run by a white supremacist who’s harassing a gay couple. A white supremacist is an easy villain — nobody wants to identify with an avowed racist. The owner, who admires the bag of guns D-Fens has acquired, hides his new friend from the cops who are trailing his path of destruction. But then he drops the N-word. “I’m with you,” he says to D-Fens, while holding a bazooka. “We’re the same.”

D-Fens, disgusted by overt racism, eventually kills the white supremacist, but only after the man has smashed D-Fens’ daughter’s snow globe (a conspicuously symbolic gift). D-Fens can’t — and won’t — face the fact that he, too, is a caricature of white male rage. He won’t speak the slurs but he’ll seethe with anger when he hears that Korean store owner’s broken English. Today, we might see D-Fens and the white supremacist as the infighting sides of the far right — one couches racism in coded words like “thug,” while the other wants an outright ethnic cleanse. Ultimately, what both want is to return to their idea of a purer America, unburdened by the concerns of minorities and women.

Meanwhile, as D-Fens’ ex-wife, Beth, Barbara Hershey offers a startlingly realistic portrayal of an abused woman. Early on, she gives us every clue we’d need to know that D-Fens isn’t the hero: He doesn’t pay child support, she’s taken out a restraining order against him, and he won’t take no for an answer. Of course, not everyone reads those cues as I might. If you dare dwell for a few minutes on men’s rights activism (MRA) movie message boards, you’ll find that this film is seen by many as an “MRA anthem,” though some are conflicted because they’ve picked up on D-Fens really being the “baddie.”

Falling Down offers a stark choice: Viewers can choose to ignore Beth’s warnings and get caught up in D-Fens’ Everyman crusade, or they can believe the woman. But Schumacher and Douglas make D-Fens so charismatic that it’s a given that Beth’s warnings will be ignored by many. In real life, sociopathic abusers often get passes, especially when they’re clean white men with charisma. Women, in this story, bear the brunt of D-Fens’ anger while acting as the Cassandras, trying to warn people — and the audience — who refuse to listen.

When he at last arrives at the home of his ex, D-Fens finds that Beth and their daughter have fled — he seems oblivious to the fact that his threatening phone calls would have driven them from the home. Crushed, D-Fens pops in some old family VHS tapes. He sees a birthday celebration, for the daughter, from back when he and Beth were married. At first everyone is all smiles, just the way he wishes everything would somehow get back to. But then, without provocation, the D-Fens on the tape explodes with anger and starts threatening his family. “Put her on the horsey,” he demands, as his daughter weeps, afraid of her bouncy-horse birthday present.

Anyone watching this — even D-Fens — would know something is wrong. As he stands there, in his ex-wife’s living room, a realization crosses his mind: It wasn’t the loss of his job or his wife that made him this way. He was a ticking time bomb from the start, a man accustomed to getting his own way, impatient and unyielding. That he would choose not to adapt after getting laid off is his own character defect.

But, tragically, in D-Fens’ mind that truth gets washed away in yet more rage when he spots Beth and the girl through the window dashing down the Venice Pier in the distance.

Despite that moment of realization, Schumacher and Falling Down mostly walk the tightrope between satirizing and condoning D-Fens’ behavior and attitudes, as though the filmmakers can’t decide where they stand, forever tormenting those MRA trolls looking for a clear hero but also never quite shaking them off. Like that mostly white Simi Valley jury who refused to accept that four seemingly upstanding cops nearly murdered Rodney King, Falling Down just can’t stop giving white men a break.

At the end of the film, D-Fens chases his daughter and ex-wife down the Venice Pier with a gun. Detective Prendergast, played by Robert Duvall, follows close behind, cautious. D-Fens is a dangerous man who’s already killed at least one person, but the cop doesn’t take out his weapon. If this had been real life, and had he been black, D-Fens likely would have been shot dead by police, but Schumacher gives us one last scene to try to understand who this man is, an olive branch of compassion that’s rarely afforded to nonwhite people. Prendergast tries telling stories and reasoning with D-Fens, and eventually he makes a breakthrough. D-Fens shudders, looks at his hands, then the cop.

“I’m the bad guy?” D-Fens asks.

He is, and that’s been evident for 110 minutes whether or not the audience chose to believe it. D-Fens doesn’t see his privilege. He doesn’t see that the woes of the black man protesting in front of the bank aren’t the same as his, because the black man gets hauled away just for carrying a sign while D-Fens walks free as a murderer. He doesn’t see that his wife has suffered, too, yet still found a way to move on. He’s blind to the simmering resentment of blacks in the city and the inevitable riots raging next door. The question remains: Was Schumacher?

Thousands of miles away, as the riots burnt on in 1992, Rupert Murdoch was formulating a plan for a revolutionary 24-hour news station that would launch just a few years later and go on to bottle that fury and package it as patriotism. “The appetite for news— particularly news that explains to people how it affects them— is expanding enormously,” Murdoch would say in a statement, not quite identifying just which people he meant. In Falling Down, D-Fens perishes because he cannot heal and move on. Fox News was established to keep that wound open, and had the network existed then, he’d have been on at 8/11 p.m. Eastern, offering his “fair and balanced” views of the riots.
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