"The Tragedy of Entitlement"
William Foster as a Tragic Hero in Joel Schumacher's Falling Down
Despite Foster’s obvious hubris, or in more culturally specific terms—entitlement—there still exists a subtle sense of arete within his character, albeit buried by presumptions and misconceptions (Peters 25). This character exemplifies virtue to a bygone generation—the middle-class, working man whose primary ambition (and expectation) was to secure a job, in order to financially support his wife and children, producing the modern family unit. Foster was raised in the generation following the post-war economic boom of the 1950’s, taught that he will ultimately prosper, providing that he willingly and dutifully contributes to the welfare of the greatest nation on earth, formulating his own skewed conceptions of the idealized America throughout the process, much like many ‘working stiffs’ of that same era. Although this man vehemently believed that the country would never abandon its obedient citizens—a loaded presumption which caused much strife throughout Foster’s society, contemporary for Americans at the time of the film’s release—he nonetheless adopts an exaggerated, extremist behavior as a means of demonstrating the festering anger of many struggling, middle-class American men. His intentions are admirable, to a noteworthy extent—representing the grievances of a bitter generation—but his overall actions, and outdated philosophies negatively outweigh his self-justifications. Furthermore, he ultimately fails as a husband, and as a father, due to his severe temperament, unrelated to the notion of societal decline, raising the question of whether or not Foster’s hamartia of entitlement manifested as a result of his nature, or his nurture.
The title alone—Falling Down—even reinforces the sentiments of Aristotelian Theory, calling special attention the perpetual downfall of this entitled, working-class man. Fed up with society, and suffering from unemployment as a primary result of the 1990’s economic recession, Foster reacts quite violently to provocation, or mere misunderstanding throughout his journey home, to the point where one would consider his responses genuinely absurd, or even deranged at times. He holds up a fast food restaurant at gunpoint for refusing to serve breakfast food past eleven o’clock. He decommissions a phone booth by gunfire, after being heckled by an impatient bystander waiting in line to make a call. Needless to say, the extremity of his actions create residual harm and disarray to the residents of Los Angeles, seemingly unbeknownst to Foster, who’s so set in his prejudiced mindset and narrow path that he virtually ignores the spiral of malevolent influence which grows larger throughout every altercation. Kip Wheeler observes this downward spiral as a necessary component of Tragedy; the misery inflicted upon innocent people as a result of the Tragic Hero’s actions are arguably, on some level, fully understood by Foster, creating lasting damage to those around him, in addition to his own individual suffering (Wheeler 2). Therefore, as Foster metaphorically falls down from his pedestal as a privileged, entitled man—who was raised to believe the world would be handed to him on a silver platter provided he showed up to work, and fostered a modern family unit household—his inevitable demise looms throughout the plot. To a certain extent, Foster has already fallen before the events of the story, having been fired from his government defense position (the origin of his license plate and consequential nickname, ‘D-Fens’), and separated from his wife and daughter, legally unable to see either of them as a result of a restraining order. However, these elements of his backstory are not revealed or fully clarified to the audience until the film nears its denouement.
To implement Freytag’s Pyramid, itself a derivation of Aristotle’s plot breakdown within The Poetics, the denouement occurs when Foster commits suicide by gunfire amidst the long-awaited confrontation between himself and Robert Duvall’s character, Martin Prendergast. Realizing that the home he wishes he could reclaim no longer exists, and that the society he was ‘promised’ will continually decline, Foster opts to end his existence, comforted by the questionable notion that his daughter will at least benefit from his life insurance policy. To this effect, William Foster’s denouement strongly resembles that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s contemporary tragic play, Death of a Salesman (1949), the original, riveting example of a middle-class working man plagued by the illusion of false promises. For Loman, these illusions are literal, manifesting themselves in the hallucinations of his deceased, supposedly prosperous brother, Ben, who serves as the chief role model for Willy’s outlook on life. These ambiguous projections of Willy’s accomplished sibling ultimately convince Loman to kill himself in a last stand of success amidst sudden unemployment, so that his son will—in theory—receive the $20,000 of insurance money (Miller). However, William Foster has no apparent role model throughout Falling Down, in the way that Loman reveres Ben—or at least, Ben’s representation of the American Dream. Foster, on the other hand, lives his illusion. He has convinced himself, over time, that while the American Dream was once genuine (a problematic assumption in its own right), it has now been deteriorated—killed—by society’s unjust neglect of the everyman. Furthermore, Loman’s admiration for his brother contains a significant element of fantasy and contradiction, leading to a somewhat fallacious glorification. Loman respects Ben’s persistence as an example of the possibilities inherent to hard work, forming the basis for the way in which Willy wishes to raise his own two sons. At the same time, he fails to overlook the ‘fact’ that Ben stumbled upon riches almost entirely by chance. His brother’s self-made mongol status was not the direct result of self-cultivation, the way Willy seems to interpret it. Ben’s elevated class-status transpired essentially by accident, discovering a wealth of diamonds while visiting Africa. Therefore, Willy’s profound acclaim for Ben’s successes in life—the template for his own measure of prosperity—are nonetheless fantastical, just as, if not more, self-contrived when compared to William Foster’s perspective on his own shortcomings. Although we empathize with the misfortunes of both characters, Loman elicits more sympathy as a result of his passivity—latent aggression notwithstanding—throughout Death of a Salesman, in sharp contrast to Foster’s overt aggression, and the way he chooses to act upon it.
© W. Trent Welstead, 2018
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman (Penguin Plays). New York: Penguin Books USA, 1998. Print.
Miller, Arthur. "Tragedy And The Common Man". The New York Times 1949. Web. 10 Nov. 2018.
Wheeler, L. Kip. “Some Thoughts About Tragedy (Both Literary and Mundane).”