Movie Duel: White House Down vs. Olympus Has Fallen

Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.

In our latest examination of pop-culture synchronicity, we’re going to examine two films that came out in 2013, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, each of which featured terrorists holding the President of the United States hostage at the White House and the all-American lone-wolf charged with rescuing him.

There was a time when a movie with a premise like this was pure escapist action fluff. Watching these two movies in today’s volatile and unpredictable political climate—an age when the ground is shifting under our feet every day and nothing seems beyond the pale anymore—diminishes both movies’ potential for popcorn-y thrills somewhat. One of these movies can soldier on in spite of that.

Talk about your gritty movie adaptations.

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The Protagonists: A Lone Gunman is After the President

Gerard Butler stars in Olympus Has Fallen as Mike Banning, and he plays the character exactly as you’d expect. He’s a Secret Service agent and a super-decorated, super-elite murderbot. Personality-wise, he’s dull as dishwater. (Not even particularly interesting dishwater. You can tell that nothing tasty was on those dishes.) He buffalos through the movie making one perfect kill shot after another, stabbing multiple people in the head, engaging in morally dubious interrogation methods, and occasionally tilting his square head and letting Xbox-Live-worthy one-liners tumble out. (“Let’s play a game of fuck off; you go first.” Ughhhh.)

He’s got a wife, but she might as well be a houseplant for all the difference she makes. He’s also got a tragic backstory about how he failed to save the First Lady during a car crash and now he’s working a desk job. Except they found a way to screw up even that comically simple plot point. See, it’s not that Banning got demoted for his incompetence, or even that he’s emotionally tortured by his failure; it’s that the president himself (Aaron Eckhart) is triggered by having to see him every day. Aww. Director Anton Fuqua does nothing to make this plot point seem authentic; it mostly just serves to explain why Banning isn’t already in the White House (sending the subtle message in the process that the president’s possession of normal human emotions—like some woman!—very nearly spells his and the country’s undoing).

In White House Down, Channing Tatum plays U.S. Capital Police Officer John Cale, and he too plays his character in a manner that won’t surprise anyone who’s seen him in a movie before. In this movie, though, it kinda works. For two movies that are transparent Die Hard ripoffs, only White House Down bothered to get a proper McClane; namely, an underqualified everyman doofus who bumbles and bluffs his way through the movie and succeeds through gumption. Cale’s in the White House by pure chance: when the terrorist attack goes down, he’s on a dual mission to interview for a job with the Secret Service (which rejects him), and also try to buy the love of his politically-obsessed daughter with a White House tour. Thus, both he and his daughter are unexpectedly in the building when the terrorists strike, and poor dumb Cale has to overcome his big dumb self and rescue everybody.

Tatum brings a warmth and relatability to his character that Kung-Fu-Grip Butler’s just not capable of. He ain’t contending for an Oscar, but unlike Butler, he speaks and emotes in a manner befitting a human being, and you never once suspect that he’s actually a bunch of antelope meat grafted onto a Terminator chassis.

Show the class what Grimly Determined looks like, dear.

The President: Executive Power

Olympus Has Fallen has Aaron Eckhart as President Benjamin Asher, and he’s… fine. He’s adequate. He’s not particularly charismatic, but he’s Jackie fucking Gleason compared to the person-shaped wooden blocks filling up the rest of the cast. His appearance and demeanor pointedly avoid evoking any real president. His party, ideology, style, or objectives are likewise a complete cipher. His function in Olympus Has Fallen is to get tied up, scowl and bark at the terrorists, and look resolute. He does these things. Bully for him.

White House Down’s president, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is a much more fun character. He’s a vaguely liberal figure (vaguely is good enough for this movie) with identifiable beliefs and policy objectives that he’s willing to go to bat for even at literal gunpoint. When you’re first introduced to Sawyer, you feel vaguely icky because comparing him to Obama is your first impulse, and then you’re wondering “am I just doing this because they’re both black?” The movie, however, anticipates your racial discomfort and is thoughtful enough to alleviate it by offering up some concrete similarities to Obama (culminating in a hilarious scene where the stressed-out president chomps on some nicotine gum). Most importantly, Foxx plays Sawyer with a double measure of Obama’s understated wit, and you can tell Jamie Foxx is yukking it up trading barbs with Channing Tatum in buddy-cop fashion.

“You’ve got to get me to the safe! It’s got my real birth certificate in it!”

The Plot: Extreme Makeover: White House Edition

The terrorist plot in Olympus Has Fallen is dumb to an irresponsible degree. Led by a taciturn Korean villain fresh out of the Hollywood clone vat (Rick Yune), a crack team of shady super-commandos takes the president hostage after swarming the White House with the brutal efficiency of 15-year-olds playing Call of Duty. They want him to recall all American troops from Korea or they’ll blow up all of America’s nukes in their silos. It’s basically an eight-year-old’s idea of how a terrorist attack on the White House would play out. Lest you think I’m exaggerating: they begin their assault by flying a cargo plane fitted with machine guns over the Reflecting Pool, murder hundreds of civilians on the ground before evoking 9/11 by crashing into the Washington Monument. It doesn’t get any more realistic (or more tasteful) from there.

The terrorists are all North Korean, of course, which is a distracting detail for several reasons. First, it insults your intelligence by telling you that a desperately poor nation led by a fat idiot child can pull off an attack this astoundingly well put together. Second, it reminds us that (much like with the Red Dawn remake) these characters would be Chinese if we didn’t need their ticket money so badly. And thirdly, watching this plot play out in the present day, it seems irresponsible to be even accidentally complicit in helping our moral midget of a president stoke fear against North Korea.

White House Down manages to tell a more adult story than Olympus. In many ways, the terrorist plot in White House Down is a sly ironic play on exactly the kind of terrorism narrative that Olympus endorses and perpetuates. Early on in the film, unable to confirm events inside the House, the news media speculate wildly about al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other potential perpetrators. Thanks to Cale’s daughter (Zoey King) surreptitiously live-streaming the assault, they learn instead that it’s a group of white Americans culled from various right-wing militias. An abashed news anchor somberly reports “as you can see, these men are definitely not al-Qaeda”. (I have no idea whether Roland Emmerich wanted that line to be as funny as it was.)

They’re being led by a Secret Service agent (James Woods) and the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins), who both want to scuttle the President’s peace plan and attack Iran; the former out of militant Islamophobia, the latter because he’s in the defense industry’s pockets. Where Olympus trots out a jingoistic repel-the-foreign-hordes plot, White House has the balls to present a scenario where the greatest threat to the American way of life comes not from without, but by corporate greed and extremism here at home.

Which One Needs To Exist?

White House Down. As far as these labels apply to this kind of movie, White House Down is a more thoughtful, more human, and more restrained story. So guess which one got a sequel?

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  • Kenneth Morgan

    I have to disagree with your view that having the bad guys be home-grown, right-wing military/corporate fanatics in “:White House Down” was a gutsy move. Actually, it was a clichéd move. By then, that sort of plot had been used many times in both movies and TV series. If you want to see such a plot used with both guts and intelligence, watch “Seven Days in May” from 1964. It’s a far superior treatment of the idea.

    • Tyler Peterson

      I didn’t say it was particularly original. I said it was ballsy. Yes, it’s been done quite a lot, but considering the historical context in which it was made, along with the deliberate parallels being made to the Obama presidency, and the ironic interplay performed with the conservative or even reactionary ethos that normally governs this type movie, the plotline was pulled off in a surprising way.

      • Greenhornet

        What would have been “ballsy” would have been a story about the over-throw of a socialist-leaning, pro-islamist government that has been screwing the American people over little-by-little for decades.
        I only build the shoe; if someone wants to try it on and loudly proclaim that it fits, that’s not my fault.

      • Kenneth Morgan

        I still don’t agree, particularly if we’re to consider Jamie Foxx’s character as an analogue of President Obama. Considering that the media’s presentation of President Obama has been highly positive, it would make sense that the movie would present the similar character in a heroic light, and present his adversaries as similar to President Obama’s opponents. Basically, I see it not so much as a gutsy attempt at relevancy, and more as Hollywood simply playing to the audience, as it always does. I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, just that this is the way I see it. It’s just a crowd-pleasing action thriller, and nothing more.

        • Greenhornet

          I agree with your reasoning.

    • Greenhornet

      The “Seven Days In May” plot actually happened. It was exposed in the early 1930’s by Marine General Smedly Butler.

  • Marsden

    Reading your article, the correct answer is: Neither.

  • Kyle Setter

    What does the current situation with North Korea have anything to do with a movie released in 2013?

    • Greenhornet

      And why does the reviewer think that Trump is responsible for the Kim family’s insanity? Dictators act tough and mean to scare their enemies and potential enemies, you know. It’s not fair to blame the targets of such propaganda.

  • Dean

    What a load of tripe.
    White House Down = fun, yes, but that’s about all you can say about it. While it was an enjoyable action fluff piece, there was nothing believable or particularly engaging about it. It was the kind of movie that you could easily go to the bathroom, or grab a snack and settle back in unconcerned about what you may have missed.

    Olympus has Fallen was a far more believable film, if not as “fun”, and it was certainly more engaging.
    The average Joe would have no idea what it might take to actually take over the Whitehouse, but an all out assault with precision timing to make it happen fast before a response can be mounted is far more believable than a few guys in cleaners outfits managed to penetrate Whitehouse security, set off an explosive device, and take control with a handful of man. I mean which one seems more well thought out, planned, financed, executed, and therefore “believable?” Not to mention the President wasn’t involved in climbing in elevator shafts, or limo chases around the Whitehouse lawn with RPG’s. I enjoyed both, but neither were particularly incredible.
    Olympus was far more engaging, and somewhat suspenseful.