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.
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.
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.
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?