Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down

December 2, 2013

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That strange phenomena of two films arriving at once that deal with the same subject (think Dante’s Peak and VolcanoArmageddon and Deep ImpactCapote and Infamous) rears its head again in the mindless thriller genre, this time dealing with the oddly specific premise of the White House under siege.  There are dramatically different approaches to what amounts to the same story: terrorists in one form or another have taken over the iconic building, taken the President hostage (or are attempting to), and only One Man can save the day.  It’s Die Hard at 1600, and though I can’t think of a reason why they came along at the same time (other than the opposing views that the White House has been taken over by insurgents, a not unpopular opinion in this country), the Compare And Contrast element of me is tickled.  

olympus-has-fallen-gerard-butler-1Olympus Has Fallen, directed by the once-promising-but-now-hackily-adequate Antoine Fuqua, is an R-rated, violent picture that most closely resembles the Die Hard formula, all the way down to the People Outside not trusting our lone hero  on the inside.  Gerard Bulter plays Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, who was once on the personal detail of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) until a horrible accident during a CGI Snowstorm led to the death of the First Lady (Ashley Judd, proving she’s blankly fit for the political life if that ever comes to pass).  He now works at the Treasury, but longs to be back with his favourite man and the First Son, a precocious kid who misses his mother but also his BEST FRIEND.  Disaster strikes in the form of a plane that strafes the Capital with machine gun fire before crashing onto the Mall, allowing for a totally absurd ground assault by a group of faceless Asian terrorists and a few sanitation trucks.  It’s an alarmingly batshit sequence, with blood spilling by the gallon.  Somehow, Banning makes it to the White House and inside, while the President is a hostage in a bunker.  The terrorists demand the US withdraw from Korea and allow the North Koreans to invade and, essentially, not starve anymore.  If you’re looking for depth, that’s about as much as you’re going to get.  Butler contacts Morgan Freeman and Robert Forster and tells them he’s got it under control.  There’s also a nuclear something or other and some oddly horrific torture sequences to get a code for a MacGuffin computer device that’s going to blow up the world or something.

Not that I’m against stupidity, or even some quality bloodletting, but the viscera on display is oddly graphic and dark for such high concept tomfoolery.  Gerard Butler shouts and looks angry a lot, which is about all he can do really.  The nefarious turncoat agent played by Dylan McDermott has a right old mano-a-mano with our hero, before bizarrely and for no discernible reason sees the errors of his ways and helps Banning, a move so ridiculous it made me think of the finale of Three Ninjas Knuckle Up.  This is a dour affair, and after the initial assault relies on shootouts and fisticuffs in darkened, anonymous halls, punctuated by the torture of some Secretaries of State and Defense.  It is essentially a rallying cry for Aggressive America, where all these damn foreigners think they can run us over but goddammit we won’t let it happen because we’re AMERICA.  Tears no doubt fell in a theatre of morons as the American Flag solemnly fell to the ground.  This as cynically stupid as it gets, and by the time our hero is making quips while surrounded by the corpses of his colleagues, we’ve long since expected any better from anyone involved.

Refreshingly, batshit director of whomping big audience-pleasers Roland Emmerich, whose oddball career in mostly bland but increasingly jamie-foxx-channing-tatum-white-house-downintriguing summer tentpole actioners also took on the challenge of making something fun and interesting about a hostage situation in a reasonably sized mansion, and we’re all the better for it.  White House Down is a PG-13 thrill ride of stupidity that on occasion begs to be seen to be believed.  Channing Tatum is a underplaying charmer named Cale, who works for the Capital Police but interviews for a job on the Secret Service with ex-college flame Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  When he’s rejected, he takes his daughter (who is angry with him for missing her flag-waving recital, and you’d better goddamn believe that’s going to come back) on a White House tour when retiring secret service agent Walker (James Woods, having a lot of fun) leads a takeover of the titular home.  The daughter, who has a youtube channel (not a video blog!) uploads footage of the terrorists, while also being a hostage with a goofball tour guide, while Cale runs into President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx, amusingly toning it down) and protects him from capture.  There are, of course, a number of Die Hard beats (including the nerdy hacker, an ill-advised helicopter assault, and the reveal that a hostage is related to the proverbial thorn in Gruber/Walker’s side), but the film is obviously aware of how silly it is these come off more as homage then a repeated formula.

It is, above all else, a lot of winking fun.  By the time Tatum is doing doughnuts on the White House lawn while Foxx fumbles with a rocket launcher in the backseat, the film’s aura of ridiculousness has invited you in and asked you to revel in the stupidity along with it.  It also trumps trumps Olympus by actually doing something with the many spaces available as Emmerich insists on taking you on a tour of all the famous White House landmarks as though he were destroying capital cities as he has in several previous films, most notably perhaps Independence Day, which gets a shout out here.  Emmerich also has a penchant for dunderheaded, but still sort of sly satirical nods, as when the army can’t help because of a cluster of constitutional issues with sending troops onto domestic soil, or the peculiarities of the 25th amendment.  He also blows stuff up way better than Fuqua, although he also had a significantly larger budget.

Perhaps the greatest contrast for a leftie like me is the with the seriousness of tone (or lack thereof), and the implicit message underlying each.  Olympus Has Fallen is a Right Wing fantasy that plays into the idea that America and the White House is under threat from (or indeed, already been infiltrated by) foreigners.  The key to beating it comes from a serious American Super Agent (played by a Scot, of course), whose preferred method of dispatching is cold, fast stabs and brutal gun bad-assery.  White House Down plays the flipside of that coin, and plays into the liberal fantasy that the White House and the Government have been infiltrated by racist, moneyed interests.  Walker wants to destroy the Middle East, and he recruits a band of Right Wing Radicals who Hate the Black President to do so, and the corruption has spread everywhere to ensure that wars continue to be fought for the good of the Military Industrial Complex.  As is the leftie way, serious bad-assery is replaced by a joking smirk, where a call back to the British burning of the White House in 1812 culminates in a sprinkler-soaked fistfight in the press room and, well, a belt of grenades strapped to a baddie’s head.  It’s all in good fun, and as the Left Wing Entertainment Industry is so often telling the miserly, reactionary Right: stop taking yourself so damned seriously and have some fun.

-M

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