Movie Doubles – ‘White House Down’ & ‘Olympus Has Fallen’

‘Die Hard’ In A Box

Way back in the late 1980s when action movies were hitting the new generation of incoherence-over-substance, ‘Die Hard’ set a new benchmark in action and incoherence-over-substance. It was a great formula. You get a lone hero who cowboys his way to victory in the confines of a building against a group of terrorists or bank thieves or whatever else that came handy as a group of bad guys.

The formula worked so well, they started making these Die-Hard-In-A-Something movies, quite apart from the sequel which was Die Hard in an Airport. Most of these copycats featured Seteven Seagal: ‘Under Siege’ was Die-Hard-On-A-Boat; ‘Under Siege II’ was Die-Hard-On-A-Train and ‘Executive decision’ was Die-Hard-On-A-Plane (although Steven Seagal’s character gets blown out of an airlock about 25minutes into the movie.) Telemovies were worse – they were making all kinds of Die-Hard-In-A-Something movies at an alarming clip, some of which were so unimaginative, they were actually Die-Hard-In-A-Building-But-With-Somebody-Not-Bruce-Willis.

I don’t know when the fad died out in Hollywood. Maybe it died out about the time ‘Die Hard 3: Die Hard With A Vengeance’ came out an that was not set in any kind of confined space, it was just all out action all over New York State. but on some level all this stuff lives on because they recently made the fifth ‘Die Hard’ movie. The concept itself obviously dies very hard.

Going on 25years, and yes, not one but two studios have imaginatively decided to make Die-Hard-In-The White-House.

Spoiler Alert. Although if you’ve seen ‘Die Hard’, then there really are no surprises.

How To Spin A Bad Moment

This is kind of weird, but these two films are actually quite politically loaded in how they couch the problem. ‘Olympus’ casts the bad guys as North Koreans. ‘WH Down’ thinks the likely culprits to take over the White House are domestic MIC operatives gone rogue. The Olympus President is a white guy. ‘WH Down’ has a black President. The hero in ‘Olympus’ is a grizzled, hardened vet. A former US Rangers and Special Forces guy. The elite amongst the elite and played by Gerard Butler who is dragging his cache as Leonidas from ‘300’ The hero in ‘WH Down’ is a blue collar guy who did serve in Afghanistan but he’s working for the police department and comes in for a job interview with the Secret Service wherein he’s told he just doesn’t make the grade.

As you can see, ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is an out and out Republican sort of fantasy where the bad guys are foreign commies, the good guy is an elite killer and the President is a white man who is also capable of handling himself in combat. ‘White House Down’ is a Democrat fantasy where a black US President wants to defuse the tension in the Middle East by making peace offerings to the Iranians (!), and he wants to smoke out the Military Industry Complex and send them to prison. And dare I say, ‘White House Down’ is a slightly better film because not only does it look better, the drama plays better.

Fascism and Dufus Factor

The tenor of ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is tinged with fascism once the violence starts. There is no tangible logic except to fulfill the conditions of a Die Hard plot which involves traveling in the interstitial spaces of a building and unleashing appropriate amounts of lethal violence in short bursts. These Die Hard plots done well usually involve the good guy hiding for long parts of the story only come out for a flurry of action while the bad guy hogs the screen and preens and pouts for the camera. It certainly worked for Steven Seagal.

In turn, it is necessary for the bad guys to be squabbling dufuses. They usually come in hard with their plan and shut down power and communications and then start sending out threats and ransom notes, but the moment something starts to go wrong, they start bickering at one another. This leads to the opportunity for the hero to pick them off in small numbers. In other words, the only way the Die Hard story works as a first order text is if the hero is a fascist and the bad guys are stupid.

Of course, ‘White House Down’ is more of a tongue-in-cheek second order text. It’s clear they know they’re doing Die Hard in the White House, so Channing Tatum is the lead, he spends a few scenes in a white singlet, Jamie Foxx loses his shoes in reference to the barefooted John McClane. It’s a stranger film than ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ because the film includes political commentary, political satire and a good dose of deference to the original Die Hard so the whole film proceeds with a disjointed irony, more than the po-faced assuredness of the other film.

The Veep Is Dead

Both films make the interesting manoeuvre of ridding themselves of the Vice President so they can get to the Speaker of the House as fill-in President to make executive decisions. I guess it’s  an interesting quirk of American democracy where there is a President who heads up the State but there is a Congress that functions mostly like a Parliament. So the King got swapped out for a popular President and you have a Vice President who is the backup guy in case the King goes down mid-term. The Speaker of the House in Parliamentary terms would be the equivalent position of a Prime Minister but you’d never guess that from the way the US Congress is condicted.

The designers of the United States Government clearly didn’t trust the Westminster system because they clearly felt the power should devolve from the President to another figure who was also elected by the people on a popular ticket. Yet both films spend a small time to get rid of the Vice President. It’s hard to figure why they both did this except to get the story into the hands of somebody of authority outside the White House and a Vice President would not have achieved that aim.

The power devolves to the Speaker in both films seem to betray the notion that the House Speaker is an under-recognised office in the US Government. The thought did occur to me during the recent spats between the Obama administration and the Republican led Congress. I could see the argument that Congress should have more power to set budgets as you could make the argument that John Boehner was technically a kind of Prime Minister of sorts with the US Congress having some sort of roots in the Westminster system of government. Not that I felt the current Republicans were a good agency to have such power but that in some ways it would simplify the problems pertaining to budget limits and so on if more responsibility could be sheeted home to members of Congress. Even if that were to happen, one imagines the President of the United States would have significant ‘reserve powers’ to govern.

In any case it’s interesting both films wanted to show this system. Even on this issue both films betray their underlying political leanings. ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ gives us Morgan Freeman as the House Speaker and he is clearly an oppositional (if deferential) political figure to the President. The House Speaker in ‘White House Down’ turns out to be the chief instigator and culprit of all the mayhem, and he is a wealthy white man who is clearly in opposition to the President’s agenda.

North Korea As Threat

It’s a good thing to see that at least parts of Hollywood still thinks of North Korea as a threat. It’s a mad place. It’s also a much longer shot than the threat of domestic radicalised militias and disgruntled elements.

I know the whole Dennis Rodman is weirding us all out, first of all, for getting on so well with Kim Jong-Un but also because he seems to take his self-appointed diplomatic role so seriously. It’s hard to see how North Korea could really win back the proper place of straight-faced menace in movies after ‘Team America’, but I guess we’re on to the next generation and it’s anybody’s guess as to just how weird Jong-Un is going to be. In that light, it’s vaguely plausible a crack unit of North Koreans might make a dash for the White House but it seems more likely they’ll make a beeline for the nearest burger joint given how impoverished and famished they’re meant to be. Still, it doesn’t get much better than having North Koreans as the bad guys because it squarely puts North Korea in the spotlight of our consciousness.

The Really Scary People Are Closer

Unlike the threat of North Koreans hell-bent on changing the world order, the possibly scarier people seem to be ex-special forces and ex-CIA, living with liberal amounts of guns and ammo. I know it’s a lifestyle choice in some parts of the USA, but the bottom line is that there have been more terror deaths thanks to domestic terrorism than the spectre of 9/11 foreign terrorists in America. What’s worse, there are conspiracy theories which suggest even 9/11 was an inside hatchet job, so the deaths there would go on the domestic terror victims’ list.

Not that one takes one’s political cues from movies in a big way, but ‘White House Down’ is a bit more pointed about what kind of extremism lurks in the American political psyche. ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is more positive about this kind of loose cannon persona, armed to the hilt, doing the violent things they were trained to do. Some people might even call it blow-back, but who’s really counting?

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