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Why Is Hollywood After The White House?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Depressed by the continuing on-again, off-again rain, I told my wife that I was going to see a bad movie today.  I knew it would be bad, but I went anyway,  because I had to do something to get my mind off the incessant threat of rain.  I wanted a good movie; I wanted The Bling Ring, but there is apparently no room for that in this city, glutted as we are with regular and 3-D versions of about 5 movies total. But I wanted escapism and I didn't want superheroes and I didn't want zombies, so the only choice left, given that Sandra Bullock's godawful Academy Award-winning performance is still in my head, was White House Down.

I had seen this movie a couple of months ago.  It was called Olympus Has Fallen.  And even though one reviewer I trust made the same comparison but argued that Olympus Has Fallen was better executed, I still made it my movie of choice.

In short, people take over the White House (you know, the Chinese or people with a gripe against the government) and it is left to one disgraced agent to save both the president and the free world.  Oh, yeah, and there's a kid involved who is in the White House at considerable peril and who has a connection with said rogue agent that will call for some tough choices.

Why Hollywood enjoys blowing up Washington, DC I really don't know.  But now that I've seen them all (and White House Down even names check Independence Day by the same director where the aliens unleash some kind of ray which decimates the "Presidential Palace," as it was once called), I am ready to make one definitive assessment: if you want to watch a great White House takeover, of these two movies you should choose.............wait for it..............24, Season 4 or 5, I can't remember.  That, my friends, is a White House takeover!

There are a lot of reasons why White House Down simply doesn't work.  But the two main reasons are the two main actors.  Whatever preparation Jamie Foxx undertook to play the president, and I'm not convinced he did any, did not take.  Foxx in no way suggests the gravitas of a president.  When we first and last meet him, he's enjoying taking the presidential copter on an unscripted joyride around DC.  His big initiative in the film is that the U.S. will remove all its bases from the Middle East to promote peace, and military-industrial complex be damned.  And, worst of all, his demeanor, scene to scene, is that of a rapper pretending to be the president.  Sure he's cleaned up, but his language and sensibilities aren't.

Channing Tatum, as the unqualified agent who doesn't get the job on the President's security team demonstrates amply why he doesn't deserve the job.  He is goofy and adept only physically in most scenes.  He abandons the president to go get his daughter ("Stay here."), and instead of checking on the president when he appears to be dead or dying, he is watching his daughter on television.

None of which is to suggest that Olympus Has Fallen was particularly better.  It wasn't.  In fact, it was little more than Die Hard in the White House in the same way that Steven Seagall's Under Siege 2 was reviewed as "Die Hard on a battleship."  Not a compliment.  But Gerard Butler is a more convincing action hero than Tatum, who tries to get by on his sexy cred in People magazine.  At least Butler was all in; half the time, Tatum and Foxx are playing this one for laughs.

While I appreciated the two hour diversion, the most frustrating thing about movies like this is the oversimplification of DC culture itself.  Whatever else we may think of our government, the ease with which the White House is taken over defies even summer action blockbuster movie credibility.  While any of us might have reason to call our government inept on any given day for any number of reasons, we would never dare to suggest that it is inept in preserving its own self-interest.  

Now that we've had well over a decade to figure out Roland Emmerich's raison d'être as a summer blockbuster director, White House Down doesn't really even feel like an American movie.  It has an outsider feel for how things work here, for how easily we will or won't slip into patriotic mode, for our resilience.  Emmerich's movies are mostly variations on the theme of an America in turmoil, in disarray, unable to deal with much beyond its own borders.  Independence Day led with its title and seduced us into believing that it was tapping into American values to save the world.  I think he sees us as people who would destroy anything to save ourselves, and he's there to chronicle the destruction.

White House Down portrays us as ultimately a rogue nation that has so many layers of corruption and  self-interest that we don't have a rat's ass chance of giving a rat's ass about the rest of the world.  Our fictional movie president is celebrated for suggesting policy that will get us the hell out of the world's way.  Our leaders and their protectors can't see beyond their own families or their own agendas.  While it may become the case at some point that we step off the world stage, now does not feel quite like that time.

This movie imagines a weakened America full of cowboys and buffoons, at war with itself.  Maybe that's who we are, at least some of the time, but we still hang on to that American bravado where we don't want someone else being the one to tell us that.  I don't mind a senseless summer movie.  Certainly it got me out of the rain.  But sometimes these silly movies have more going on than just blowing stuff up for our entertainment.  Sometimes, they aim to instill in us visions of our worst selves while couching that message in patriotism.  As if we needed that. 

Or maybe I'm just being sensitive.

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