Olympus Has Fallen (2013) – Directed by Antoine Fuqua – Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Cole Hauser, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Rick Yune, and Ashley Judd.
White House Down (2013) – Directed by Roland Emmerich – Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Garcelle Beauvais, Lance Reddick, Jake Weber, and Michael Murphy.
When two movies with similar themes or styles are released around the same time, it seems inevitable that critics and fans want to pick a winner. The first time I actively remember this happening in my lifetime was when Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles came out in close proximity. Neither film was judged wholly on its own, but rather in relation to the other, too, and I this kind of forced comparison inevitably hurts one film and helps another. I thought it was a dumb thing to do and I try not to fall into this kind of criticism.
Except when I do. Say hello to OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN.
There is a difference, though, between a forced debate involving two gothic monster movies and a natural debate between two movies with the exact same premise released within three months of one another. So who wins in this battle between two movies taking pleasure in destroying the White House, the one with the black President who gets replaced by the white Speaker of the House, or the one with the white President who gets replaced by the black Speaker of the House?
I’m thrilled to be able to say that OLYMPUS and DOWN are both highly enjoyable films, just as I’m happy to say that they have very different approaches to the material. Not radically different approaches, of course, because both movies are best described as “Die Hard in the White House,” (and as Derrick Ferguson has said, OLYMPUS is a better Die Hard movie than the most recent Die Hard movie), but directors Antoine Fuqua and Roland Emmerich give us two different films. Rather, I should say they give us different approaches to the same film. There’s a lot of similarities here, but if both of these Blu-rays were sitting on your shelf, I think you’d watch one over the other because you were in the mood to watch a serious action film or a snappy buddy film rather than because you were in the mood to see to see your hero call Angela Bassett versus calling Maggie Gyllenhall.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is a much more serious movie, and I love the physicality of the film. When someone gets shot or punched or kicked in Fuqua’s film, you feel it. I love that the bad guys aren’t here to f*ck around, and while there’s a bit too much lemming-like death (I think 8,943 Secret Service agents simply file out of the White House, one after the other, to get immediately mowed down), OLYMPUS treats the assault and takeover of the White House with the kind of raw, unflinching violence that an actual assault of the White House would require. Over in DOWN, for instance, one of the terrorists is a redneck stereotype that looks like he walked in from a Carl Hiassen novel, complete with his ridiculous mustache and Yee Haw attitude.
That guy doesn’t exist in OLYMPUS, which I appreciate.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx are movie stars and Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart are guys that get roles where the film is the star. I like all four of these actors to varying degrees, but Tatum and Foxx can’t ever fully disappear into their characters because of who they are, while Butler and Eckhart can more easily sink into a movie and let the film remain the focus. There’s value in both of these attributes, and they help shape the films they’re in.
Of the four, it’s Butler I like the least because it seems every other film he’s in comes with the message that if you whore around for twenty-five years you can still earn the woman of your dreams if you, like, buy a kid a balloon, become a youth sportsball coach, and promise to not whip your dick out at dinner parties. After all this time, I’m still not sure who he is or why he’s really gotten to be a movie star except that he’s the perfect guy to take roles that Hollywood is still writing for the 1991 versions of Bruce Willis and Hugh Grant, even though 1991 Bruce Willis and Hugh Grant would never take them.
Butler is perfect here, though, as Mike Banning, the best bro of the President of the United States (Eckhart), who gets booted out of the Secret Service because he made the right decision and saved the Pres from dying but couldn’t save Ashley Judd from a car that fell over a bridge. Even though he’s good at his job and made the right decision, the President takes him out of the field and sticks him behind a desk at the Treasury Department, because Eckhart’s conception of the how the President would react to a professional decision from a guy whose job it is to save his wife is only slightly less dramatic than President In-Love-With-Olivia-Pope on Scandal. Butler still has breakfast with his old boss (Angela Bassett) and still wants to be in the Secret Service, but the closest he comes is making bro talk with Cole Hauser.
Butler brings a sense of incredible restriction and discomfort to his role, only relaxing when he gets to start shooting people again. Like a caged tiger, he doesn’t want to be at Treasury, and he’s a bit distracted whenever his wife (Radha Mitchell) is around because nothing in his personal life is more important than his professional life, which involves stopping the President from getting shot.
Both Banning and DOWN’s John Cale (Tatum) are guys currently not employed by the Secret Service, who want to be in the Secret Service. Banning was in and is now out, and Cale is a Capitol cop who wants in. It’s interesting to me that in two films which take pleasure in kicking the crap out of the White House, the main protagonists want nothing more than to stand between the President and a bullet. In neither film is the life of the President ever really at stake (they’re more valuable as hostages than corpses) and in neither film is the President really anything more than a well-meaning guy. What I find striking is that we’ve had two of the most polarizing Presidents in our history in Obama and Bush II, marked by vitriolic attacks by the other side and occasional pleas from smaller voices to “respect the office of the Presidency,” yet here OLYMPUS and DOWN show great respect to their Presidents while physically destroying the office.
Where Fuqua perfectly builds his intense action flick around Butler’s rugged professionalism, Roland Emmerich builds his film around star power. Tatum and Foxx are great together. Butler and Eckhart are bros, but Tatum and Foxx are people who really over hang out together in Hollywood movies. That’s not a knock, though, because I could watch Tatum and Foxx fast talk and quip through movies for the next decade. OLYMPUS is much more the early Die Hard descendant in that it’s largely just Banning in a building fighting terrorists, while DOWN is much more the latter Die Hard buddy films. The thrill in the former is seeing the American cowboy single-handedly take out the bad guys, while in the latter it’s watching Cale and Sawyer play cat and mouse with James Woods and his band of mercenaries.
DOWN is a movie clearly designed for a wider audience, as nearly everyone in the film skews younger than their OLYMPUS counterpart. Tatum (33) is younger than Butler (43), Richard Jenkins (66) is younger than Morgan Freeman (76), Maggie Gyllenhaal (35) is younger than Angela Bassett (54), and Lance Reddick (51) is younger than Robert Forster (71). Beautifully, both Eckhart and Foxx are the same age, born within months of one another, though Eckhart’s President is much more like the stiff Bush II while Foxx is riffing on the vibrancy of Bill Clinton. It’s clear, though, that OLYMPUS is giving you a serious movie with serious, experienced people, while DOWN is giving you youthful people who still have a less grey version of the world in their head.
The villains skew the opposite way. OLYMPUS goes younger, with the excellent Rick Yune (41) matched with the experienced Woods (66), but in both cases it serves the heroes. Yune represents a new kind of threat (the dangerous foreigner) while Woods is out for old school revenge (the old white boy network).
One area where both films take the same basic tack is that they both decided we needed a kid in the White House to trump up the drama, but thankfully, both films give us really smart kids. OLYMPUS doesn’t have its kid do much, while DOWN has theirs play an integral role to the plot. It’s DOWN’s Joey King, though, that really stands out, creating a smart kid who is justifiably terrified at seeing the President get shot at point blank range.
Taken as a whole, I do think OLYMPUS is a better film thanks largely to Fuqua being a better director than Emmerich, but DOWN is actually more enjoyable in its best parts, while being more frustrating in its silly moments. DOWN doesn’t mind putting Tatum and Foxx in a car to have a chase over the White House lawn where people fight with rocket launchers, while OLYMPUS would much rather stick in the dark and kill people with guns. They’re both good, if not great, films, and people should be able to discuss them without resorting to the hyperbolic name calling that so defines the political climate in America 2013.
When he’s not reviewing movies or walking his dog, Mark Bousquet is doing some creative writing. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including The Haunting of Kraken Moor (horror), Gunfighter Gothic (weird western), Stuffed Animals for Hire (children lit), Dreamer’s Syndrome (urban fantasy), Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches (cosmic pulp), and Adventures of the Five (children lit). He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.