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REVIEW: ‘White House Down’ vs. ‘Olympus Has Fallen’
Olympus Has Fallen Grade: C+
White House Down Grade: B
Hollywood’s had an incidental history of releasing twin films since Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket appeared within a year of each other in the mid-80s. Oftentimes it serves as a test of viewers’ opinions, as I imagine some might disagree with my preference of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ over the Wachowskis’ The Matrix. I can’t imagine any, however, who’d argue the merits of Shark Tale over Finding Nemo. True, twin films can often emphasize how one film can take a similar premise and make it wholly superior to the other. Aside from arguments of which is most exceptional, though, they’re also a pretty enlightening experiment in and of themselves.
Presented on their own, both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have their champions, and that goes to show how much differentiation can exist on such a seemingly all-American premise. Both films are very loyal to those American roots, but in very different ways. The former film, director by Antoine Fuqua of Training Day esteem, sets up its premise in the aftermath of a tragedy, where disgraced security agent Mike Banning, played by the reliably gruff Gerard Butler, is racked with guilt after a freak accident takes the life of the president’s wife. Immediately Olympus Has Fallen roots itself in a sense of mourning, like the characters and the country are weary past their prime emotionally.
Contrast that with White House Down, which begins with a sense of new beginnings. Youthful president James Sawyer, played with particular grooviness by Jamie Foxx, is close to meeting an agreement to withdraw American troops from Iran. Meanwhile John Cale, played by movie star of the moment Channing Tatum, is attempting to patch thing over with his politically involved 12-year-old daughter, who is excited when he gets an interview to work for the secret service. It feels as though the country is about to hit high times, so naturally this is where the shit hits the fan.
Amongst the first notable differences between White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen is their antagonists. In the latter, we’re saddled with the very current threat of nuclear war by North Korea, infiltrating the white house through a full on seige, first using a hulking plane to deal some damage before wiping out the Washington monument, then shooting their way violently into the beauty, stacking a massive body count along the way. In the already dark and threatening mood established, these events come across as a massive 9/11-esq catastrophe, which is admittedly hits deeper than the brushed over mass-scale destruction in Man of Steel, which is quickly becoming the poster child for unnecessarily bloated disaster pictures.
The villains in White House Down, however, are Americans not willing to let their country’s militarism go down without a fight. You won’t see nearly the same death tally as in Fuqua’s film, as the priority becomes amassing civilian hostages, including Cale’s daughter. With John being the last man left in the building with the president, we have the start of what’s ultimately a buddy action comedy between Channing Tatum and the black president. Where Olympus Has Fallen tries to raise real world fears in dead seriousness, White House Down never forgets its inherently silly nature. Director Roland Emmerich even references his own history with the executive mansion. “You may remember this is the building that was blown up in Independence Day.” There’s no mistake, this is Emmerich on holiday in his favorite playhouse.
While both films’ plots could be written out on the same napkin, they provide their own tucked aesthetic pleasures. Olympus Has Fallen does take on a more full-throttle assault style narrative, with Gerard Butler basically filling John McClane’s shoes to the brand. The white house is an ever-more bullet and body ridden battleground. The building feels less like a political office and more like a private mansion that’s been overrun. White House Down has a lot more fun turning the film’s different sections into a labyrinth, with Tatum and Foxx jumping and sliding through elevator shafts and secret tunnels. When they finally bring the battle onto the front lawn, the presidential limo zips from tennis court to swimming pool and it becomes very clear Emmerich has turned the presidential palace into a playground.
Olympus‘ D.P. Conrad Hall works ably with the material given, though the most retaining image is inevitably that of the flag falling solemnly as night claims the film’s already gray colour palette. Even the blood runs a dull hue. This is where White House Down‘s D.P. Anna Foerster really comes to announce herself stylistically. The white house is consistently steeped in an amber hue, with golden streams of light reminding us that this film has a lot more levity than its counterpart. Something that unifies both films is their crummy visual effects, more comparable to a cartoon than a major studio blockbuster. To Olympus Has Fallen‘s credit, they were working on a budget of $70 million, while White House Down nearly doubles that price tag, but with most of the money going to its pristine central production design.
As for which of the two is the better film, that really depends on your preference. Both films offer plenty compact thrills and to keep their respectively silly narratives in check, but Olympus Has Fallen is the more militaristic of the two, right down to the title. White House Down is less an action movie than a summer popcorn movie. So much more of the dialogue and action retain in memory, whilst the action and the characters in Olympus ultimately become a monochromatic blur. Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett do just fine, but there’s just not much to their characters except the vague concept of duty. In White House Down it feels like these characters intentionally went into politics for personal reasons. “Your daughter says I’m her hero? Well, I’ve got to earn that,” Jamie Foxx says to Channing Tatum at their closest bonding moment.
Essentially every ensemble member of White House Down gets a badass moment, with even the tour guide brandishing his skills as a surrogate father figure to Channing’s daughter, played by Joey King. King is the one who unexpectedly steals the show with an astonishing stalwart sense of duty to the lives of others, even as her own is at stake. It’s several degrees above the child performers that exist solely to cry for their parents. The villains are a giddily supercilious batch, from Jason Clarke’s muscular and militarized Stenz being the central physical threat, whilst James Woods nonetheless steals his thunder as a jaded secret service chief who plans on committing America to all-out nuclear war with the world.
Let’s not kid ourselves, neither of these films are works of great artistry, and the fact that Hollywood blindly put out two different versions of the same film in one year goes to show how repetitive action cinema has become nowadays. Olympus Has Fallen copped to the standards and profited respectfully, but I feel White House Down bares blockbuster repetition in mind and jauntily submits to its inherent silliness. This is a film where the pen is made literally mightier than the sword, a 12-year-old girl essentially saves the world with her YouTube blog, and Jamie Foxx kicks a guy to death with his air jordans. It never quits being a joke, nor does it fail to include is in on it.
Bottom Line: Olympus Has Fallen brought its carnage across ably enough, but White House Down destroys the presidential palace with such inclusive glee and charm to make it cartoonish antics fly.