Wolfgang Peterson’s Air Force One (1997 – sadly not currently available on instant Netflix or Amazon Prime) was a wonderful melding of the Die Hard premise (lone, unprepared hero fights off a band of villains to save innocents, including his family) with politics and the Presidency.
Strangely, after a decade and a half, two studios simultaneously decided to remake this, choosing to make the protagonist a failed Secret Service member (Olympus Has Fallen)/a cop who failed to become a Secret Service member (White House Down), and set it in the White House so we could bring maximum building destruction.
In itself these are not bad premises but in Air Force One, the plan is canny if a little loopy and the number of Secret Service agents are reduced by being on Air Force One. When the plan goes into effect, even though it is aided by someone on the inside, the Secret Service goes into action and does exactly their job. The rest of the story occurs because the President refuses to leave his family.
In Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, we have a full complement of Secret Service agents and auxiliary personnel. When the plan goes down, ALL of the agents search out the gunfire and throw their bodies in front of it, not for any effect other than to let our lone hero begin his mission. Olympus Has Fallen is the worst one, with a withering fire concentrated on the White House entrance and agent after agent walking right into the fire. It was almost as if they were filming a World War I over-the-top trench scene.
White House Down is clearly the more well thought out of the two plots. It has an irritatingly de rigeur and deus ex machina hacker so that various things can be magically taken care of but the overall villains give the best chance for success. Olympus Has Fallen was the right-wing version of the story, featuring a white President and North Korean villains. White House Down features Jaime Foxx as an Obama stand-in and the villains are the military industrial complex. I guess private military corporations are the villains du jour, replacing unscrupulous land developers.
It is a shame that neither of these movies can follow the wonderful blueprint set down by the master of the right-wing political thriller, Tom Clancy. Not only can Clancy concoct wonderfully plausible, if xenophobic, scenarios but he doesn’t have a single invincible superhero solve all problems. Honestly, the only purpose the cabinet served in White House Down, besides being victims and hostages, was to tell Cale how much time was left. Clancy has agents Clark and Chavez doing agent type work, intelligence analysts doing analytical work (except when Ryan gets in over his head), and Presidents doing presidential work. Sadly he is so rich now that other people write his books and they don’t typically understand the ensemble approach.
I will say that White House Down has much better special effects and an early blowing up of the Capitol building makes more sense than the Washington Monument as penis metaphor in Olympus Has Fallen. Both feature rah rah jingoistic patriotism, though most of White House Down features Cale (Channing Tatum) trying to rescue his daughter, while the President seems somewhat incidental.
White House Down can be big dumb fun but I would really like an intelligent thriller.
Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down one-line review:
Seriously, just go back and watch Air Force One.