This year we have two films about terrorist attacks on the White House. The bigger, probably better one, is Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, coming to a cineplex (or torrent server) near you this summer. For those who can’t wait that long, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur) brings us the similarly themed (and titled) Olympus Has Fallen.
When I like a film, I focus on generalities, on character and theme and whatnot, so that the movie-watching experience isn’t ruined for anyone lucky enough to see the film as well. OTOH, when it sucks, I feel no compunctions against spoiling the everliving snot out of it. So, I’ll be spoiling this one thoroughly. Want the spoiler-free review? The film has a handful of exciting action sequences, but suffers from a poorly thought out screenplay and some truly awful special effects.
The first annoyance has to do with the marketing. It telegraphed the opening sequence, wherein Secret Service agent Gerard Butler fails to save the life of First Lady Ashley Judd after a car crash. Look, if you’re going to the trouble of hiring a name actress just to kill her in the first five minutes of the film, why not surprise the audience? Missed opportunity.
This creates “tension” between Aaron Eckhart (our President in this movie) and Butler. This tension is irrelevant to anything that happens in the rest of the movie. Missed opportunity.
Now we get to the bad guys and their dastardly plan. This is one of those plans that involves way too much to go just right. The President has to meet with the South Korean Prime Minister and his entire entourage at the exact moment the Secret Service spirits the President away because of an aerial incursion into D.C. Not only that, the President has to specifically override the protocol that says these visitors shouldn’t be taken down to the bunker. Swiss watch timing and foreknowledge of a bad decision? Too lucky by half. This is my first big problem with this movie.
That incursion? Kind of silly. The US fighters wouldn’t sidle up to the plane all cozy to issue their warnings. They’d hang back a couple of miles and put missiles up the plane’s ass. Since the bad-guy plane did have countermeasures, that wouldn’t necessarily have stopped them… but at least those two American planes wouldn’t have bit the dust unnecessarily.
Back on the ground, the scene where armed commandos posing as a tour group invade the White House is pretty awesome, and while I suspect the Secret Service aren’t quite so ineffectual, it works as movie logic, as does the mildly convenient (yet still bad-ass) way Butler follows the bad guys in so that he can be the lone wolf hero on the scene.
Like any good Die Hard rip-off, the terrorists’ plans aren’t what they seem. Their request that the US pull all military forces out of the area of the Korean peninsula is laughable. What’s more laughable is that Morgan Freeman (the Speaker of the House, and now acting President) does it! Lunacy. If terrorists took Obama hostage and made such a demand, Boehner would say, “Uh, no. Duh. We’re not backing off of our national security posture because you are threatening the life of a man who used to be President. He’s under duress, so I’m the man now. Blow me.” Okay, maybe I’m paraphrasing, but the sentiment is right. And there is no one in the film to suggest this line of reasoning. Stupid, stupid, stupid screenplay. What they should have done is pretended to agree, even leaked false orders. Missed opportunity. (Sensing my theme yet?)
The Speaker has caved, and the terrorists are exiting the building with their hostages, everyone conveniently hooded, so the snipers don’t know who to target. Clever. You get a point for that, screenplay. But then the helicopter explodes, and, seemingly, the terrorists and the President are all dead. Poor Alfre Woodard (as the Director of the Secret Service) has to say the line, “We lost Korea, and we lost the President?” Um, no, Dumb Alfre Woodard! You immediately send all the troops back where they were. The duress that (unbelievably) made you remove the troops no longer exists, so your need to succumb to it is gone. Stupid to the stupid power, screenplay!
Of course, as a person who has seen a movie before, I know neither the President nor the Terrorist are dead. It was all a relatively pointless ruse. You see, the real plan is to take control of a super-secret military system called Cerberus. It allows the US to destroy any of their nuclear missiles in flight. So, if a launch was ordered accidentally, or on bad intel, they can abort. Pretty interesting idea, screenplay. The system is only accessible by three people and in one location. Unfortunately, all three people are in that one location: the Presidential bunker. Now, how did the Terrorist know that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense would all be in that room at the precise instant to allow them all to be hustled off to the super-secret bunker? I’m running out of ways to call this screenplay stupid!
Worse still are the scenes of torture when these two forthright and loyal retainers to the President are ordered by him to divulge their codes. His logic? “They’ll never get mine.” Aaron Eckhart: Worst Movie President Ever. Why? The Terrorist didn’t have to get the President’s third and final code. Their codebreaker–who, incidentally, was never introduced as a codebreaker until the third act–pretty much guesses the final code. Frick, I hate this screenplay.
But the hits keep on coming. Once the Terrorist has the Cerberus system under his control, he plans to destroy every nuclear missile in every silo in the US. I thought, “Oh, that’s bad. No more nuclear deterrent.” No, the screenplay one-ups me with its epic suckage by explaining that the concussive force of destroying the missiles will detonate every nuclear bomb, reducing the US to a radioactive wasteland. This is where I want to punch the screenplay in the face. That is not how nuclear weapons work. The destruction of the missiles would have devastating strategic consequences, and cause a few thousand toxic messes underground, but they wouldn’t detonate any nuclear bombs.
Oh, screenplay, how I loathe you. And I haven’t even mentioned the President’s son, who’s spirited out of the White House to safety in the middle of Act Two, negating any drama that would generate. I forgot to bring up Butler’s unnecessary wife who never figures into anything and miraculously appears at the White House for his dramatic exit with the not-killed President. I could discuss how all the important people in the US Government who aren’t stuck in the bunker are sitting around a table talking to Gerard Butler on a cell phone for about nine hours. And that’s all they do. Oh, except when Robert Forster sends in some Special Forces troops to infiltrate the White House from the roof. The raid fails, but even though Butler has destroyed the secret weapon the terrorists used, the military isn’t attempting another raid because, as the screenplay puts it, “We don’t know what other surprises they have.” Frick, Special Forces guys, that’s what you’re paid to do!
I’m convinced that about thirty-five seconds after Emmerich announced he was making White House Down, someone over at Millenium Films (or one of the other production companies involved) said, “Sweet. We can steal that idea. Write me a screenplay, STAT! We have to get this onto screens by April 2013.” “But, sir,” says an about-to-be-fired lackey, “we won’t actually have time to polish the story, let alone render any of the effects shots we need.” “Who cares!” shouts the exec, and laughs maniacally, mentally counting the money he’ll be making.
So, I guess my review is thumbs down.