White House Destruction Is Popular with Moviegoers; Why This is a Good and Bad Milestone

Olympus Has Fallen, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and White House Down are the first blockbusters since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to violently attack Washington landmarks.

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Coming soon to a theater near you: the total destruction of Washington. Sure, Congressional approval ratings are at an all time low and President Obama isn’t faring a whole lot better, but three new movies out this spring gleefully bomb, shoot up, take over, hit with an airplane and otherwise trash the White House.

Two of the movies, Olympus Has Fallen and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, are already out in theaters. The third, White House Down, is expected in June. Both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down focus on terrorists taking over the White House and a lone Secret Service agent or cop – Gerard Butler in Olympus and Channing Tatum in White House Down – is left to save the president. In Olympus the terrorists are, implausibly, North Korean. A paramilitary group is the root of all evil in White House Down. And, of course, in the long running G.I. Joe series it’s Cobra that infiltrates the White House with an imposter president and takes it over, flying Cobra banners from the South Portico.

Destroying the White House or other trappings of the presidency – most notably Air Force One – is not a new subject matter. But the three movies are notable in that they are the first blockbusters since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to violently attack Washington landmarks. In the intervening years after the attacks, Washington was destroyed on the silver screen, but by natural causes: an ice age in The Day After Tomorrow (which tactfully avoided showing the actual destruction of any landmarks) and tectonic shifting in the movie 2012. X-Men 2, which came out in 2003, has a scene where a mutant gets into the White House, but the scenes are all internal and no one of importance dies.

In some ways, the release of movies that would’ve been unimaginable a decade ago marks a healing milestone on the collective American psyche post 9/11 – especially Olympus, in which terrorists actually fly a plane into the White House. As if that’s not enough, Olympus also features innumerable scenes where politicians, including the Vice President, are shot – often at point blank range – in the head. Watching it, one can’t help but think of Gabby Giffords and the gun legislation struggling to get through Congress these days.

Of course, there’s always been a tenuous balance between fictional violence against politicians and U.S. landmarks and actual real-world violence. Some criticized Independence Day’s alien laser destruction of the White House in 1996 for coming too soon after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. And the producers ended up adding a helicopter escaping the destruction in the scene, as if to reassure viewers that the people inside somehow escaped and were okay – at least the important ones.

The White House has been the scene of real attacks. In 1974, an Army private stole a helicopter from Fort Meade and briefly touched down near the White House, before he was shot down over the South lawn. In October, 1994 a man on an apparent suicide mission flew a single-engined Cessna into the White House, which took out an ancient dogwood tree but did no permanent damage. And Secret Service agents have shot people trying to jump the fence or break into White House grounds in 1974, 1976, 1985, 1994 and 1995.

Curious what the Secret Service makes of the virtual violence against the White House, I called and asked for comment. The call and e-mail went unanswered. But Olympus’s promoters touted the fact that Butler was trained by George W. Bush’s former Secret Service detail so he could accurately portray an agent. Having covered the Bush White House and met many of those agents, I have to say, the training was either very bad or Butler didn’t learn much from the agents.

Does movie violence beget real violence? On Monday, prosecutors announced they are seeking the death penalty for James Holmes, who dressed up as the Joker last year and killed 12 people when he opened fire on a theater screening of a Batman film. And even the National Rifle Association blamed violent video games, versus actual guns, for the Newtown school shooting. Washington politicians better hope that the link is tenuous as these three movies are likely only the beginning of a trend.

Olympus, which is essentially Die Hard in the White House, as my colleague Richard Corliss pointed out, actually beat the latest installation of the Die Hard series in its opening weekend $30.5 million to $25 million. Despite dismal reviews – the New York Times wished every theater would post signs “Fans Only” – G.I. Joe did even better, raking in $41.2 million in its opening weekend. Violence against politicians and Washington is apparently very popular in the rest of the country.