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.

59 comments
MysticShaman
MysticShaman

I love believability.And I have an on going debate with some people.They seem sure that a foreign President and his aids would NOT be given protective access to the U.S. Presidents bunker in such an attack. I say they would.Is there any documentation available to support my opinion ( or defeat me),and if so,where may I find it?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Okay, "Olympus Has Fallen" was actually a decent movie.  I felt that "White House Down" was merely a star-vehicle for Channing Tatum to exhibit his well-toned physique (akin to what Roger Ebert said about Daniel-Day Lewis in "Last of the Mohicans").  The critics seemed to agree, as the movie was panned, and was judged unsuccessful by count of box office receipts.

Unfortunately, it seems viewers will be in for a slew of 'White House Attack' films, especially since Hollywood apparently feels enough time has passed since 9/11.  As the article clearly implies, many of these films will follow a similar story arc, and end with a similar resolution.  In acknowledging the other commenters, this development reflects the 1) milking of a film sub-genre, and 2) a further display of Hollywood's lacking originality.

Now, if Hollywood ever dared to make a film with China as the villain (gasp!), that would be truly 'edgy.'  But, then again, it would sacrifice a large demographic of movie-goers and potential profit. 

So much for 'daring to be different'...

hbradish
hbradish

God I'm so sick of looking at Morgan Freeman's face.

Or should I say two face?

mrkkbb
mrkkbb

Hey Jay, you missed one other big event in White House attacks -- the white house was burned down in 1814 by the British (the Canadians really) during the war of 1812.

beatleboy70
beatleboy70

@mehdirhasan more eastern europeans means more joy for employers and more misery for ordinary working brits like me i gain nothing

lazarlin
lazarlin

@JNSmall @TIMEPolitics So sorry had to be morgan freeman that got a smack in the gob with an aircraft carrier,could have been/nominations !?

Pabs Panes
Pabs Panes

Looking for something in advance that will make the impact in real a little bit absorbing. Hollywood is pre-conditioning. Does anybody doesn't know that?

Lisa Johansson
Lisa Johansson

All I thought about was that they've run out of imagination...

sacredh
sacredh

Given how looney the North Koreans are, who wouldn't like to see them parachute into Hollywood and capture the Kardashians? The rest of the movie could be negotiations over how much food and fuel we'd ship them if they kept them over there. In burlap.

Nkululeko Nzimande
Nkululeko Nzimande

Let the try the white house,the entire bronx and south central missisipi will be unto them theres obama now

Ginger Konnis
Ginger Konnis

It's just a movie!! Why is everything blown up and exaggerated??? Get over it!!!

j2lovesfriday
j2lovesfriday

@JNSmall Jay, thanks 4 swamp post, wish it had more *non-troll* replies, wonder how many know history of real British DC destruction in 1814

Brian Lee
Brian Lee

The truth is people are awaking to the great lies of these wars from the start of 911

Mariano Gonzalez
Mariano Gonzalez

This movie sells on raising American patriotism, not necessarily disrespecting US Government.... as far as Olympus goes....

Viet Truong
Viet Truong

Pffs, the Canadian has already done this in 1814

Conall Chambers
Conall Chambers

I'm partial to the "Mars Attacks" scene when Congress gets vaporized. White House gets too much blame imo.

Leon Paczynski
Leon Paczynski

So many other symbols of governments and regimes outside USA could be destroyed but somehow American scriptwriters feel secure in only destroying their own symbol of democracy.

sacredh
sacredh

The British burned down the White House but gave us the Beatles 150 years later. We owe them one.

sacredh
sacredh

JNS, a slight correction. In White House Down, Jamie Fox is the President. Channing Tatum is the guy protecting him. A black man as President. I know, unreallistic.

Gary Elliott
Gary Elliott

They cheered when they blew it up in Independence Day. That was in the 90's.

Amber Isaidit Taylor
Amber Isaidit Taylor

I keep thinking that it's funny that last year there was a movie about Asians taking over the US now Olympus LOL either they are trying to extra afraid of Asians, the fear factory like all the movies about Russia and the cold war

Jane Smith
Jane Smith

Leftists are running HW, what do you expect? No respect.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Jay. Other DC landmarks became targets too, such as the Capitol in Tom Clancy's novel Debt of Honor when an insane Japanese pilot flew his jet into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress, killing all but the hero Jack Ryan, who becomes President. Of course, all these fictional attacks (with the exception of Independence Day, of course) are pattycakes compared to the REAL and only foreign invasion of DC ...not by the Tea Party but the British in 1814 during the War of 1812. They torched the White House and Capitol. Even during the Civil War the South and Lee never marched through DC. And the British are among our closest friens, eh? With friends like these....

grape_crush
grape_crush

> ...especially Olympus, in which terrorists actually fly a plane into the White House.

No, they don't. The airplane is shot down and crashes near the White House. A US helicopter is shot down and crashes into the White House.

> Olympus, which is essentially Die Hard in the White House

Yes, that's an accurate comparison, even if Olympus is the less plausible of the two.


KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

"White House Destruction Is Popular with Moviegoers"

It appears to be popular with the low-information voters as well. Witness Obama's reelection.

AlPotzman
AlPotzman

@hbradish I sooooooooooooo agree with you! A few weeks ago someone made a comment to the effect, "Morgan Freeman is a great narrator" and I rained on their parade by saying I couldn't stand hearing his voice anymore, that he's way, way overused and overexposed. Glad to see there are others who feel the same way! Please take the hint, Hollywood!

JNSmall
JNSmall moderator

@Amber Isaidit Taylor Actually, the original bad guys in Olympus were Chinese, I think. Much more plausible, frankly. But like with the reboot of Red Dawn, if you want to sell movies in China these days, they can't be the bad guys. Thus, North Koreans.

anon76
anon76

@JNSmall

@Jay- didn't the entire DC area get taken out by a nuclear blast in "Sum of all Fears" a couple of years back?

sacredh
sacredh

You're welcome and thanks for an interesting variety of articles.

sacredh
sacredh

JNS, you're correct and market factors were what made them switch the identity of the attackers. I know way too much about this stuff. I have no life.

KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

@shepherdwong@KevinGroenhagenOther surveys show different results.

Also, in 2012, the Pew Research Center quizzed Americans and found that Republicans were more knowledgeable about Campaign 2012 than their Democrat counterparts. "Democratic voters struggle to identify the Republican Party as the majority in the House of Representatives (29% correct) and John Roberts as the U.S. Chief Justice (31%)," the center reported. Republicans outscored Democrats on eleven of twelve questions. In 2011, the Pew Research Center quizzed Americans on what they know in "words and pictures." "Republicans generally outperformed Democrats on the current quiz," the center noted. "On 13 out of the 19 questions, Republicans score significantly higher than Democrats and there are no questions on which Democrats did better than Republicans." 

Democrats = Low-information voters

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@KevinGroenhagen And many European (Euro) countries are experiencing debt problems so there's a cr@p-in/cr@p-out feature to quiz itself.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@KevinGroenhagen Republicans = know about Republicans/Republican obsessions/FOX content (and not much else):

"For example, Republicans are 19 points more likely than Democrats to know that the Republican Party has a majority in just the House of Representatives, and 14 points more likely to know that John Boehner is the speaker of the House. On international questions, Republicans are much more likely to be able to identify Israel on a map (67% vs. 51%), and more likely to know that Greece is the European country experiencing debt problems (71% vs. 54%).