What just a few months ago was reverently portrayed as the repository for American ideals and optimism has now been reduced to rubble and cinders.
At the Oscars ceremony in February, Washington and its institutions were being celebrated by way of three best-picture nominees (and a surprise appearance from the first lady). In “Lincoln,” Spielberg paid tribute not just to the 16th president but also to a Congress that still functioned despite its flagrant flaws. In “Argo,” director and star Ben Affleck told a little-known story from the 1970s in which CIA operatives were actually the good guys. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, was a gripping testament to the agency’s old-fashioned legwork and newfangled data mining, as well as the courage and smarts of Navy SEALs.
“Zero Dark Thirty” fans might remember that Jason Clarke starred in that film as a CIA interrogator in charge of a brutal detainee program in Afghanistan. Clarke also plays a crucial role in “White House Down,” but not as an avatar of America’s troubled legacy of torture — rather, as an unambiguous bad guy who’s not above slapping a cute little girl around or gleefully putting a bullet through George Washington’s forehead.
There was a time in American cinema when political dramas like “Lincoln,” “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” would have been conceived as indictments of America’s dark side — expressions of deep disillusionment with ruthless lust for power and institutional rot. What was remarkable about last year’s Washington movies was their utter lack of cynicism: The most negative pushback, against “Zero Dark Thirty” and its depiction of torture, accused the filmmakers of not being skeptical enough.
No sooner had awards season rolled up the red carpet than the tone radically changed. A new crop of D.C.-set movies arrived, led by “Olympus Has Fallen.” The president-injeopardy tick-tock, starring Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler, featured a Sept. 11-style attack on the Washington Monument and the protracted, indiscriminate strafing of the White House and its surrounding neighborhood. (Just a week later, in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” the dastardly Cobra Organization was hanging its flag from the South Portico.)
In “White House Down,” another prez-in-jep flick, director Roland Emmerich seeks to one-up his predecessor with lavish shots of the Capitol dome exploding, Air Force One being felled by a missile and the title character — a present-day model of the White House, every bit as meticulously re-created as Spielberg’s — being subjected to all manner of “Die Hard”-esque indignities. Although some viewers are likely to be cheering Emmerich on as he brings the pain, just as many might feel as though they’re watching an uncanny impersonation of a beloved, nonpartisan public figure, only to see her gruesomely murdered. The Capitol and the White House may only be buildings, housing politicians who invite their share of scorching criticism. But watching them blown apart in the name of fetishistic pleasure is tantamount to seeing a historical-landmark version of “Saw.”