It seems like just yesterday that filmgoers were being guided worshipfully through the halls of the White House in “Lincoln,” wherein Steven Spielberg lovingly recreated the lively, crowded, raucously dignified people’s house of 1865 Washington.
Well, goodbye to all that: With the arrival of the action thriller “White House Down” in theaters Friday, audiences are being invited to witness the promiscuous, unrelenting destruction of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — which, over two incendiary hours, is vandalized, shot up, bombed and otherwise abused before a climactic set piece in which the executive residence is engulfed in fire.
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.”
Before my e-mail inbox is barraged with “Get a grip” messages, let me assure you: I do get it. Movies like “White House Down” are the beer and hot dogs of the summer movie diet, the guilty pleasures we allow ourselves once or twice a year in the name of seasonal fun and escape. The over-the-top carnage in “White House Down” clearly announces that it exists in the realm of fantasy. No less than Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was working the red carpet with a big smile at the film’s Georgetown premiere on Friday night.
But even Napolitano would concede that, as far-fetched as the events depicted in “White House Down” are, we’ve learned not to scoff at the incomprehensible. We live in a time, after all, when memories of planes flying into iconic structures are all too vivid, when Washingtonians go to work every day with security badges around their necks and evacuation plans in their heads, and when the man occupying the real White House — who, like the one Jamie Foxx portrays in the film, is an ex-smoker, an enthusiastic basketball player and a deeply polarizing figure — has been a target of death threats that started even before he became a presidential candidate.
Part of the problem with “White House Down” is a radical tonal disconnect: The movie seeks to thrill with hyperbolic action, occasionally shifting gears into goofy, even slapstick comedy. But the filmmakers also clearly took their research seriously, making an impressive effort to be as detailed and accurate as possible in depicting the White House and its environs. Thus viewers find themselves whipsawed uneasily between fantasy and glib humor one moment, pulverizing violence and sobering verisimilitude the next.
The implications become even more discomfiting when one considers that “White House Down” will most likely have its biggest audience not in America but overseas, which now accounts for up to two-thirds of a film’s box office revenue. The producers of “Olympus Has Fallen” were canny enough to make their villains North Korean, a surefire hedge against offending the international viewers movie studios now so cravenly covet. In “White House Down,” the bad guys are all homegrown, vaguely based on President Obama’s actual opponents (white supremacists, a young hacker, “patriots” who want their country back). One of the film’s tag lines is a quote frequently attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
That pious tone is almost completely missing from a film that luxuriates in scenes of wanton destruction which — hewing so closely to our most palpable anxieties, then leeched of meaning and reduced to pure spectacle — may define a new genre: terrorism porn. As conflicted as some viewers might feel witnessing Washington being obliterated for fun and profit at home, their misgivings may deepen even more when they consider that these images comprise some of our most instantly recognizable exports. There’s no doubt that “White House Down” can charitably be seen as a shining example of a culture that is open, free and resilient enough to brazenly destroy the symbols of its finest principles. But watching the Lincoln Bedroom go up in flames, sacrificed on the altar of the global entertainment industrial complex, one can’t help wonder whether Hollywood isn’t bombing our village to save itself.