Saturday, November 30, 2013
Hollywood Blows Up The White House, Twice
"Fifteen minutes after you have pitched a story to a movie producer, they will have forgotten that you ever spoke to them and will honestly think they came up with the idea themselves. This happens every day in Hollywood," explained a screenwriter friend who once had a script stolen from him by a fledgling producer.
This year the outrageous script theft award belongs to Millenium Films' Olympus Has Fallen and Columbia Pictures' White House Down, which are so amusingly similar it's a wonder nobody has been publicly sued. The idea of terrorists blowing up the White House and taking a US president hostage probably started as a propaganda effort to keep Americans afraid of their own shadows as 9/11 recedes into the historical distance. Though the bad guys are nominally Korean and American mercenaries, Olympus Has Fallen gives the game away when a TV broadcaster announces that leaders throughout the world are sending heartfelt condolences except "in the Mideast where they are all cheering."
In truth, the evil terrorists in each film are like Hitchcock's MacGuffins, necessary to advance the plot but essentially nonsensical and politically unaligned. In Olympus Has Fallen, the terrorist is a North Korean who infiltrated himself into the highest reaches of the South Korean government before unleashing his fiendish plans, but it's never clear if he and his minions are a rogue operation or are being directed by the North Korean government. The villains in White House Down have something to do with homegrown right-wing survivalists and mercenaries but the overarching motive leads once again to a robbery at Fort Knox. In both movies, the old, retiring Secret Service head turns out to be a traitor to his president and his country. "I lost my way," a too-young Dylan McDermott explains weakly in Olympus Has Fallen before our hero wreaks vengeance. James Woods is better at chewing the scenery in the same role in White House Down, and has even been given the political motivation of believing the president is making the U.S. unsafe through peace overtures to Iran.
In fact, White House Down has superior casting in just about every category. Aaron Eckhart is always interesting to watch, but he's seriously wrong in Olympus Has Fallen as the U.S. President. He would have made more sense as the renegade security hero instead of Gerard Butler, who looks like he was on one too many benders before filming began. In White House Down, Jamie Foxx enacts a sly parody of Obama and Channing Tatum channeling a young Bruce Willis is perfect action-adventure candy.
Of course, both of them have Children in Peril to deal with, Gerard with the president's son Connor and Channing with his own daughter Emily who he doesn't see very often after a divorce. Remember, since this is the same script, both children conveniently have encyclopedic knowledge of the White House and its many secret hallways, bathrooms, and hollow walls. Ever since Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg started feeling guilty about not spending enough time with their children while making billions of dollars, repairing a relationship between father and child seems to be one of the requirements of every script produced in Hollywood for the last two decades.
The major male-female relationships for Gerard and Channing are their high-in-the-security-bureaucracy female friends who have turned them both down for jobs. This was on account of their independent spirits, but by the final reel both women come to admire our heroes' outrageous skill and heroism in saving the president and by extension the Free World. Angela Bassett plays the character in Olympus and Maggie Gyllenhall in Down, and it goes without saying that their exceptional acting skills are completely wasted in yet another example of Hollywood's unconscious, everyday sexism.
For the sake of the narrative, both films provide a basic civics lesson on presidential succession. If the President and Vice President are dead, the next in line is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, here played by Morgan Freeman in Olympus and Richard Jenkins in Down. They were probably supposed to be archvillains in both scripts, but once Morgan Freeman was cast, somebody must have decided it wouldn't look good to have the only black man be the bad guy, so his motives are ambiguous until the finale.
My screenwriting friend left the business some time ago and even successfully litigated over the theft of his screenplay. The real punchline is that the thief was rewarded for his bad behavior and is now a major honcho at a large movie studio.