In 2013, two movies with virtually the same plot were released within a few months of each other.
The first was Olympus Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart, and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur).
The second was White House Down, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx and directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012, that stupid movie where Dennis Quaid crosses the country in sub-arctic temperatures to rescue Jake Gyllenhaal).
Both of these movies were about the same thing: the White House being taken over by bad guys. There are differences in how the hostile takeover happens, there are differences in the identity and motivations of the bad guys, but the basic premise is the same.
However, the experience of watching each of them is actually pretty different, due to the completely different approaches taken by the filmmakers.
Roland Emmerich is a director known for massive blockbusters, and for laying waste to entire cities in vast swathes of CGI-enabled destruction. He’s already destroyed the White House at least once (it was famously blown up in Independence Day) and he rips it to shreds again in White House Down.
Antoine Fuqua on the other hand is a director more known for gritty crime dramas, and his interpretation of an attack on the White House is much more brutal.
The first question people always ask when considering similar movies like this is inevitably “which movie is better?” and of course the obvious answer to this question is “well, it depends.”
Really, it does. In keeping with his previous films, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down is a big, expensive, action-packed, lavish-looking blockbuster. And in keeping with his previous films, Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen is a brutal, gritty, no-holds-barred action drama. It really does depend on what kind of experience you prefer.
As a side note, I’m going to abbreviate White House Down as WHD and Olympus Has Fallen as OHF from here on out, because I’m too lazy to type out the full titles every time.
Personally, I enjoyed Emmerich’s film more because, to me, it was more fun. Fuqua’s film is more realistic, but I didn’t enjoy it as much.
OHF is brutally violent. I haven’t seen an action movie with so many civilian casualties since Sylvester Stallone’s uberviolent fourth Rambo movie.
The bad guys in WHD have a complicated plan for taking the White House from within, whereas the plan of attack for the villains in OHF is basically to kill everyone and walk in the front door. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but suffice to say that it involves a LOT of gunning down civilians. WHD has a pretty high body count for a PG-13 blockbuster, but it doesn’t linger on people’s deaths and is nowhere near as graphic as OHF.
In OHF, men and women are gunned down in droves by machine guns, blown up by explosions, and tourists even get crushed by falling debris from the Washington Monument. It’s a take-no-prisoners movie full of people being shot in the head, and includes a graphic hospital scene that shows some horrific-looking wounds, and a very upsetting and unnecessary scene in which a woman is brutally beaten.
So…yeah. Some of this is really not easy to watch. But now that all that’s been said, let’s talk about the actual movies.
The protagonist of Olympus Has Fallen is Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler, a former Secret Service agent who quit the Secret Service after the president’s wife was killed in a car accident. The president in the movie is named Benjamin Asher and is played by my good personal friend Aaron Eckhart. They were good friends when Mike was the head of President Asher’s security detail, but part of the reason Mike quit the Secret Service was because having him around reminded the president too much of his dead wife.
In White House Down, the protagonist is John Cale, played by Channing Tatum, a Capitol Police officer on the protection detail of the Speaker of the House. He dreams of becoming a Secret Service agent and protecting the president as a means of reconnecting with his estranged daughter Emily. The president in this movie is named James Sawyer and is played by Jamie Foxx.
The thing about WHD is that it rips off Die Hard, like, a LOT. The protagonist has a similar name (John Cale instead of John McClane) and spends a lot of his time wearing slacks and an undershirt and sneaking around elevator shafts picking off bad guys, while occasionally talking nervously to himself. Sound familiar? It should.
Even the villains are similar. There’s one guy who’s the head honcho, and his main henchman spends most of the movie being extremely pissed off at the protagonist, who kills one of his friends early on. Hans and Karl, anybody? You betcha. Still, at least they’re more memorable than the villains in OHF, who are mostly angry North Koreans and aren’t particularly interesting.
White House Down has more of an 80’s-action-movie vibe. Even the title sounds like a movie that could have come out in the 80’s, directed by someone like John Carpenter and starring a guy like Kurt Russell. Heck, I would watch that movie. Olympus Has Fallen is a title that sounds more stodgy and serious, which it is.
OHF has pretty much no comic relief at all, while WHD has a scene where the president has to put on his glasses before shooting a bad guy, and includes the priceless line “I lost the rocket launcher!” Seriously, just stop and think about that for a second.
The bad guys in WHD have made-up sounding names like Skip Tyler and Carl Killick, and the movie is a bit spastic tonally. Emmerich’s film can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a fun blockbuster or a serious political thriller, and ends up feeling a bit muddled as a result. OHF is more consistent in this regard, but as uneven as WHD is I still found it to be more enjoyable, although that doesn’t necessarily make it a better movie.
But there are stylistic differences between the two beyond the harshness of the violence and the degree of comic relief. Part of this stems from the large differences in budget between the two films. According to Wikipedia WHD was budgeted at $150 million while OHF had only $70 million to play with. As a result, WHD has a lot more expansive exterior shots and takes place entirely during the day, whereas OHF feels more claustrophobic and takes place mostly at night.
Interestingly, White House Down made more money than Olympus Has Fallen at the box office but was considered a financial flop, since it barely made its budget back despite making $200 million. OHF, on the other hand, made closer to $160 million but was considered a bigger financial success because it more than doubled its budget. It was so successful in fact that a sequel with the rather dramatic title of London Has Fallen (which sounds like a nursery rhyme) is currently in production and is set to be released this October. And you know what they say: to the victor go the sequels.
So really, which movie you end up liking more depends mostly on which style of filmmaking you prefer. Do you like big, effects-heavy, glossy-looking blockbusters? Then you’ll probably like White House Down more. Do you like darker, grittier, up-close-and-personal action films? Then you’ll probably prefer Olympus Has Fallen.
And keep in mind that just because I liked White House Down more doesn’t mean that I think it’s a better movie. Despite its hefty budget, some of the special effects look kinda fake, and it’s one of those movies where the bad guys spray bullets endlessly at the protagonist and never hit with a single one, whereas it only takes the hero a couple of shots to down the average henchman.
The main problem I had with White House Down wasn’t its lack of realism but the character of the protagonist’s daughter. The “good guy trying to reconnect with his estranged family and is trying really hard but keeps screwing up despite all his best efforts” thing is already a cliché, and it’s not helped by the fact that the daughter is extremely irritating.
She’s an obnoxious, stuck-up, know-it-all twit who calls her dad by his first name and is, for some reason, completely obsessed with politics. I could not believe for a second that any thirteen-year-old would care so much about politics, and she was so annoying that whenever she was in danger I just didn’t care. Still, Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx are likable leads and they have good chemistry, and they reminded me of the classic duo of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, which is never a bad thing to be reminded of.
Gerard Butler plays a growly tough-guy in Olympus Has Fallen, and is very believable in the action scenes, although he doesn’t have as much charisma as Channing Tatum. Olympus Has Fallen also benefits from the presence of Morgan Freeman, because every movie Morgan Freeman is in benefits from the presence of Morgan Freeman. Aaron Eckhart cuts a fine figure as the president (he certainly has the jawline for it), although like I said earlier OHF’s villains are a bit dull.
There are many other similarities and differences between the two movies, but I think I’ve covered the biggest ones. It’s also worth mentioning that White House Down has one of my all-time favorite movie ratings. The movie is rated PG-13 for “prolonged sequences of action and violence INCLUDING INTENSE GUNFIRE AND EXPLOSIONS, some language and a brief sexual image.” I love how specific that is, although I don’t think the gunfire and explosions in the movie are any more or less intense than that of any other action movie.
So, there you have it: a White House action double feature. Neither movie is a masterpiece, but if you like action movies it’s worth seeing both of them, and I don’t regret having bought both of them on Blu-Ray. If you’re looking for a couple movies to kill a lazy weekend afternoon with, you could do a lot worse.