“You can always fail up in politics — and in Hollywood,” said Aaron Eckhart, who has played his share of political figures in movies, including a lobbyist, a district attorney and now, president of the United States in Antoine Fuqua’s latest film, “Olympus Has Fallen.”
Eckhart was being modest. His character, President Benjamin Asher, is modeled after John F. Kennedy and appears on screen for the first time boxing with Secret Service agent/buddy Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler.
Eckhart spends the next two hours enduring personal tragedy, an invasion of the White House by North Korean terrorists, a missing son, assorted punches and kicks to the head, bullet wounds, Cabinet members getting tortured, the threat of nuclear Armageddon and being zip-tied for half the movie in the White House Situation Room.
At least he knows how to take, and throw, a punch. “I box for sport, yeah, and to keep in shape, for sure, I rope every day. It’s important to me. It comes in handy in the movies,” he said. He added that when his character is “getting the crap beat out of him,” the audience has already seen Asher’s physicality and knows “he can take care of himself.”
Perhaps Eckhart’s most iconic role, at least for Washingtonians, was as gimcrack lobbyist Nick Naylor, the self-described “merchant of death” for Big Tobacco in Jason Reitman’s pitch-black 2005 comedy “Thank You for Smoking.”
In “Olympus Has Fallen,” he gets the chance to give the Oval Office a spin.
Deconstructing the White House
“Olympus Has Fallen” opens Friday, and as part of the movie’s publicity tour, the director and some of its stars cruised into Washington to spread the good word about the action thriller.
For those shut out of White House tours thanks to the sequester cuts, watching the movie is a good way to get an inner glimpse of the executive mansion. Fuqua and his production team constructed a nice-looking model for the movie. Filming in Washington was confined to only a few establishment shots, for obvious reasons.
“We needed a city where you could blow stuff up,” Fuqua said. They found it in Shreveport, La., where, after huddling with former Secret Service agent Joe Bannon, consultant Darrell Connerton and production designer Derek Hill, they built their own White House and Jackson Square area.
Fuqua, whose 2001 crooked cop flick “Training Day” won Denzel Washington an Oscar for his portrayal of dirty narc Alonzo Harris, knows how to blow stuff up. And no film since 1996’s “Independence Day” has done so much damage to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
In that movie, extraterrestrials blew it to smithereens. The North Korean terrorists and their evil mastermind Kang, played by Rick Yune, don’t go that far. But they still do a number on “Olympus,” the Secret Service code name for the president’s house.
They ply it with heavy-duty machine gun fire and grenades and, for the most part, misbehave — smashing up windows, breaking the china, shooting the staff, roughing up the Lincoln Bedroom and planting plastic explosives in the walls.
‘Die Hard’ in the White House
“Olympus Has Fallen” opens a little over a month after the release of the latest “Die Hard” installment. “A Good Day to Die Hard” features wisecracking cop-hero John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, kicking bad-guy butt in Moscow.
More than one publicist-type has described “Olympus” as “‘Die Hard’ in the White House,” and the parallels are certainly there.
In 1988’s original “Die Hard,” Willis’ character is the lone good guy left to do battle with armed-to-the-teeth terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper led by heavily accented bad guy Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman.
In “Olympus Has Fallen,” Butler’s character is the lone good guy left to do battle with armed-to-the-teeth terrorists in the White House led by heavily accented bad guy Kang.
Like McClane in “Die Hard,” Banning is outnumbered, outgunned and tired, but he perseveres, and has enough in the tank for wisecracks.
“It’s been busy,” Banning says to his wife on the phone, after he’s dispensed with about 50 bad guys, rescued the president’s son and is about to avert a nuclear catastrophe Kang wants to set off. “Paperwork’s piling up,” he adds.
It’s a very “Die Hard” moment, and it begs the question of why the “Die Hard” folks didn’t do a movie along these lines when they made their own Washington movie, 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard.”
That movie was about cyber-terrorism and had Justin Long, the Mac guy, in it.
Bottom line? “Olympus Has Fallen” out-Die-Hards “Die Hard,” at least in this movie season.
“Sorry about the house, sir,” a bleeding and battered Banning says at the end of the movie.
“I believe it’s insured,” a bleeding and battered Asher replies.
“This is a very patriotic film,” Butler said, more serious and on point in person than his character in the movie. “You’re disturbed, then you’re inspired.”
“It’s the place we look to for answers,” Fuqua said about the White House. “What happens when it’s not there?” he asked, hoping the film will remind viewers, “It’s OK to be patriotic.”
Realism Vs. Fantasy
At any rate, “Olympus Has Fallen” provides satisfaction for those who want to see an action film set in Washington that strives for realism without jeopardizing the explosion-to-dialogue ratio.
It’s realistic enough to make Washingtonians, or those still scarred by 9/11, wince when the attack on the White House begins.
It’s unrealistic enough to show the speaker, played by Morgan Freeman, and the president working together in a tense situation for the betterment of the country.