The Failure of White House Down, and Why Action Movies Always Get the President Wrong

I saw White House Down earlier this week in a packed theatre full of people who had won pre-screening tickets from a local hip-hop radio station. The room was so full of excitement and reverence you’d think we were about to see lost concert footage from the Michael Jackson Thriller Tour. Of course, it should not have been that surprising, it was a mostly African American audience, about to see an action movie starring a black president. The fact that seeing a black man as president in a movie isn’t simply fantasy anymore builds anticipation for movies like White House Down, even if the flick itself is bad. And boy was the movie bad, because like most action films of it’s kind, black or white the writers and producers don’t seem to know how to put the president in an action movie.

The 90’s were a virtual treasure trove of caricatures for depicting the presidency. You had the corrupt and nasty president from “In the Line of Fire”, you had the noble but seemingly inept president from all of the Jack Ryan movies, and then of course we were introduced to the hero president, which was a relatively new idea introduced that decade. The two most notable examples of the Action President were Harrison Ford in Air Force One, which was essentially Die Hard on a plane with a bit less shooting, and Independence Day, where Bill Pullman plays a president who actually risks his own life to lead a squadron of fighter jets against aliens. Both were ridiculous, and both made a ungodly amount of money at the Box Office. At the time pundits and critics said that America resonated with these Super Presidents because we were dealing with Bill Clinton, who was really great at running the country, but struck you as the type of guy who’d totally rat out the American people if he thought it’d keep him alive during an alien occupation. But it was actually a little bit deeper than just an American longing for someone with more backbone than Slick Willy to be on screen.

Americans want their president to be noble and strong and relatable but it we also want them to actually act like presidents. Air Force one only managed to wiggle it’s way past complete camp and farce because we looked at “President Indian Solo” on screen for two hours. Other than that, the suspension of disbelief in that movie might’ve been too much to bear. But ID4 was just ridiculous, which brings us to White House Down with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum. I won’t pretend the spoil the movie for you, because the plot can be figured out pretty easily from the trailers. Plus, to be perfectly honest with you, if you’ve seen Die Hard, Sudden Death (Jean Claude Van Damme version) and Air Force One you know exactly what is going to happen in this movie. The weakness of White House Down isn’t that you know what’s going to happen (honestly unless it’s an M. Knight Shamylan flick who gets surprised by movie plots anymore?) but that they don’t even find an exciting way to get you there. Jamie Foxx is obviously meant to be some version of Barack Obama, with make-up and slight prosthetics to boot, and Garcelle Beauvis is so obviously meant to be Michelle Obama they might as well have had her talking with Jimmy Fallon.

But again, he doesn’t come across as the action president, or the evil president or even the befuddled I-need-help-from-the-hero president. He just comes off as a milquetoast version of Barack Obama. And if I wanted to see Obama look confused and lost I could turn on CNN and watch the REAL president talk about Edward Snowden.

Perhaps a president who actually seems like a man who ran for office, but can also be a cool action star is too much to ask from Hollywood. We either get cartoonish versions like the 1990’s or over the top caricatures like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Terry Crews as President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho in Idiocracy. But there has to be some type of middle road between those and crusty old men looking lost in the White House. Jamie Foxx didn’t do much to move the president in Hollywood genre forward so maybe it will take a different presidential depiction to get the action and the substance right. Who knows how the whole dynamic may change if Hillary gets into office? Angelina Jolie in White House Down 2? Now that might be worth watching.

This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com on June 29, 2013.

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