It was a more desultory than usual summer for Hollywood, highlighted by the prominence of the microgenre “Fall of the White House,” a theme so nice they used it twice. The first proffer, Olympus Has Fallen, was so tawdry and jingoistic that it must inspire some amazement in us regarding how easily it was banished from memory by the even tawdrier and more jingoistic White House Down. The latter film won out through the fearless cravenness of its flag-waving—literally—in a situation wherein that is everything. That, and a bigger budget. Blessed with the courage of its lack of convictions, White House Down was a miserable delight.
Both films insist on the desecration and restoration of the flag and honor: Stars and Stripes in the former, a flag with the presidential seal in the latter. What else do the stories share? The motives feature an elaborate three-card monte of the political, economic and personal. The game is rigged, and the final card the films turn over is never one of real political struggle—as if to reassure us that the most ambitious ideas of how the world could be different will be revealed as venal and self-interested, the maddest militant still somehow a rational actor from a Chicago School of Economics textbook.
Both films insist as well on a mélange of villains—cool mercenaries, hackers, foreign nationals, disgruntled soldiers—as if from a world where it is hard to discern who the enemy is. There is instead the generalized atmosphere of existential threat to the nation. These are not particularly interesting representations of American hegemony unraveling in ambient besiegedness (see instead the two-hour action sequence of Black Hawk Down). Still, this is the most easily speakable “meaning”: the sense of America under attack from all corners.
But that won’t do. To orient the cast of villains, both films require a coldly devious White House guy pulling the strings, one who looks like a supremely competent and loyal national servant but is in truth the inside man who will orchestrate the downfall of the office.
The false American, the man in the White House who betrays the office and threatens the nation’s fate. Both films, that is, draw their curdled urgency from the birther fantasy, and more broadly from the racialized panic around Obama’s election. This doesn’t even count as interpretation; it’s simply too obvious. It’s the subtext that dominates the surface story while pretending not to be there—much like racism itself in post-racial America. Thuddingly obvious, Jamie Foxx is cast in White House Down as the leader of the free world; it is in the spirit of pure overkill that President Foxx dons iconic basketball sneakers in preparation for the big throwdown.
Per the dictates of the culture industry, the films cater both to those who take some unsayable satisfaction in seeing this secret truth of national betrayal dramatized, and to those who identify such a belief as ludicrous. By way of indulging this two-sidedness and disavowal, we are granted a third position from which to watch the action unfold. The films’ points of identification, their protagonists, are not the presidents in question. They are impossibly similar to each other, even within the context of near-identical films. One is a former head of the president’s Secret Service detail busted down to the Treasury Department; the other is a US Capitol police officer. Both contrive to be on hand at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the epic battle and to make sure that virtue triumphs. No obstacle can deter them. There is much courage, much exchanging of physical abuse and much saving of the president.
But mostly there is much hustling for that job. Both heroes aspire to work at the White House; one is in fact there to pursue an employment application. Seen from this perspective, the films are no more fantasias on racialized treason than they are exquisitely prolonged job interviews with high body counts. The cascade of bruises and bullet wounds measures out exactly what it takes to triumph in the labor market these days. That’s the happy ending: getting the job. In the case of Olympus Has Fallen, the survivor gets the job back. That the nation’s status is restored too seems trivial in comparison.
The happy ending once celebrated what Stanley Cavell called “the comedy of remarriage,” in which people fell apart, suffered many travails and finally got together again. Hollywood now pivots around the comedy of re-employment, the picaresque adventure that ends when a man and his job are reunited. Travail is the whole point.
This is a truth of the age. Even white people have fallen from their jobs and can’t get up; few are more aggrieved than they to whom the world has always seemed to promise a decent wage and then reneged. The percentage of the population employed dipped below 59 percent in 2009, and for all the nattering on about recovery, there it remains. Cisco earned $2.27 billion dollars last quarter, beating expectations—and celebrated with 4,000 layoffs. Insofar as some sectors have restored profits, the jobs have not come with them. Nor will they. The absence of jobs and the fall of the White House are one.
And so we must hustle for those that remain ever more intensely, affirm the failing mechanism ever more devoutly. It is not enough that we must work for somebody else, produce profit for somebody else, just to keep body affixed to soul. We must yearn for it, take a punch, take a bullet, take any amount of shit, whatever it requires. We must work just for the chance to work: dystopia squared.