Power And Weakness: A History Of The White House In Cinema

This year the White House comes under threat twice. First in Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus has Fallen and secondly in Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. Over time, Hollywood has reversed the representation of the capital not only through the building itself but also, through the actions of the presidents.
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This year the White House comes under threat twice. First in Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus has Fallen and secondly in Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. Over time, Hollywood has reversed the representation of the capital not only through the building itself but also, through the actions of the presidents.


Fuqua’s recent films Training Day (2001), King Arthur (2004) and Shooter (2007) use action to drive a political message towards the audience. In doing so it authenticates the possible situation of bringing down the White House and kidnapping the president, in just 13 minutes. Fuqua’s hyperbolic patriotism illustrates the fall of power as flags are shredded, burned and thrown from the building showering weakness across the capital. Destroying the people’s house with heavy artillery insinuates how modern warfare can shatter the stature of American history. Fuqua’s aesthetic annihilation reflects in the characterisation of the film’s president Benjamin Asher. Portrayed as a strong and unyielding leader who is unwilling to negotiate with terrorists he has only one weakness: his son. By using authority and feebleness Fuqua shows how both these can tip the balance and change the power in the U.S.

White House Down follows similar principles with the building taken down by yet another paramilitary group. Police officer John Cale must protect his country and president from the oncoming chaos. Emmerich’s apocalyptic films such as Independence Day (1997), Godzilla (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) all harbour ‘what if’ scenarios in which the US is a target. White House Down president portrays an all American action man, prepared for any physical or political crisis. Influenced by current president Barack Obama, Emmerich uses a contemporary stance to rebuild the power of Washington through the determination of its president. Both Fuqua and Emmerich’s films demonstrate how an attack on the White House would leave both president and capital powerless and unprepared when faced with an unknown threat.


One of cinema’s earliest depictions of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came in D.W. Griffith’s Civil War (and K.K.K propaganda) film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The White House is represented through Abraham Lincoln’s office and through the characteristics of the president himself. Griffith illustrates how the leader was as Rollins and O’Connor suggest, “A distraught father of a divided family and a noble leader who kept radicals in his party at bay.” Lincoln sits at his desk as a mother begs a pardon for her son who has been condemned to death, the president at first rejects her plea and then reconsiders and writes a pardon for her son. Griffith created Lincoln’s character with an omnipotent persona. He represents the White House as a temple of salvation for the people.


Lincoln (2013) production design highlights the intimacy of the president from his living quarters to his office. Studying old photographs of president working allowed production teams to authentically recreate its design, from copying the wallpaper to Civil War maps. The production design had to look as real as possible, Spielberg describes how he wanted Lincoln to “closely represented the times and the mood of the nation and the mood of the individuals who try to solve these problems and make solutions.” The White House is used as a political space where the decisions have to be made for the 13th amendment.  It not only represents the decisions in politics but also for the relationship with his sons and wife Mary.


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Mary Todd Lincoln was known as the very first lady as she was despised for flaunting herself at social gatherings at the White House. Sally Field’s portrayal shows how she uses her dislikeable nature to impose her assertiveness and power on the president’s cabinet ministers. The first ladies use their extravagance and their clothing as a powerful tool to change the minds in politics as Hufbauer explains “First ladies, in part through their clothes, shape the social and political environment of the White House and how it is perceived.”


From being divided by a Civil War, WashingtonDC has also suffered by the actions of its presidents, none more so that Richard Nixon. Alan J. Pakula’s, All the President’s Men(1976) tells the story of two reporters Woodward and Bernstein who uncover the Watergate scandal, resulting in Nixon’s resignation. Nixon’s abuse of power reflects and contradicts the building’s pure stature as suggested by David Greenberg, “To show the faceless power of administration Pakula laced his film with shots of the imposing facades of the White House and other stony Washington structures.” All the President’s Men had shown how the White House’s image of power can be weakened from within. Nixon’s image crumbled the reputation of the building as did other cinematic representations such as White House Madness (1975). Thisdepicted Nixon as Hitler who says “If you can’t fool all the people all the time, fuck’ em”, Nixon then orders his supporters to chant, “Heil Nixon.” With each cinematic representation of Nixon in power the reputation of the capital is slowly eaten away to be diminished.

Rob Reiner’s political rom-com The American President (1997) emphases the power of the White House through its replicas of the Oval office and state rooms. President Andrew Shepherd a widower who falls for environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade must battle with his public and private life to keep him in the running for the presidency. Reiner’s film is the most accurate portrayal of the building’s architecture; when Sydney enters the intimidating Oval office it expresses the presidential power of the U.S and the free world. Her overwhelming expressions to the president’s office and the Roosevelt desk illustrate how important patriotism is for the American people.

Cinema’s representation of Washington is constantly changing from one of the most powerful capitals in the world to another prime target on the terrorist’s radar. However, within all of these representations the White House is used as a façade; a barricade where problems in politics and power stay behind closed doors. Hollywood has allowed itself to destroy the cinematic White House to show how against everything the U.S still conquers terrorism. Cinema has depicted how Washington is now unafraid to face the next unknown threat to the US and the free world.