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Seat of power

Twelve years after the September 11 attacks, filmmakers are turning their sights on the White House.

No sooner were cinema-goers reassured by sympathetic portrayals of US presidents Lincoln (by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln) and Roosevelt (Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson) than a raft of movies are appearing that gleefully devastate the White House.

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In White House Down, set for release in September, paramilitary rebels invade 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and take the president (played by Jamie Foxx) hostage. G.I. Joe: Retaliation, now in cinemas, has Cobra baddies seizing the Capitol.

Olympus Has Fallen opens on April 18. Like White House Down, the plot of this action-thriller, produced by and starring Gerard Butler, has a group of presciently imagined North Korean terrorists taking control of the White House, but not before wreaking destruction on an array of Washington DC monuments and citizenry.

President Benjamin Asher, played by Aaron Eckhart, is held in a fortified bunker deep underground with the vice-president and secretary of defence, while his son Connor roams the White House alone - a tantalising scalp for the plot's megalomaniac mastermind, Kang.

Unlike the other recent films that take the commander-in-chief as their subject, in Olympus Has Fallen the leading man is a former Secret Service agent, Mike Banning (played by Butler), cooling his heels in a treasury desk job. Banning finds himself on the inside and the only person capable of saving Asher's son and resolving the hostage crisis - a storyline that has some calling the film ''Die Hard in the White House''.


''It was the hero's journey I was connecting with,'' Olympus Has Fallen director Antoine Fuqua says, citing the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell.

The current appetite for White House destruction prompted the schedule for the production to be accelerated, which was no mean feat given the need to first build a replica White House in Louisiana.

''I've never shot a movie this fast in my life, of this size, and got it out so quickly,'' says Fuqua (Training Day, Brooklyn's Finest) of the pressure to get White House Down into theatres. ''Every day is double time … there's no sleep, you edit all night.''

Why these films and why now? Is every latent insecurity and neurosis playing itself out simultaneously in Hollywood? Just as audiences were being soothed by 224 years of paternal leadership, the White House gets demolished, not once but three times in a season, with Oedipal recklessness.

Some pundits read this as a good sign; that 12 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre and brought the national psyche to its knees, it demonstrates healthy psychological healing. Americans are finally ready to see monuments obliterated, even if only fictionally.

On the flip side, it could be indicative of a creeping paranoia about ''big government''. A recent poll reports 13 per cent of American voters believe President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and as many again are ''not sure''.

Somewhere between these two positions is the intelligently inquiring Fuqua, who decides to ask the perverse question: ''What if we turned our freedoms and abundance on ourselves?''

''The concept of an enemy destroying the ultimate symbol of America with our own weapons is shocking,'' he says.

This vein of ambiguity is also what makes Eckhart's casting as a president work. Square of jaw and handsome in an all-American way, he is physically suited to the Kennedy-esque look Fuqua had in mind. ''[It's] that hair that meant he always looked like he was just on a sailboat in the wind and that he happened to be President at the same time,'' Eckhart says.

Yet there is often a hint (or a lot) of darkness in Eckhart's roles: the misogynist executive of In the Company of Men, a cynical tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking, and Batman nemesis Two-Face in The Dark Knight.

''Well, you can't play a good hero unless you play a good villain,'' Olympus Has Fallen co-star Rick Yune (Kang) says.

Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has said Eckhart ''has an aura of a good man pushed too far''. This plays well for the role of President Asher, who is pretty knocked about by personal tragedy.

For his part, Eckhart says he enjoyed exploring a more human side of the leader of the free world. ''Not only do you have to protect yourself and the country and make decisions based on the long-term, but also on family. What do you do as President and what do you do as the man?''

That ''man pushed too far'' tag could apply to a sense of frustration Eckhart is experiencing in his working life, too. ''I'm sort of disillusioned with being a gun for hire,'' he says. ''I'm running on empty for that one. I feel like I have more to contribute.''

His plan is to produce, direct, write, star in and compose for his own films. ''I feel like I have a good understanding of the film business, how movies are made, how stories are told,'' he says. The people who are in charge ''are not always the smartest ones on the set''.

But even with 25 years spent honing his craft, Eckhart doesn't presume to know how to confidently switch sides of the camera. He tips his hat to George Clooney's reinvention and says Ben Affleck is a role model, but is quick to clarify that his ''taste'' runs less to political matters than either of those actors turned directors.

''That's not what interests me in life. Now that's not to say corruption doesn't interest me, or betrayal,'' he says.

When it comes to storytelling, Eckhart's filmmaking heroes are John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh and Peter Brook.

''I want to capture real, honest human behaviour and emotions and transactions and the audience will be able to feel that on film,'' he says. ''That, to me, is more exciting than a car crash or a gun.''

Hail to the movie chiefs

Paul Byrnes nominates five of the best film portrayals of US presidents – and some stinkers.


Henry Fonda
In Young Mr Lincoln (1939), with a putty nose and no beard, Henry Fonda played Abe in his frontier-lawyer days, before he thought of becoming President. Director John Ford was in his prime and made Stagecoach the same year. Fonda was folksy, funny and awkward, a man growing into major stature before our eyes. His was the best Lincoln before Daniel Day-Lewis.

Frank Langella
Many have played Richard Nixon but no one managed to get the cold, haughty loneliness of the man until Langella's version in Frost/Nixon (2008), directed by Ron Howard. This Nixon wasn't just cunning; he was haunted by thoughts of his legacy and his downfall, the public memory.

John Travolta
In Primary Colors (1998) Governor Jack Stanton runs hard for President, despite a string of sexual indiscretions. This is a fictional soon-to-be-President, but everyone recognised Bill Clinton in the performance. Travolta's Stanton was charming, mercurial, untrustworthy, inspiring, driven and completely credible, and Mike Nichols gave us one of the best movies about presidential politics.

Peter Sellers
President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964) was pathetic and hilarious, especially in the phone call he had to make to the Russian President explaining that the US had launched a nuclear attack ''by accident''. ''Now then, Dimitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb … ?''

Michael Douglas
If we consider TV presidents, Martin Sheen takes the biscuit in The West Wing. Before writing that series, Aaron Sorkin sharpened his pencils with The American President (1995), a pointed and funny romance about a widowed President falling for a political activist (Annette Bening). It ends with one of the great White House press conferences, in which Douglas comes out fighting, promising to get rid of assault weapons and handguns and declaring: ''America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship.''


Bill Pullman
Pullman was hilariously bad in Independence Day (1996), but it was not really his fault. Anyone would find it hard to play a fighter-pilot President who thinks he's also Henry V giving the St Crispin's Day speech. Utterly and enjoyably awful.

Charlton Heston
Heston played Andrew Jackson twice in the 1950s. In The President's Lady (1953), he's almost bearable as a young Nashville lawyer chasing Susan Hayward. In The Buccaneer (1958), he dons a bouffy grey wig to play the general defending New Orleans. ''Before I surrender this city, I will burn it to the ground,'' he growls, looking like Bonaparte's hairdresser.

 Olympus Has Fallen opens on April 18.