One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 25
By Laurence Lerman
The footage of last week’s violent breach of the Capitol Building by a rioting mob was a horrifying vision and one that most Americans never want to see again.
A week on, I’ve been considering how the ugliness of the actions—which resulted in such shocking but comprehensible physical damage as shattered windows, splintered furniture, broken doors, vandalized statues and shredded papers—has quickly proven to be so much more potent and unforgettable than the large-scale destruction we’ve seen descend upon Washington D.C. numerous times previously, courtesy of Hollywood.
Of course, what happened last week was real, and what happens on storytelling screens big and small is not. But it is worth noting that something like the tearing down of the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) or the ripping apart of the National Mall in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) doesn’t come close to packing the punch that the actual desecration of one the country’s most glorious architectural landmarks does.
While it’s a miracle that only five people died from the insurrection, and that our democracy was upended, if only for a few hours, the images of our own undoing will remain with us for a long time to come. They’re already more deeply implanted than those of our capital city and its famed buildings being decimated by all manner of aliens and spaceships and monsters and, yes, evil humans (as in the F.B.I. Federal Building’s decimation by a domestic terrorist’s bomb in the 1999 thriller Arlington Road).
The safety valve of knowing that it’s all a fiction makes D.C.’s movie mayhem eminently enjoyable, as can be seen in this far-from-inclusive breakdown:
When ruthless aliens in their 15-mile-long ships descended to terra and completely blew up the White House in Roland Emmerich’s 1996’s Independence Day, the era of the over-the-top, CGI-fueled national landmark destruction was born. As it turns out, Emmerich was just getting started: he later moved on to New York City, trashing the Chrysler Building in 1998’s Godzilla, and then the Statue of Liberty in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), before laying waste to the whole planet in the ultra-apocalyptic 2012 (2009).
Emmerich doubled-down on even more White House carnage when he shot up the joint in the 2013 paramilitary invasion flick White House Down with Channing Tatum, but it was director Antoine Fuqua who wreaked infinitely more havoc on the country’s most famous residence in that same year’s Olympus Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler as a Secret Service defending 1600 Pennsylvania against a North Korean terrorist group.
There’s been no dearth of destruction in the last decade of supersized comic book-based superhero movies. Though there’s been plenty of devastation in capitals across the world, none been as plot-driven or location-specific than that found in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), wherein Michael Fassbender’s Magneto bizarrely uses his powers to transport the outer structure of D.C.’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium across town to use as a barricade around the White House. Movie obsessives looking to spoil everyone’s fun were quick to point out that RFK was shown being prepped for a baseball game, but as the movie is set in 1973—two years after the Senators left for Texas—there was no baseball team in town to play there. Second place in the comic book wars goes to Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), which finds the malevolent robot Megatron blasting the Lincoln Memorial’s statue of Honest Abe and anointing the remaining marble chair as his new throne.
Drubbed upon its release in 1996, Tim Burton’s big-budget, all-star comedy, sci-fier send-up Mars Attacks! has since elevated its status to cult favorite. Jack Nicholson is the President; Glenn Close, the First Lady; and yodeling falsetto Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” is the song that saves the world from an invasion of bulbous-brained Martians who manage to take out the White House and the Washington Monument before Slim’s not-so-dulcet tones trigger their bloated heads to explode.
Mars Attacks! is actually a send-up of the “B”-est ever entry in the 1950s cycle of alien invasion B movies, 1956’s beloved Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which features the inimitable stop-motion special effects of the great Ray Harryhausen. Working on a reported $4,300 F/X budget, Harryhausen pumps startling life into an invading armada of flying saucers, whose range of movement, sense of purpose and all-out aggression are for more engaging than the performances of costars Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor. Like Burton’s Martians, Harryhausen’s aliens also do a number on the Washington Monument during the film’s climactic battle sequence, which also sees the saucers crashing into D.C.’s Union Station, the Supreme Court Building and the Capitol Building’s House of Representatives chamber and dome. One even splashes down into the Potomac.
The decimation of the Capitol in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, like most of Harryhausen and other F/X masters’ creations, looks magnificent, particularly as it comes at the end of a harrowing made-up story that marks the defeat of the invaders who would bring the nation harm. Then there’s what happened in Washington last week, which was all too real. With the country on the brink of moving forward into what will hopefully be a clearer, healthier and safer future, now is the time to make the good guys’ triumph a reality for all of us.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.