White House Down (2013) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for strong violence, language, and a brief sexual image
Running time: 131 min.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Rachelle Lefevre, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Michael Murphy, Jake Weber
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
"I can't give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time."" -- Herbert Bayard Swope
White House Down is the second film of 2013, following Olympus Has Fallen, to depict a White House under siege from terrorists with only one man in the building to try to bring them down, a la John McClane in Die Hard. Both films are farfetched actioners, but White House Down, directed by consummate dumb explosive blockbuster "craftsman" Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot), is so overblown that a huge part of the enjoyment of watching it comes in making fun of how ridiculous it is throughout.
Channing Tatum (GI Joe Retaliation, Side Effects) stars as ex-soldier and current U.S. Capitol cop John Cale, a father trying so hard to impress his somewhat neglected, White House-obsessed, eleven-year-old daughter, Emily (King, Oz the Great and Powerful), that he goes in for an interview as a Secret Service Agent, though the baggage of his prior problems with authority and perceived lack of commitment bogs him down. Still, the two are there for a tour, when madness erupts in the Capitol building after a major explosion takes place, which is just the diversion needed for a group of massively armed and highly trained domestic terrorists and mercenaries working on the inside to take over the White House with the President, James Sawyer (Foxx, Django Unchained), still inside. Cale won't leave without Emily, and soon stumbles on to the President, voluntarily performing the job of protector of the Commander in Chief that he was already turned down for.
James Vanderbilt's (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Rundown) script, which plays dialogue at comic book levels of depth the entirety of its duration, smacks of one that contains minimal, if any, research in how the White House, Secret Service, U.S. Government, or just plain civilians would behave in a crisis situation. It's intentionally written shallow, as Emmerich, who virtually created the summer popcorn movie in the 1990s, knows that the shallower the situations, and the bigger the explosions, the wider the potential audience who will come see the film. There are heady themes, recalling Dwight D. Eisenhower's warnings about the dangers of the military-industrial complex or the Cheney-esque hawks who think that the destruction of ones enemies is far more effective than getting them to your side diplomatically, but they are merely by-products for what Emmerich has perpetually strived to show us, namely, plenty of demolition of national landmarks and increasingly dangerous boss-fights for our hero to fight through in order to emerge victorious.
The best thing one can say about White House Down is that it has a great cast of solid character actors to put around the more limited star turn by Channing Tatum. Though the words they speak are far less eloquent than the likes of Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher) and James Woods (An American Carol) might be able to convey, these actors at least provide the minimal amount of heft required to at least go with the flow of the idiotic plot, enough to keep the attention of most audience members, even ones who are shaking their heads at how outlandish Emmerich and Vanderbilt are willing to go with the material.
Tatum, though, continues to mumble his lines in a way that sometimes requires subtitles to understand, but he continues to evoke the more appealing comedic side of his onscreen personality that was discovered and utilized so well in 21 Jump Street, and most films he has been in since. Foxx, whose character is clearly meant to parallel Barack Obama in that he is African-American, has a wife (who looks not unlike Michelle Obama) and daughters, is a mighty big stretch for the part, as he doesn't even bother to try to act presidential or particularly exceptional in any way. As his home and those who work for him are laid to waste, he is more concerned that the bad guys may muss his Air Jordans than get away with their plans to decimate half the globe with thermonuclear destruction.
On a secondary level, the special effects shots are remarkably done. Emmerich built his reputation on the effects films and he is more than comfortable showcasing prolonged action sequences that bask in destructive glory, such as a scene involving bullet-proof limos chasing each other on the White House lawn, or in Blackhawk helicopters trying to take down a roof full of armed baddies. However, like the rest of his films, the accuracy of henchmen's gunfire is proportional to the importance of their target to the film as a whole; they never miss a no-name Secret Service agent no matter how few rounds are expelled, while they can never hit Cale regardless of how many thousands of bullets are flying his way.
Emmerich seems stuck in the formula that worked for him so well in the 1990s, namely, to play everything so that everyone from just about any demographic can understand his film. This means that serious scenes aren't really very serious, as if one-liners need to be there in order to keep the audience from feeling like the movie is meant to be taken at face value at any given time. Even when the hero's daughter is in mortal peril, he is still able to crack wise, as if to say to us in the audience, don't worry about the guns, they're all for show.
It's the kind of movie that wantonly exploits one of my biggest pet peeves in films, which is the use of gratuitous graphics and sound effects in top-security databases, as if those computer programs that are only accessed by a handful of people really need to have eye candy design, random numbers crunching in the background, and little bleeps to accompany letters as they display across the screen. It's also of the kind in which one can survive a room destroyed by freshly detonated hand grenades if one hides behind a podium. It plays that dumb throughout.
Action-heads, especially those who revel in gratuitous gunfire and explosions, will likely be pleased with the result, but anyone who goes in with the notion of expecting at least some intellectual stimulation in a two-hour-plus major release are in for a world of hurt, insulted by the sheer contempt for the intelligence of its audience that they don't even bother to try to make a plausible film out of this premise. I suppose there may be some viewers out there who prefer the pre-9/11 escapist, semi-parodic, flag-waving (literally, in this film), dumb-fun action flick to the far more pitch dark, heavy-handed ones we see today, and for them, perhaps White House Down will go down as a guilty pleasure of sorts.
But, if you're like me, and prefer good storytelling elements over things blowing up, rounded characterizations over one-note personality quirks, and screenwriting that actually bothers to present scenarios somewhere in the realm of our known universe, you'll likely be very down on White House Down.
©2013 Vince Leo