White House Down
2013 - 131 minutes
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Jason Clarke, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, Matt Craven, Jimmi Simpson
You may have heard that director Roland Emmerich’s new disaster-palooza film “White House Down” bears some resemblance to “Olympus Has Fallen,” released a few months ago. While the latter film plays the White House siege scenario achingly straight with very little, if any, levity, “White House Down” embraces the ridiculousness of the situation and proudly wears it on its sleeve.
We know what we’re getting into when the setup involves a man (or men) on the inside of the president’s power circle using mercenaries masquerading as maintenance workers and home theater repairmen to conduct a hostile takeover. If there were any doubts of the inherent goofiness, they’re wiped away when one of the bad guys shoots a portrait of George Washington through the head and smiles.
It’s all orchestrated by Secret Service Director Martin Walker (James Woods) who is seeking revenge for a combat mission that lead to the death of his son. His involvement somewhat, but not totally, accounts for the complete lack of resistance faced by the assailing forces.
Before the mayhem begins, we meet John Cale (Channing Tatum) a war veteran and US Capitol Police officer currently assigned to Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Through a connection, he gets a courtesy interview at the White House for a Secret Service position and as it would turn out, the interviewer is an old acquaintance, dedicated and all-around good agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). While he realistically has no shot at the job, the trip to the White House is an opportunity for Cale to smooth things over with his marginally estranged daughter Emily (Joey King – or as Rachel Weisz calls her, Mini-Me; really, King is an uncanny miniature representation of Weisz).
Her character is an 11-year-old White House nut, if those exist. Instead of Justin Bieber paraphernalia on her bedside table, she has a White House snow globe. While on a tour of the most famous house in the world, she both impresses and annoys their earnest guide (Nicolas Wright, credited as “Donnie the Guide”) with her knowledge. In a meta moment, Donnie the Guide tells the group which part of the White House was blown up in “Independence Day” – Emmerich’s 1996 alien invasion opus.
Just before the carnage, the tour is interrupted by President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), an African American president who is trying to quit smoking and has an affinity for basketball. Not official, but he may be slightly modeled after our current US President. As news reports tells us, he’s also trying to pull all US troops out of the Middle East, which as you can imagine may not be widely popular with all the power brokers in DC.
An explosion at the US Capitol serves as a diversion for the armed men to storm the White House, take the tour group hostage and attempt to kidnap the president for their nefarious needs. Cale is separated from his daughter and while looking for her happens on President Sawyer in danger, secures him, and the fight is on to kill the bad guys, expose their plan and save the day.
There isn’t a lot of originality in how it all plays out, but the film realizes that and has fun with it. There are helicopters and roof explosions, computer hacking to gain control of US interests, elevator shafts, a war room with Secret Service agents and generals butting heads on how best to handle the situation, and a car chase – though this one takes place in circles around the White House grounds. But there are also some cheerfully hilarious exchanges between characters amid the chaos:
Bad Guy 1: “You just killed the Secretary of Defense.”
Bad Guy 2: “He isn’t doing a very good job.”
Pure gold. The invaders appropriately lack dimension – surly DC veterans who disagree with the president’s policies, burly mercenaries with tattoos and facial hair, and the requisite computer hacker defined by his glasses and glibness (Jimmi Simpson). The good thing is that everyone realizes this and plays their part well – Jason Clarke as the lead gun-toting muscleman Stenz finds the appropriate balance of teeth gnashing and gleeful brutality.
Of course it all comes to a head with guns pointed at young Emily and the president, a knockdown- dragout fight between Cale and Stenz and red display clocks counting down to certain doom. If you had any doubts about that though, this is likely a film you wouldn’t find yourself sitting through anyway. And it is a little long at 2 hours and 10 minutes, with a few false endings and ‘this ain’t over yet’ warnings. I had a lot of fun with a Scooby-Doo-esque moment when a Big Bad is revealed and I half-expected him (or her) to shout “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if wasn’t for you and that pesky kid!” as he (or she) is hauled away.
Chemistry between the straight-laced, calculating Foxx and amusing everyman Tatum is largely successful and at times even feels like they’re doing a slapstick act rather than offing terrorists. This is Emmerich riffing on, but not quite parodying, his string of cataclysmic cinema (“Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012” et all), almost to the point where “White House Down” is just as much comedy as action-adventure. But a comedy with lots of shooting and missiles, and one that is entertaining if viewed through the appropriate prism.
© 2013 by Blake Crane