With a movie called “White House Down,” directed by Roland Emmerich, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Having already laid waste to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue twice before in “2012” and “Independence Day,” Emmerich luxuriates in blowing up the national icon once again. Both wings and the main residence get shot up and bombed and rampaged, in addition to airplanes and helicopters getting shot out of the sky, SUVs flipping over and tanks obliterated. Emmerich doesn’t miss a beat, and for bonus points, the Capitol Building comes crumbling down, with yet another Hollywood blockbuster lazily evoking 9/11 imagery for popcorn entertainment. While some critics will argue that “White House Down” satisfies whatever low blockbuster bar Emmerich sets for himself, films this insipid and dumb do not deserve a pass just because they’re “fun.” While some may say that “White House Down” is self-aware of how extraordinarily silly it all is, the seriousness with which most of the cast plays it out, suggest otherwise.
Channing Tatum stars as John Cale, an Iraq war veteran, and college dropout, who saved a fellow soldier’s life and in turn got gifted a job on the security detail of Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), the Speaker Of The House. But he’s got bigger ambitions, with his eyes on a plum Secret Service gig. He hopes it will help him be a better and more respected father to his daughter Emily (Joey King), whom he has a strained relationship with after being deployed when she was three years old, and an intermittent presence every since. Emily is not only a motivating factor for John to save the day once she gets trapped in the White House following the inevitable invasion, she is also the film’s exposition machine. She’s conveniently a political junkie (her first scene has her waking up to a news alert on her smartphone), a social media presence (just don’t call her a blogger) and a veritable encyclopedia (more like a Wikipedia page) on the White House. A good chunk of her screen presence in the opening part of the movie, before she spends the rest of it mostly crying, is delivering a variety of factoids and key info that will be important later on. She’s is also a flag-waver — both metaphorically and literally — with the latter being the skill she performed at a talent show her Dad missed. Will her (again, literal) flag waving patriotism come in handy later on? Take a guess.
When the White House goes down, John (thanks to a series of contrivances) remains the only one who can protect President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), even though he just flunked his Secret Service interview, but at least screenwriter James Vanderbilt can be credited for coming up with a concept that doesn’t just trot out swarthy terrorists or [insert random Asian ethnicity here]. But too bad his solution for those stock clichés is an overly convoluted and not very coherent plan involving domestic terrorists, that attempts to build to a big surprise (and thoroughly predictable) reveal about who is really behind the attack on the White House and why. The result is that “White House Down” doesn’t really have a lead villain, so much as assorted batch of trigger happy bad guys of varying menace, which leaves the picture without an antagonist anchor, which is crucial in movie like this. It’s just the first of many problems with the film that aspires to be in the league of “Die Hard,” but has no basic understanding of why that movie worked.
Villain aside — “Die Hard” had Hans Gruber, “White House Down” has a handful of less charismatic right wing nuts and politicos — the main issue with the film is that John Cale is invincible, and there’s never any doubt he’ll save the day. It’s an issue the “Die Hard” series faced in the later entries, but in the original, John McClane is just a regular cop, separated from his wife, and spending Christmas alone. He’s tired physically and emotionally, he bleeds, he gets injured and you care about his outcome, because you believe that the situation he finds himself in could overwhelm him. He’s a regular guy, facing incredible odds. But in “White House Down,” the moment the bullets start flying, John Cale takes control. While the anonymous gang of militants, led by painfully one-note and screamy Jason Clarke, have no trouble mowing down all kinds of presumably trained White House security and military personnel with their automatic weapons, they suddenly don’t know how to aim when John Cale is around. He magically is able to dive out of the way of multiple rounds from automatic weapons numerous times, with bad guys running out of ammo or simply unable to point and shoot at various opportune moments. Since he’s been in combat, he knows his way around weaponary and enemy fire, and hell, he’s even a doctor, taking a breather to patch up the President when he gets injured. Once it sets in that John Cale won’t be facing any real peril, his journey becomes significantly less interesting, even as the explosions get bigger.
Another element bungled by Emmerich is the standard ticking clock that all of these kinds of movies employ to give it a thrilling framework within to operate. In “White House Down,” it keeps changing throughout the movie. When the villainous plot is first set into motion, authorities are given two hours for the demands of the attackers to be met. Later on in the movie, another development changes that time to 8 minutes, then 3 minutes and in the climax, a 15 second second buffer is given to save the day. Instead of heightening the tension, the constantly changing deadline of the master evil plan and the film’s overall inability to make the shrinking timeframe felt in any real way (those three minutes might be the longest of all time) allows the audience to passively sit back and watch bullets fly and fly and fly.
But it really strikes home just how tedious and dull “White House Down” truly is when even really good actors don’t know what to do with the thin, one-dimensional roles and dialogue they’re given (it’s mindboggling that Vanderbilt got $3 million dollars for this script). Maggie Gyllenhall plays Secret Service honcho Finnerty, who may or may not have dated John Cale at one time (it’s a romantic subplot introduced and never mentioned again), and who spends most of the time in a room at the Pentagon on the phone and/or vouching for John to higher ups. The excellent Lance Reddick basically reprises his role as Lt. Cedric Daniels from “The Wire,” only this time in military garb. Meanwhile James Woods digs up his stock, slimy James Wood role he’s delivered in his sleep in countless other movies. The only actors who seem to recognize the ham and cheese that “White House Down” truly is are Jimmi Simpson, as a theatrically self-involved computer hacker who is determined to be more outrageous than the plot, and rising newcomer Nicholas Wright. He plays Donnie, a White House guide who gets taken hostage along with the group he was leading. Wright easily earns some of the biggest laughs of the movie as Donnie gets increasingly outraged at the bad guys damaging historical artifacts, and he gets a pretty big cathartic scene that is genuinely funny and fist-pumpingly satifsying (even if totally corny). His scenes have the tone the rest of the movie missed.
That tone is one of earnestness, devoid of politics. While “White House Down” shares the same kind of manufactured, yet homespun and oddly rousing patriotism of “Independence Day,” it worked for the latter because it didn’t clunkily toss around half baked messages into the mix. Emmerich seems to be straining to say something more with “White House Down,” with President Sawyer spouting his belief that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and deciding to withdraw all U.S. troops from the Middle East (that’s how you can tell his movie is fiction). Nevertheless, that wholesome sentiment is battered by the huge body count and nearly endless supply of bullets that Emmerich throws onto the screen to solve most of the problems the President faces over the course of the film. The overarching and muddled message seems to be that peace can be achieved, just as long as the United States has the biggest and most dangerous weapons at their disposal. And while the words “military industrial complex” are said conspiratorially, as perhaps being behind the sinister backers of the bad guys, we can only imagine that in real life they’re positively jazzed to see two major stars playing with guns and military equipment for over two hours.
It’s that casual attitude toward the body count and violence that’s discomforting, particularly in a movie where the President’s peace plan for the Middle East serves as a corner of the plot. We’re entering an era where Tony Stark suffers PTSD, where Batman has retired his broken body and even where the once unflappable James Bond is emotionally battered. That’s not to say “White House Down” needs to be equally brooding or dark, but Emmerich can’t have it both ways, trying to weave sober politics in a movie where the President’s armored limo has a rocket launcher hidden behind the back seat that comically hits Tatum in the head and gets dropped out the window.
But Emmerich has never been a helmer of nuance or even substance, and “White House Down” is no different, as it’s delivered with all subtlety of a portrait of George Washington getting a bullet right through the head. (And yes, that’s a scene from the actual movie.) So it’s no surprise any weighter thematic material is barely handled with any sense of drama or authority. While Tatum and Foxx share good chemistry and are engaging leads, and though the film moves quickly and provides the occasional laugh or big explosion, to use those lowered expectations wipe away any criticisms is simply choosing to be blind to a movie that is actually not really at that “fun” to start with. Poorly written, dully executed (this might be Emmerich’s least visually interesting movie ever) and with a positively stale villain plan that feels dated and vague — the bad guys want to take money from the Federal Reserve, stage a coup d’etat and start World War III, or maybe combine all three, we’re still not quite sure — “White House Down” wants to riff on the stirring action crowd-pleasers of old. But instead of playing on those motifs, “White House Down” becomes a slave to them, turning into the very kind of rote, brainless, poorly choreographed and leaden action movie it wants to lighten up. [D]