However you feel about the Oval Office, this country, or Emmerich’s compulsive need to re-enact the annihilation of everything that America holds dear, his latest is as ripping and riveting as it is ridiculous. A welcome throw-back to an earlier and more generous tradition of summer blockbusters that didn’t involve superpowers or science fiction, White House Down is cheerfully preposterous, marked with a simplicity, wit, and playful innocence so often missing from current action films.
Even rarer perhaps, it’s a slick, high-concept takeover movie with an inkling of shrewd political awareness. This time around there are no aliens, natural disasters, or even non-domestic terrorists—although the media in the film unanimously describe the White House seizure as an al-Qaida attack. The viciously violent coup is an inside job; in a way that would make Kubrick proud, the enemy comes from within. The villains are all disgruntled Americans with ideological axes to grind, right wing sociopaths, white supremacists, malcontent war vets and assorted bureaucrats with nasty agendas. Mixing fear, hope, and paranoia, White House Down is a dire political fable told with a pearly-white smile as tongue-in-cheek pastiche. It’s a sturdy, cheerfully preposterous, old-fashioned bit of escapism.
Early in the film, the afore-mentioned motley paramilitary force takes over and threatens to start World War III for reasons to be arrived at later, with a few red herrings on the way. At the middle of this cacophonous commotion is a likeable screw-up played by Channing Tatum with a star’s easy self-assurance and charm, dance-trained agility and grace. In the tradition of great American action, his John Cale is more than enough to take on a team of heavily-armed Special Forces renegades (led by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke) who have effortlessly taken over the most secure building in the country by killing everyone in their way and are now loading Javelin surface-to-air missiles on the roof (they make it look so easy we wonder if the President left the keys to his front door under the mat).
Cale is an off-duty Capitol Hill cop, Afghanistan vet, divorcé, and father to eleven year old Emily (Joey King), an exaggeratedly precocious pre-teen with a political crush on President James Sawyer (played by Jamie Foxx as a more bespectacled, less formal version of President Obama). Tatum’s character has come for an interview to join the Secret Service, a job for which he is rejected by a hardass old college flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal), now an agent in charge of the president’s security detail, who chronicles Cale’s lifelong failure to live up to his potential. Well he shows her!
The character is not the first Everyman hero with alienated kids and/or wife, and, like that other proverbial John before him, he dons the sweat-stained white wife-beater that turned Bruce Willis into a star; like John McClane in Die Hard, John Cale gives this outrageous fantasy a human center. He is charming but earthly, appealing, accessible, and, above all, archetypally vague, the definition of an action star. Reluctant to let his cute adolescent scold down, Cale agrees to a White House Tour so she can see where her daddy is going to be working—although she skulkingly pretends he isn’t the coolest ever even as he's saving life as we know it. The tour guide (a winning comic relief turn by Nicolas Wright) starts to get sick of Emily’s know-it-all nerdiness right around the time all hell breaks loose. Later, the guide asks his captors to be careful of the priceless artifacts, and his ineffectuality and owlishness set him up for heroism.
The movie is blessed with human-scaled heroes and villains. Like Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z, Cale is more interested in protecting his family than saving the world, and even the Secret Service commander gone rogue—just scan the credits and guess; you’re right—is driven by pain and regret, not Evil. As he reaches for his Lorazepam, we understand he’s not a criminal super-mind, but a scared, tired old man.
Foxx’s peacemaking black president with deeply humane political vision and an intellectual demeanor is a self-styled Linolnian who chomps down on Nicorette and wears Jordans; any resemblance to the current resident of the White House is intentional. He has vowed to take down the military-industrial complex—and said it so earnestly you’d think it was a new idea. Did I mention he plans to do it with an RPG? “Now that’s something you don’t see every day!” as a media rep says while watching footage of Sawyer pointing a rocket launcher out the window of the presidential limo.
Not only has the president announced a plan to sign a peace agreement with Iran and remove all U.S. troops from the entire Middle East, he also intends to expose all the American arms manufacturers who’ve been double-dealing with repressive regimes all over the world. It’s understandable why powerful business interests don’t want to keep either Sawyer or hope alive, and the hysteria, dysfunction, and mendacity the American political system devolves into at the word “peace” are some of the most frighteningly believable aspects of James Vanderbilt’s (The Amazing Spiderman and the amazing Zodiac) script.
When asked by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Lance Reddick) what keeps her going, Gyllenhaal’s agent replies, “Caffeine and patriotism, Sir,” and the same can be said about Emmerich’s movie: caffeine, patriotism, and a kind of demented glee. But this enduring, essentially optimistic and arguably idiotic culture of popular patriotism is only one side of the double-edged quality of the film, which preys on the confused desires of a nation of moviegoers who simultaneously wants to see this country destroyed and wants to see it saved. We are delighted to see the Capitol Building blown up and the White House in flames, but yet we yearn for heroism, a happy ending and an American renewal.
And so the swirl of terror, smash-ups, and imminent disaster is handled with a light comedic touch. Remember that amidst the chaos and destruction is a pair of joking, bonding buddies, action heroes together against the world. “What you do, I do,” the president promises when he and Cale are caught in an elevator shaft; “I’m not doin’ that shit!” he reconsiders as the cop jumps blithely and catches onto some electrical wires. The two actors manage to develop genuine comic chemistry between the booms and bangs of apocalyptic cataclysm, and prove to be able heirs to the Lethal Weapon brand of brothers-in-arms banter. In the middle of summer’s crazy cinematic arms race of brute force and noisy spectacle, White House Down’s well-timed humor is a potent weapon.
Of course the entire enterprise is silly and delusional, from the ludicrously inept security and lack of effective guards or surveillance equipment to impossible situations and stunts, including a Keystone Kops car chase in an endless loop-de-loop around the fountain on the Great lawn—which doubles beautifully as a Cadillac commercial—not to mention the flag-twirling little girl who saves America and the dumfounding preposterousness of a constitutional loophole that allows for multiple overlapping and apparently legitimate chief executives.
White House Down is competing with and trying to outmatch, outsmart, and outgun not only the midsummer madness of gazillion dollar superhero and sci-fi shtick, as well as the similarly—and by similarly I mean exactly the same—themed Olympus Has Fallen, but the director’s own films as well. The movie is an exercise in rampant mayhem, and Emmerich throws every trick in the book at you, and then the book, and then a flaming helicopter: you get explosions, shoot-outs, car chases, battle tanks smash-ups, fist-fights, sniper attacks, crashing jets and Black Hawk choppers, rocket launches, nuclear threats, and at least one shocking slap in the face. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” I doubt he meant you can stab someone with a writing utensil when you run out of hand grenades.
And when Emmerich can’t top himself, he uses shameless (but clever) self-homage. The filmmaker is known for destroying landmarks of human civilization and making sure all sorts of man-made and natural structures go boom at exactly the right moment. He’s gotten really good at it. Human and architectural characters alike go through an increasingly barbaric series of physical punishment, and the mixture of digital and optical effects is seamless. Bullets fly and bodies fall in an orgy of bloodless PG-13 violence, but, unlike in other, bigger blockbusters (ahem, Man of Steel) people and objects appear to possess weight and follow the laws of physics and logic.
The tight, claustrophobic spatial confines of the action to the president’s house, despite Armageddon stakes, keep the film more intimate and the pulse faster. Large-scale damage and destruction is scary, but not as scary as a man fighting for his family. As confused as we are about the bigger political picture, one thing we know for sure: what good is it to save the world if a father can’t save his daughter? Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.