Film Review – White House Down
Summer is here. And that means it’s blockbuster movie time—which, in turn, means the name of the game is now Hyperbole, and few directors sincerely and unabashedly approach hyperbole with such zeal and charisma as writer/director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012). The very nature of his films is hyperbolic storytelling immersed in epic adventure: disaster films. I say “disaster” here on a broad level that pretty much encompasses the entirety of his oeuvre. Even the Shakespeare-is-a-fraud Anonymous is really a disaster film; it’s just presented in a more personal, human-to-human manner than the grandstanding likes of 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow. But then, those films, as do the rest, focus on personal interactions amongst the overextended spectacle. It’s a recyclable dynamic that uses one convention (hyperbole) as a means to express the other (emotions), and back again.
In the case of Emmerich’s latest dance of destruction, White House Down, it’s about as politically hyperbolic as it is emotional—and then there’s the spectacle. Agent John Cale (Channing Tatum) is a U.S. Capitol Police officer who’s been assigned to protect the Speaker of the House, Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). However, Cale has aspirations to be on the President’s Secret Service detail, partially because it would really impress his young daughter, Emily (Joey King). On the day of his interview for the job, Cale brings his daughter to the White House, but during a tour, the White House is attacked from within by a group of mercenaries. Agent Cale gets caught up in the action as things go from Die Hard to The Rock to Air Force One, and back and forth amongst themselves until an amalgamation of all three results in a conclusion. Along the way, Cale protects the President (Jamie Foxx) and goes up against homegrown bad guys like Stenz (Jason Clarke) and Killick (Kevin Rankin); then, somewhere in all of it, is James Woods as the head of the President’s security detail. It’s all pretty straightforward and by the numbers as far as a Die Hard-esque scenario goes, especially given the fact that the movie is unashamedly riffing on the three films just mentioned constantly throughout.
Emmerich wastes no time in dispensing the overwrought visual cues: American flags, American helicopters, American monuments, and a president who suspiciously looks, sounds, and has the extraneous mannerisms and attributes of the current Commander-in-Chief. The film’s chief villain is introduced by removing an affect of national pride, and looking at a picture of a loved one obviously gone. You’ve seen this before; you know it, the movie knows it, and the fact that it doesn’t care you know is the kind of playful revelry it wants to roll around in. The thing is, it’s not rolling around in mud; it’s more like detergent. A good scrubbing of subversive ideology leaves behind a shiny coat of overt patriotic symbolism that’s more about hitting the beats of a page-turner than wallowing in the kind of cynical rhetoric you’d normally find in a Michael Bay film.
More humorous really than visceral, White House Down aims to tickle the fancy of just about anyone willing to plop $15 down to see its patriotic veneer, which should bring a mention to the film’s cinematographer, Anna Foerster, who does a great job of presenting a slick-looking advertisement that again distances itself from anything visually close to what you’d find in a Bay film. Between Tatum and Foxx, there’s enough onscreen buddy-cop chemistry to start a celluloid meth lab, so that when it comes to anyone else in the film, as much they try, there’s very little room left. The action comes quick and at times is almost dismissive. I think it’s that self-awareness thing again. The film knows that you know you’re expecting an action sequence here, so it provides, mainly so it can get on to the next set piece inside the White House before it’s completely destroyed. Talk about Die Hard similarities: here, the White House acts pretty much in the same way that Nakatomi Plaza does. It’s a living, breathing entity that has just as much character presence and interconnectivity as the main character does. Like Bruce Willis‘s John McClane, Cale physically goes through a transformation, or, more pointedly, degeneration, that coincides with that of the building he’s fighting in. By the movie’s end, the White House is every bit as much of a architectural jungle as Nakatomi Plaza is at the end of Die Hard, and equally so in relation to each protagonist: beaten, bloodied, broken, wearing a black and red tank top that was once white. There is a relationship between the main characters and their environment that requires both for each to continue existing.
There is a lot to find enjoyable here. Mainly just the fact that it’s ridiculous, and it stars Channing Tatum, who has charisma in spades. Yes, ultimately the movie is dumb, but its self-awareness to its transparent dumbness comes off endearing in the way that, if it doesn’t care, then why should you? Unless you want to get all self-conscious about who cares that you’re having a good time with a dumb movie; way to make things uncomfortable, bro.
Final Grade: B