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White House Down (2013): A Review

Roland Emmerich has never been a subtle filmmaker. Since making a name for himself with 1994’s Stargate and defining the modern day disaster film with 1996’s Independence Day, Emmerich has been more or less chasing the ability to repeat that success. He’s returned to the disaster film on countless occasions, including the ill-conceived Godzilla remake, the Al Gore worst nightmare parable The Day After Tomorrow, and the rather timely 2012, who’s paranoia inducing marketing literally told people to Google search 2012.

This time, Emmerich has returned to the weekend which made him famous, the late June/early July sweetspot where he made his name with White House Down. If you felt like you’ve seen this movie earlier this year, don’t worry, it’s nearly identical to March’s Olympus Has Fallen in plotting, but for those new to the film, I’ll break it down.

White House Down is closer to Die Hard than the disaster films Emmerich cut his teeth upon. On paper, it sounds like a rousing good time at the movies – US Capitol Police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) is looking to redeem himself and get in his daughter’s good graces by becoming a part of the Secret Service. On the day of his interview, the White House and Capitol building are seized by a terrorist group, and Cale ends up not only having to protect his daughter (Joey King), but also the President himself, played by Jamie Foxx.

The issue with the film isn’t the plotting – the concept is rather solid, and could be played pretty well with the proper script. But that’s exactly where the problem lies. The script, written by James Vanderbilt (who shockingly is also responsible for Zodiac and the Amazing Spider-Man films), is full of far too many coincidences, Checkov’s Gun moments and idiotic lines and moments to be taken remotely seriously. If the film were going for a cheeseball feel, a’la some of the classic action movies of the 1980’s such as Commando, that’d be one thing, but White House Down is played 100% genuine. There’s no wink, let alone a nod, and the film is simply embarrassing. As you (if you?) watch the first two acts of the film, make note of every quirky detail – chances are, they will all pay off in the most groan inducing way. ¬†Emmerich has never been a filmmaker who leaned towards subtly, but in the case of this film, he’s going for the boldest, most obvious audience pandering moments he can.

That being said, the cast tries adeptly to make chicken salad out of these chicken droppings, for the most part. Channing Tatum’s charisma shines through, even if his character is first introduced as having a recurring issue with squirrels in birdhouses. Yes, that’s how they decide to introduce our hero, as having trouble dispatching a squirrel. Luckily, he’s flanked by A-List talent, including Maggie Gyllenhaal (who deserves some sort of award for spouting off the terrible lines she’s given without so much of a wince), the always dependable Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) as the Speaker of the House, and James Woods, who stars as a retiring secret service agent on – of course – the last day of his service. Woods appears to be the only one who understands how ridiculous the script is, and he hams it up so much that I feel like his appearance renders the film non-Kosher. As for Jamie Foxx as the President? Well, he and Tatum are a blast to watch play off each other, giving the film some buddy cop moments. However, he shifts between an indifferent Obama impression and generally just being Jamie Foxx on film, sadly putting White House Down on the list of films he sleepswalks through, as opposed to those where he has stood tall as a talent worth notice.

I’m not sure if I’ve grown cynical with age or I’m no longer the target demographic for most films, as while I found myself agast at the incredibly clumsy and pandering script, the audience at the preview screening ate it up in spades. As I found myself jaw agape at some of the silliest moments in the film (mild spoiler: the end sequence is built around, I kid you not, flag waving), the audience cheered and even applauded. As the last reel showed on screen, ending with a triumphant shot of a destroyed but still standing tall Washington DC, one man loudly, and without a hint of irony in his voice pumped up with a loud “OH YEAH!”.

Congratulations, world – if such bold, pandering patriotism matched with dumbfounding, don’t leave a rock untouched storytelling is your bag, White House Down is going to be your favorite movie of the summer. As for me, I’ll be detoxing with constant watches of 21 Jump Street and Django Unchained, to remind me what the leads are like in films worthy of their skills. Avoid this mess.

White House Down opens on Friday, June 28th.