by Matt Smith
2013 is apparently the year that filmmakers are working out our various cultural anxieties about the status of the White House. It should be no surprise that the year’s constant criticisms of the office of the Presidency should come to the fore in a couple of new action flicks, but that one of them should actually be good, well – that’s the first surprise. The other surprise is that in Roland Emmerich’s right wing conspiracy thriller White House Down, the threat isn’t from the President at all, but the right wing itself, with paramilitary mercenaries and white supremacists playing key roles as they try to hold President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) hostage.
Off-duty Capitol police officer and former military bad-ass Cale (Channing Tatum) is visiting the White House with his daughter Emily (Joey King) for a job interview with the Secret Service. After being told he wasn’t qualified for the job by old friend and current agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he decides to take his daughter on a tour of the White House, lying to her that he thinks he has a good chance at getting the position. On the tour they run into President Sawyer and Emily asks him to answer a complex question about a looming Middle East peace agreement for her YouTube channel, which he deflects with the deftness of a successful politician.
A bomb goes off in the capitol building, sending the iconic dome crumbling in on itself. The White House goes into lockdown, the President whisked away to the Oval Office and the tour group Cale and Emily are on locked in a nearby sitting room while the Secret Service sweeps the building. Soon, the White House is under attack and the President’s own head of security is behind it all. Of course it’s up to Cale to save the day.
Emily, obsessed with all things D.C., is the lynchpin of the whole movie. She sells her role in it all. But Cale’s single-minded insistence that he save his daughter at all costs – even the life of Sawyer at one point – reaches heights of absurdity that would feel out of place if Emmerich hadn’t imbued the film with just enough levity and ridiculousness to offset those moments. Emily not only serves to get Cale into action, but also reveals what is really happening to the world via her YouTube uploads of a couple of covert videos she took while the attack started. From these videos, the terrorists are identified and their whole plan starts to come under pressure from the outside thanks to this revelation.
A conspiracy theory involving ex-military mercenaries, the White House chief of security and other major D.C. players is at the heart of it all, and though it unfolds predictably, the film remains a fun ride. Jason Clarke continues a streak of ever-higher-profile roles with his turn as man-in-charge Stenz, and James Woods provides a solid performance as an aging security man out for personal retribution. Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins, who plays the Speaker of the House, are also good, though the script slightly paints them both with the broad, one-note brush of caricature. But Tatum and Foxx are fantastic, and that’s all anyone will ever care about.
They make a dynamic duo that recalls the begrudging, under-fire teamwork dynamic of McClane and Zeus in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. To that end, actually, White House Down is almost like every Die Hard movie rolled into one epic action spectacle. There are terrorists in a building, an attack on an airplane, a plan to rob the Federal Reserve, a team-up with the white guy and the black comic relief, a brilliant computer hacker lusting after power, and even our hero Cale ultimately saving the day with his kid. All five Die Hard plots in just over two hours. Hell, Cale even ends up in a wife beater and flak jacket, literally becoming a doppelganger for the young McClane. That White House Down is better than at least three of the films in that series should provide enough interest to just see the damned thing already. It’s the best “Die Hard-on-a” film since Die Hard.
In true blockbuster fashion, the action sequences are over-the-top awesomeness, with a finesse that has been lacking in Emmerich’s last couple of spectacles. While there are still moments when the CGI appears poorer than usual, the use of special effects doesn’t actively detract from the proceedings like it did in 2012 or the absolutely awful 10,000 B.C.. By tethering himself to a potentially real-world scenario and not relying on science-fiction or historical conspiracy theories, Emmerich is able to execute the pulse-racing promise he showed in his earlier film The Patriot.
One of the best of these sequences finds Cale and Sawyer driving around the White House lawn in the presidential limousine. Under a constant hale of automatic gunfire from the military humvees the terrorists are driving, they go in circles around the lawn trying to get out. It’s fetishistic with its bullet holes and explosions, including a tank taken down via RPG from the White House roof. That this isn’t the biggest explosion in the movie – an honor reserved for missiles launched at a trio of helicopters at the film’s climax that blows apart the Pennsylvania Avenue face of the building – is telling. Hell, the tank explosion isn’t even the biggest one in this particular action sequence.
The scene culminates in an RPG launched at the limo that no real human being could survive, with the limo flipping over and crashing in a pool and then escaping to the pool house and making it underground just before the pool house is lit up like the fourth of July. Yet Cale and Sawyer do survive, which is how it should be. Just like in this year’s Fast & Furious 6, these men don’t exist in our world, but now live in an onscreen world populated by superheroes in other films. That humans should evolve in such a silver screen dimension beyond ours to take whatever brutal beatings are meted out by the ever-larger threats facing them is only fitting. Our action heroes have stopped being humans, and are truly wish fulfillment fantasies. And Hollywood can and does make a lot worse than White House Down.
3 out of 5 stars.