White House Down might just be the worst of Roland Emmerich’s many large-scale disaster films, and that’s saying a lot. It suffers from a disinterested cast, a script that simplifies the complexities of our world’s current geopolitical climate to the point of insulting the audience’s intelligence, and from the fact that it opens in theaters just three months after Olympus Has Fallen, which followed virtually the same template and did it with more style and verve.
But that movie didn’t have a dirtied-up Magic Mike‘s Channing Tatum in a tank top splashed all over its marketing. For that reason alone, it’s a good bet that White House Down will exceed the other film’s weekend gross by a significant amount, and that for a good portion of the paying audience, the dress shirt coming off his shoulders will be worth the price of admission.
John Cale (Tatum), a Capitol police officer with a military record of service in Afghanistan and who aspires to join the Secret Service, finds himself the unlikely guardian of President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) when a group of heavily-armed mercenaries circumvent the White House’s security measures in order to take hostages and issue demands. In addition to keeping the president alive and out of the clutches of the machine gun-totting bad guys, Cale also has to worry about the safety of his daughter Emily (Joey King), whom he brought along on his Secret Service interview to treat her to a trip to the White House and who eventually becomes one of the hostages.
Cale and Sawyer stay one step ahead of danger and work to get out of the White House and away from the hostage takers with the help of Secret Service Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), while the nation’s military leaders, the Vice-President (Michael Murphy), and the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) hem and haw and bicker over what to do and how to re-take “the Castle”, as the White House is codenamed in the film, without getting all the hostages killed. Meanwhile, the mercs put to work inside the House their own expert computer hacker to take control of America’s defense arsenal, which gets the clock ticking on how long Cale and Sawyer have to get themselves and the hostages out and let the National Guard gathered out on Pennsylvania Avenue do their jobs and kick some butt.
As with all Roland Emmerich films, most of which involve the White House being destroyed in some way, shape, or form (technically, this is the third time around, Independence Day and 2012 being the first two), the film’s action and special effects sequences are all slickly-produced and visually-arresting. No matter how many times you might have seen it in other films, the destruction of Washington D.C. landmarks, if done properly, can still be a breathtaking stunner of a visual, and Emmerich and his production teams have had lots of practice with that. Even the smaller action set-pieces are done well enough to be entertaining, the best example of which is a frenzied car chase over the White House lawn and surrounding grounds. Plus, the research done to meticulously replicate the publicly-known spaces of the White House is evident throughout the production. If action, production design, and SFX are all you’re there for, then you won’t be disappointed.
But if you’re looking for at least one interesting character to latch on to or to care about as they dodge bullets or throw punches or verbally spar with the Powers that Be who clearly have a knack for making the wrong decisions at the worst possible times, then you’re likely to be very disappointed. Foxx, Gyllenhaal, Jenkins, and James Woods are all talented, seasoned, and award-winning actors who have so much more to offer than what they give us here, probably because Emmerich as a director just had them read their lines and react to special effects that would be added later in post-production. Of them all, Woods is given the most scenery to chew on, and as good as he is at that, just once it would be nice to see his name show up in a big studio film and not immediately know the nature of his role before he’s even appeared on screen.
On the other side of the spectrum, Foxx is the one in this ensemble most grossly miscast. As powerful and captivating as his performances have been in so many films of the last decade, Foxx brings none of the weight he’s capable of bringing on screen to his depiction of President Sawyer. Never once is he convincing as a chief executive — there’s no bearing, no presence, and no charisma to this supposedly widely-admired idealist of a president who would dare take on the status quo in his own backyard and on the world stage to make peace with adversaries in the Middle East. He’s simply too light in the role — the performance of Emmerich’s previous choice for U.S. president in one of his films, Danny Glover in 2012, might have been worth taking a look at if the director was in fact even interested in making President Sawyer a believable character.
A great deal of the blame for how light and “oh sure, why not?” the film feels should go in the direction of screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who gave us last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man and also cranked out the script for its upcoming sequel and Emmerich’s just announced sequel to Independence Day. In White House Down it’s clear that Vanderbilt intended to construct not just a disaster film, but also a geopolitical thriller, with suspense built around how our nation’s government and the world might react to the fall of the White House to extremists. If done competently, that would be a scary, scary film, indeed.
But when you write into your script such cliche concepts as the military-industrial complex being fundamentally opposed to peace in any form, and you put forth the idea of a U.S. President unilaterally reaching out to a Middle Eastern power with an olive branch and actually being taken seriously, you both take advantage of and feed popular (and cynical) notions about world politics and politicians. Of course a president who wants peace will be opposed by politicians at home seeking to protect the interests of defense contractors. Of course if Washington is attacked, the masses and the media will automatically jump to the conclusion that Arab terrorists are involved. Because we all KNOW that’s how the world REALLY works, right?
Maybe none of that will even register with the majority of folks who go see this film this weekend. Maybe they’re just there to see the explosions, or see Channing Tatum actually be in a movie from beginning to end, as opposed to his all-too-brief appearance in G.I. Joe: Retribution earlier this year, and be in that movie baring his muscular arms for at least half of the film’s running time. (No abs this time, ladies, sorry.)
But make no mistake. Among the many suspensions of disbelief that White House Down asks you as an audience member to make in order for what happens on screen to seem plausible, perhaps the biggest is that world politics, politicians, and governments all act and respond so predictably, so recklessly, and so simplistically.
To ask you to believe that, even just for the sake of enjoying a entertainment, is an outright slap in the face of your intelligence, so slap these film producers in the face right back and choose to watch something else at the movies this weekend.
Score: 2 out of 5
White House Down
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, and James Woods. Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Running Time: 131 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image.