Release Date: June 28th, 2013 (US); September 13th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal
White House Down is bonkers. The President of the United States wears white trainers; kids can get through security with an easily obtainable Chocolate-Factory-esque ticket; Channing Tatum has an 11-year-old daughter. Madness. Indeed, profusely fun madness. Roland Emmerich’s film will never win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — or anything, truthfully — but at no point does it set out to. Unlike the director’s genre-relevant 1998 attempt at Godzilla, a film still languishing in a pit of sheer idiocy, his most recent action-packed attempt promotes an infectious need to have fun. Spearheaded by a pair of goofy opposites, White House Down is more thumbs up.
In the midst of a tour of the White House set up to appease his politics-loving daughter Emily (Joey King), John Cale (Channing Tatum) suddenly finds himself as the sole agent against a group of terrorist insurgents. The Capitol police officer, fresh off an unsuccessful job interview, must formulate a plan to shield the President (Jamie Foxx) from intended harm whilst also saving the many hostages in danger, one of whom is Emily.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this big budget summer popcorn bonanza is flawed. The screenplay written by James Vanderbilt sorely misses narrative intuition. During its predictably mellow opening act we can pretty much piece together the various components as the make themselves known on screen. In that dimly lit room over there is a shifty-looking group of janitors. Our lead has just been scorched for an insufficiency in trustworthiness. He missed his daughter’s recent talent show too. (She’s just popped off to the toilet alone.) Man, if only there was a way he could redeem himself. Wait, what is that sweaty, nervous chap doing with a concealed trolley? Those are only a handful of the film’s commonplace elements. This might be perfectly fine escapism, but it wouldn’t hurt to add a slither of acumen occasionally.
Its unwillingness to deviate from the cookie-cutter norm aside, there are other issues. The fact that characters aren’t well-defined in general is likely a factor, but it should be noted that females don’t necessarily get a fair swing at things. Yes, Joey King’s youngster Emily is a girl who, on more than one occasion, displays intellect far greater than many of her male compatriots — Joey is great, by the way — but the significance is that she’s a child rather than a female. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays one of the President’s assistants and early on looks like she might be thrown into the action, but is told to go home before impact. (“And that’s an order.”) Two others are fodder for Tatum’s macho-cool father: Rachelle Leferve, criminally underused as Cale’s ex-wife, and Jackie Greary as his current partner, or something. It’s not brilliant, but then, character development takes a universal back seat.
On a more positive note, White House Down is a heck of a good time. Foxx and Tatum are together throughout the vast majority of goings-on, their companionship a comedic revelation. The two couldn’t be more unbelievable as President Sawyer and would-be service agent, but the lack of realism is their collective selling point. In truth, Foxx plays Sawyer as a bit of a bumbling idiot who makes smoking jokes in a time of crisis and doesn’t know what YouTube is. It’s exceedingly difficult not to laugh out loud as he sticks his head out of a moving limousine, rocket launcher in hand. Often, Cale manifests as the saner of the pair, but he too gets in a helping of humorous quips. Both actors succeed at elevating the lazy script, at least in terms of its comical output. Their dynamic is utterly absurd but wholly endearing. Unlike its White House disaster counterpart Olympus Has Fallen, which fails because it takes itself too seriously, Emmerich’s piece is far more audaciously light-hearted.
Discretion isn’t on the menu. We nod knowingly at Independence Day references, guffaw fully aware at pictures of a flaming White House and are reminded that bombs are dangerous by their accompanying rapidly booming theme song. But it’s easy to accept these inclusions that would otherwise incur a barrage of sighs, because Emmerich directs with energy and a carefree nature that is sort of charming. At over two hours the film bustles by fairly quickly and the director should be commended for ensuring that proceedings consistently retain a sense of alluring anarchy. One of the funniest moments sees a character throw the phrase “military-industrial complex” into the bubbling cauldron of crazy. Its flippancy is ironic and probably intentionally so.
Though coated in numerous explosions — of which the film insists on singling each out, as if in confession — White House Down actually looks rather splendid. The visual palette is both impressive and excessive; fireballs erupt skywards from grandiose helicopter crashes, whereas on ground level Tatum and company fight it out in clashes layered with grittiness. It’s a testament to special effects team that high ocular consistency is obtained. Like Michael Bay, but entertaining.
Roland Emmerich wins the 2013 big screen battle of American homeland threat by quite some distance. His film certainly struggles to engage in fresh ideas and lacks far too much in the depth department to be considered as anything more than surface splendour, but it’s never boring. There’s no high-and-mighty movement going on here; this is popcorn-chewing, Coke-Zero-slurping cinema at its tastiest.
Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures