Down and Out
By Melissa Agar
White House Down (Columbia, 2013) – Director: Roland Emmerich. Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, James Woods, Jimmi Simpson, & Joey King. Color, 131 minutes.
Curse you, John McClane. In the 25 years since you yippee-kayed your way to saving the Christmas revelers trapped at the Nakamura Towers by a bunch of German-accented terrorists, movie goers have been inundated with movies that follow the exact same pattern. Bad guys show up, innocent lives are in danger, and the only salvation comes from a guy in the right place at the right time who possesses a very special set of skills that make him the one guy who could possibly save the day – which he does in a tremendously explosive, quip-filled fashion. Die Hard so completely created the mold for the action genre that its offspring are referenced accordingly – Speed becomes Die Hard on a Bus, Air Force One becomes Die Hard on a Plane, and now, White House Down becomes Die Hard Goes to the White House.
Instead of Bruce Willis as John McClane, we now have Tatum as Capitol Police officer John Cale (yes, I notice the similarity in the names, too). Cale dreams of being a Secret Service agent, largely to try to win the affection of his daughter, Emily (the delightful King), a juvenile political junkie who had grown distant from her father since his divorce from her mother. When Cale gets an interview with deputy director Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal), he manages to get a visitor’s pass for his daughter. He bombs the interview, largely because he and Finnerty have some sort of past from college that is never really addressed, but while he and his daughter join the White House tour, terrorists attack, blowing up the Capitol and seizing the White House. As all White House security officers are quickly killed, Cale finds himself the only person standing between President James Sawyer (Foxx) and capture. Lots of explosions and gunfire ensue as Cale and Sawyer join forces to take down the terrorists and stop World War III.
You can practically sit through the movie with a list of action movie tropes and check them off one-by-one. You have the misunderstood hero. His ex-wife thinks he’s a deadbeat dad, his daughter thinks he’s a loser, and the job he’s dreamed of seems to be slipping away courtesy of a blast from the past who still sees him as the college dropout dud he was 15 years ago. You have the terrorists with hidden agendas. You have the family member in jeopardy. You have the tense phone calls between the hero and the outside. The terrorists embrace all of the typical tropes, too – the leader with a personal agenda, the muscle man with the itchy trigger finger, the computer nerd. It’s cliché after cliché. At times, the action becomes laughable – sometimes intentionally so (such as just about any scene involving Nicolas Wright’s White House tour guide who is up in arms about the way the terrorists are treating the priceless antiques), sometimes a little less intentionally so (there’s a chase around the White House fountain that bordered on farce for me).
The plot itself often struggles to keep itself on solid footing. I often felt like I needed a scorecard to keep track of the ever-changing motives and objectives of the terrorists. Is it all about money? Is it revenge for America’s involvement in the Middle East? It is the nefarious work of the military-industrial complex threatened by Sawyer’s attempts to create peace in the Middle East? Is it a cyber-terrorism plot? All the bases are covered – the bitter insider (Woods), the jaded and betrayed military man (Clarke), the kooky computer hacker (Simpson) who likes to do his work while listening to classical music and chomping on suckers. It’s all a bit much and again veers the film a bit too close to the ridiculous.
It doesn’t help that the two leads, Tatum and Foxx, seem more than a little miscast. I’m still not completely sold on Tatum. Yes, I recognize that he is sort of ridiculously good looking, and I have enjoyed lately his willingness to try new things on screen and be more than just hunky beefcake. I struggled with him here, though, and found him a bit wooden at times. I kept thinking how much more engaging Cale’s character could have been in the hands of a stronger actor like Matt Damon or Jeremy Renner.
As for Foxx, the attempts to mold President James Sawyer into a sort of alternate universe Barack Obama were a bit absurd. Sawyer is sold as an intellectual who loves his Air Jordans and in a key moment, chomps mightily on Nicorette gum because he has quit smoking. It becomes hard, though, to see that intellectual diplomat in Foxx. While I’ve liked much of Foxx’s recent film work (Django Unchained was one of my favorite films of last year), his work has largely been devoid of the sort of gravitas that lends itself to playing the president. There is a weight that seems to be missing here, and I was just never completely sold on this President Sawyer as the kind of man who would inspire the kind of adoration Sawyer seems to enjoy.
In the defense of the casting, though, Tatum and Foxx do have an engaging chemistry as the unlikely friendship between Cale and Sawyer develops. That chemistry helps fuel the film so that, even when eyes are rolling so mightily that muscle strain becomes a legitimate concern, the audience still finds itself invested in the fate of the duo. Adding to that emotional investment is King as Cale’s sassy daughter Emily. When the terrorists capture Emily, she becomes a witness to some pretty horrible things, and King portrays Emily’s fear and anger with a skill impressive for someone so young. If a viewer isn’t moved by Emily’s bid to save the day near the end of the film, that viewer just may be lacking a heart. There is a star in the making in Joey King.
In the end, White House Down succeeds in the same way that all of its ancestors succeed. Despite its flaws, and White House Down has many, the film still manages to strike all those notes that hit the audience at a sort of primal, visceral level – the level where we actively cheer for death and destruction. With every explosion and bullet fired, a chord is struck that leaves you fighting the urge to cheer. White House Down is not a great film, but it does provide a little over a couple of hours of meaningless entertainment. Sometimes on a hot summer day, that’s just what you need.