Two movies, both alike in ridiculousness, were released in 2013 about the attack and takeover of the White House. The first was Olympus Has Fallen (2013), which convinced itself (but no one else) that it’s story was plausible and carried on with a certain seriousness, and the second is White House Down (2013), which, if it ever believed its story were anything but impossible, dropped that theory the second it decided to have the President fire a rocket launcher while hanging out of the side of his limo. If I have to state a preference for one, cast my ballot for White House Down because, like a good politician, it strikes a compromise with the audience: “Hey, you and I both know this is absurd and we could all be doing better things right now but just know that I don’t take this very seriously so let’s try to have some fun.” That the movie doesn’t have the faculties to provide that fun is a shame, but at least it knows what it is.
First-term President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has proposed a sweeping peace treaty that he wants the rest of the world to sign. He’s facing opposition abroad from countries that feel the treaty relies too much on trust of their fellow countries, and he’s facing opposition from within his own government as members of the rival party are blocking him because it’s good politics. Meanwhile, small-time Secret Service agent John Cale (Channing Tatum) wants to work his way up to the President’s detail to gain the respect of his daughter, Emily (Joey King). The perfect solution to both men’s problems presents itself in the form of a high treasonous attack on government that includes a bomb in the Capitol and a full-scale takeover of the White House. The attack is arranged by Walker (James Woods), the head of Sawyer’s security who has recruited a number of extremists lead by Stenz (Jason Clarke) to take care of the agents in the building who are sabotaged by Walker. However, as these things go, they forgot about one man, Cale, who was off-duty in the White House on a tour with Emily. Before long, many guns are fired and after that it’s a very long time indeed before they stop.
Roland Emmerich, who directs, is no stranger to laughable plots. The requirement for the suspension of disbelief is like a personal challenge for him. His previous movies have given us the destruction of New York by a giant lizard, the destruction of the planet by weather, the destruction of the planet by some sort of unacknowledged phenomena, the destruction of Shakespeare’s legacy and even the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day (1996), a movie he references by name in White House Down. What surprised (and delighted) me in this movie is that the amount of collateral damage and, certainly, the body count, is relatively and refreshingly low. Emmerich is known for the reach of his disasters, but here we have essentially one location, and that provides a focus these movies often lack. It’s not focused enough to provide us with characters who are developed beyond their immediate desires, but it makes for stronger storytelling than most. More than anything, Emmerich oversees the proceedings with his tongue in his cheek, providing visual puns and taking time to develop quirky asides to pump up the interest in a movie whose plot, after the latent initial interest in seeing the seat of government under attack, is more or less forgettable.
The movie begins as if it is being played straight, setting up a dour (and dry) thriller. The first cracks occur when a hostage, a tour guide, asks his captors to be mindful of the priceless historical artifacts, do what they will to him but respect the Ming vase that was a gift from Queen Elizabeth II. The hits continue when it’s revealed the President has an obsession with sneakers (Sawyer pulls out a pair of Air Force 1s right before we cut to a shot of the actual Air Force One). And by the time of the aforementioned rocket launcher episode in which Cale, driving the limo, tells his Commander-in-Chief, “I know you’re into peace and all that, but you need to stick that thing out there and go to work,” we get the feeling the movie knows as well as we do that the whole enterprise is pretty silly. This leads up to the laughable ending, which is so preposterous it can hardly be described except that the movie earns it completely.
Unfortunately, these are the fun highlights in an otherwise routine and unremarkable yarn. It gets points for being in on the joke (as Olympus was not) but none for not developing that sense of humor enough to dominate the experience and not just pepper it with needed levity. Everything else, from the villain’s motivations to the action sequences, range from wishy-washy and murky to ordinary and unexceptional. White House Down has enough moments to make it just passable but won’t earn my vote for reelection. The scene I really would like to see is of the press conference the next day: “Yes, so after myself and Agent Cale rode through the elevator shaft on top of the elevator, we encountered more of the terrorists in the kitchen in the presidential residence. I was personally attacked by an armed man who grabbed me around my feet until I kicked him repeatedly in the face and said, ‘Get your hands off my Jordans!’ before I was able to free myself. Any questions?”