Roland Emmerich Brings The ‘White House Down'
White House Down: 3 out of 5
John Cale: I know that you’re into peace and all that, but you’ve got to stick that thing out there and go to work!
So far we have had three ‘Die Hard’ movies and I have been entertained by two of them; neither of which starred Bruce Willis. White House Down is the second film this year, following Olympus Has Fallen, to feature the White House being held hostage by terrorists. While the films are somewhat different in what they are trying to accomplish, the similarities are quite clear. That said, while ‘Olympus’ was seeped with much more seriousness and jingoism, White House Down is all about being Roland Emmerich-style spectacle. While Emmerich may not be creating another disaster movie on the scale of his other hit films like Independence Day or 2012, he is certainly doing what he can to make a Die Hard-like film, which has the attitude of one of his disaster films. In establishing this, it means that along with large-scale thrills, the film also lends itself to being a lot of goofy fun, while also earnest and plenty corny. It is a good thing that that is what I was in the mood for.
Despite taking its time to get there, the plot setup is pretty simple in concept. While taking his daughter on tour of the White House, a man hoping to join the Secret Service, John Cale (Channing Tatum), gets caught in an impossible situation, as the building is seized by a group of mercenaries led by their commander (Jason Clarke) and the Head of the Presidential Detail (James Woods). Cale manages to escape initial capture, though his daughter, Emily (Joey King), is eventually taken in with the other hostages. Things become more complicated once Cale manages to retrieve U.S. President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) from capture and work with him to try and escape the White House. Of course, despite the best efforts from people like the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and another Secret Service agent (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to help Cale and President Sawyer stay out of danger, Cale’s biggest priority is to rescue his daughter.
It is entertaining to see the various projects that Roland Emmerich takes on at this point in his career. Given that he literally ended the world in 2012, he really does not have a whole lot more to take on, as far as disaster films go (despite the recent news that he will be directing a sequel to Independence Day), so his penchant for large-scale filmmaking has to be applied to other types of films. He tried this with his 2011 effort, Anonymous, which was a fun and interesting idea for a film (Shakespeare’s A Fraud: The Movie), but ultimately overbearing and not all that exciting. Now we have White House Down, which functions as the bigger, louder brother of the aforementioned Olympus Has Fallen. Regardless of that connection, what shows is that Emmerich still does what he knows best, which has its ups and downs.
I’ll stick with the ups first, because there are plenty of them that do not just revolve around the delighted giggles that came from the audience (and my friend sitting next to me…and myself) as the film approached its more over-the-top and melodramatic moments. Mainly, I really enjoyed this cast. Regardless of how much a film-goer that sees Emmerich’s films wants to criticize the dialogue, these films generally have a solid cast and that is true here in White House Down. Additionally, these solid casts usually consist of people who are awfully likable, not counting the villainous characters. In a movie like this, it is not so much about the depth of these characters as it is to get an audience to enjoy being around these people and the film sets aside a solid half hour to do so.
We get who John Cale and President Sawyer are, because the film allows us to and we also get a good dose of the rest of the supporting cast, which is handled with playful dialogue that establishes a fun, summer movie atmosphere. Once the action does kick in and the stakes are raised, I do think the film continues to work, because we have established chemistry between the various actors and want them to find a way to handle the situation to best effect. Because the film does go through with some pretty insane theatrics involving what casualties occur and the scale at which they occur, the drama is there and it is way over-the-top at times, but the combination of good casting and an entertaining summer action movie tone makes it work.
Defending the actual script and what is involved to make this plot work is a different story and I am not about to defend the “how” of everything that occurs in this movie, but it shouldn’t matter if one is having fun and I was. Given the understanding of what the concept is and at least having some indication of what a buddy movie involving a cop and the President, played by Tatum and Foxx, running around the White House would be like, it really has to come down to pleading ignorance if one has to call into question how silly a lot of this film actually is. I would say that previous Emmerich epic-like features have had smarter scripts to work with, but the screenplay by James Vanderbilt really is made to take the basic structure of Die Hard, retrofit it for a larger-scaled D.C.-based adventure and let things play out as best they can.
Getting away from the plot, the action is pretty playful and engaging, without becoming overly violent. While Olympus Has Fallen went for having pretty brutal massacres in its version of a White House takeover, White House Down is much happier to keep things appropriate (enough) for a wider audience and get goofier with its action. Emmerich is the kind of director who could find a way for a car chase to take place on the White House Lawn and have an audience both excited and laughing all the way through. The fact that the President is very much involved (making this more like Die Hard with a Vengeance than Die Hard, but I digress) is all the more way to keep this movie fresh and entertaining, regardless of the logic, which was thrown out the window long ago anyway, in favor of having this be the movie that works for a summer audience.
Sure, summer movies do not have to be silly escapist fun all the time and the best ones do know how to find the right balance of genuinely well designed story, characters, spectacle, etc., but White House Down is not falling into that camp. The film trades deeper character development for melodramatic actions to elicit surface emotions, but is unapologetic about it. There are fun ideals put into place regarding the kind of president that is in office and what he is fighting for, but it is not about to representing greater themes, as much as it just wants to show a charming pacifist do what he must, when terrorists come a knockin’. Rather than provide us with the mental state of a man hoping to become a Secret Service agent, we have a likable Channing Tatum, working his hardest to keep the President and his daughter alive, while wearing a dirty, sleeveless t-shirt.
Given the fun I was having, the clearest issue with this movie seemed to be the ending, which went on for way too long. It is as if there were several ideas and the film just wanted to use all of them; so we watch a number of prolonged scenarios to make sure every plot thread is tied up, which includes having plenty of silly callbacks to previously established elements of the story, including what special talent Cale’s daughter has. At 131 minutes, trimming this film down would have benefitted the film nicely, which is being kind, given other potential issues that will have been a bother to others much more so than myself.
There is no denying that White House Down has plenty in the way of clichéd moments and logic problems, but so much of it does work for me as an entertaining action feature that I am happier with acknowledging that I enjoyed myself. While I would not go as far as to say it matches up with something like this summer’s Fast and Furious 6, the film does know what it is and sticks with it. It is this big, action-packed, ridiculous, melodramatic spectacle film that has many of the same sensibilities of other Emmerich films, which are similarly goofy, but also very earnest and fun. While it can’t work its way out of questionable plot decisions and certainly not in the way of general logic, the very watchable nature of this film, which is aided by a good cast and some exciting action set-pieces, make White House Down a film that I was happy to sit back and laugh along with.
John Cale: Can you not hit me in the head with a rocket while I’m trying to drive?!