Choosing a favorite scene in White House Down is tough. I mean you’ve got the bad guy who, as he’s strolling through the White House after taking it over, casually shoots the portrait of George Washington in the head with a silenced pistol. Then there’s Jamie Foxx shouting “I choose the pen!” before stabbing a bad guy with a pen after a lengthy bad guy monologue about why the pen is no longer mightier than the sword. And who could forget the Scooby Doo ending where President Foxx proudly demands “Get this trash offa my lawn?” (No mask reveal though, sadly. The bad guy was not, much to my chagrin, Old Man Clemens the whole time).
But for this reviewer’s money, the high-water mark of White House Down is Channing Tatum’s John Cale trying to talk a squirrel off a birdhouse. You see, at the time Cale’s working security for the Speaker of the House, and, as he explains to the squirrel, “my boss hates squirrels.” And even though we haven’t met him yet, you just know this squirrel-hating asshole is going to turn evil in the end. And so Cale pleads with the squirrel. “Come on, squirrel, come down from that birdhouse. For me?” in his best charmingly exasperated, say-hi-to-your-mother-for-me Wahlberg voice (I’ve always thought of Wahlberg as a proto-C-Tates). The stand off eventually ends when C-Tates pulls his Glock on the squirrel (in a cute way), but I could’ve watched that scene for hours. HOURS. Hell, I’d watch a White House Down sequel told entirely from the point of view of that squirrel. That might offer an interesting perspective on things. “Who are these people? What do they want? Why are all the buildings exploding? Why is the president wearing Jordans?” the squirrel might wonder. Friends, watching White House Down, there were times when I identified with that squirrel.
You see, and hold on to your monocle as this may shock you, White House Down is a stupid movie. It aspires to stupidity, realizes that stupidity is something to be aspired to, that a blunt instrument is best for smashing. And that’s fine. There’s a reason Gallagher doesn’t use a scalpel, sometimes nuance just ain’t that fun. On the face of it, White House Down is yet another Die Hard in a ___ movie, which isn’t that interesting. BUT, it’s also basically an interracial buddy cop flick where the black buddy who needs to learn to loosen up also happens to be THE PRESIDENT. That’s so gloriously stupid it’s almost profound. I would watch that movie. But White House Down isn’t quite that movie. It’s sorta stupid, sure, but eventually it’s hamstrung by its own safety scissors.
White House Down can’t quite pull off stupid because it breaks the first rule of stupid moviemaking: keep it stupid, stupid. Above all else, a stupid movie should be facile, uncomplicated, easy to understand. That’s why we like stupid. I didn’t mind the basic politics of White House Down, which are that President Foxx wants to pull all military personnel out of the Middle East, and so now the military industrial complex wants to kill him. You can see as much “liberal propaganda” in that as will get you clicks on your right-wing website (“military industrial complex” was coined by Eisenhower, by the way), but it’s just the vaguely left-wing answer to the model of vaguely-right-wing eighties action movies, from Rambo to Commando on down. It’s not really nuanced enough to even be political, it’s just another example of an action film memorizing just enough talking points for things to explode. Only this time, instead of the Down Syndrome Reaganism we’re used to, White House Down feels more like Jose Canseco’s book report on Confessions of An Economic Hitman. Fine. I rather enjoyed C-Tates telling Jamie Foxx “I know you’re into peace and all, but I really need you to shoot this rocket launcher at some bad guys right now.”
And as “liberal” as it is, it also implies that no matter how accomplished and successful, all black men secretly covet Nikes.
Where it fails is that like almost every recent action movie, the plot is hopelessly convoluted. There are too many bad guys and half of them I don’t even know what they want. There’s James Woods’s disgruntled military industrialist, he’s easy enough to understand. You know he’s bad the second he takes off his flag pin before he goes to work that morning (oh, and because he’s James Woods). He and Peter Weller in Star Trek 2 are almost the same character, come to think of it. But there’s another main bad guy, the one who shot George Washington. He has a major part in the movie and I still have no idea what the hell he wanted. That’s a problem. THIS IS A STUPID MOVIE. STUPID MOVIES ARE SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU FEEL SMART, NOT CONFUSED. CHARACTERS IN STUPID MOVIES HAVE TRANSPARENT MOTIVATIONS. What, did you think we were going to applaud your nuance and ambiguity? The president is telling a guy to get his hands off his Jordans for f*ck’s sake. I’m tired of being asked to be invested in fight scenes where I don’t know what the guys fighting want.
Critics always get accused of not liking dumb action movies, or not being able to suspend disbelief, and while I can’t speak for the rest of the anemic, psuedo-intellectual eunuchs in this business, I can say that *I* LOVE dumb action movies. It’s the crappy directors like Roland Emmerich that ruin them by not understanding what makes dumb action movies good. Roland Emmerich isn’t fit to scrub skidmarks out of Paul Verhoeven’s underwear. Do they think people like Commando or Predator because guns go off and stuff explodes? No. They’re fun because they’re silly, and there’s a silly wit to all the action. There’s a guy getting his arm cut off with a Machete and Arnold calling an alien an “ugly muddafauckah.” You don’t have to blow up the damn Eiffel Tower. Moreover, it’s just not that interesting to watch buildings explode, especially when you’re the fifth movie that summer to do the same thing.
What I’m saying is, White House Down could use a lot more Channing Tatum arguing with squirrels and a lot less Channing Tatum outrunning bullets, which he does roughly every five minutes. I mean, I’m sure he’s fast, but that’s not even really playing to what makes C-Tates C-Tates. It’s generic. Here’s what Channing Tatum dodging bullets should look like:
I’m fine with all the clichés – the know-it-all daughter who’s so mad at her father that she calls him by his first name (good little actress though, incidentally), the supervisor reading the resume (“candidate is full of potential that he seems determined not to realize,” hahahaha), the bad guy who sucks lollipops and listens to classical music (played by McPoyle from It’s Always Sunny), the computer dude who can HACK INTO ANYTHING, the nerd who grows a pair at just the right moment. Again, fine. The problem is that for so much of the movie they’re just going through the motions. Plane explodes, helicopter explodes, capitol building explodes, blah blah blah. At one point, there’s 20 minutes straight of boring explosions before what turns out to be a false ending, when C-Tates says “But wait! This isn’t over! I saw so-and-so talking to whatshisface just before such-and-such! There’s another plot afoot!”
I’m telling you, at that moment you could feel the audience let out a collective groan as if to say, “Really? This movie isn’t f*cking over yet?”
And we STILL don’t find out what that one bad guy wanted. Points for squirrels and Jordans, bros, but this is NOT how you make a stupid movie.
For a better version of White House Down, see Burnsy’s award-winning storyboards on the matter.