It’s a Roland Emmerich film.
That’s pretty much all I’ll need to say to most hardcore film nerds for them to know where they’ll fall if they see “White House Down,” but I’ll go a little more in-depth here just to clarify what I mean by that.
As much as any filmmaker working right now, Roland Emmerich is a guy who can be defined by his interests. With the notable exception of “Anonymous,” which I thought was overwrought and accidentally hilarious at times, his films all follow a pretty basic model of spectacle, destruction, and big broad character archetypes. He makes junk food, and he does it without apology. What I find fascinating is how much the cinema landscape has changed around him over the years, so while he hasn’t changed much at all, everyone else has, and he’s gone from looking like a Spielberg fan with ADD to being almost sedate compared to the way most action is shot now. Emmerich’s style can be defined largely by the word “more.” Whatever’s going on in a scene, Emmerich will always ladle on a little more, and then a little more on top of that and then, what the hell, a little more.
It’s one of the reasons I think “2012” may stand as the ultimate expression of his aesthetic. After that film, what is left for Emmerich to destroy or smash or drown or blow up? You can’t take it further than that.
Instead, with “White House Down,” he’s taken his signature style and he’s hitched to a fairly pedestrian “Die Hard” ripoff of a script. I try not to use the word “ripoff” often, but this movie borrows so liberally from so many different sources that it should have been a cast member in “The Bling Ring.” There’s a relationship between Channing Tatum and Joey King, who plays his daughter, that follows almost the same exact arc as the relationship between Jeff Goldblum and his daughter in “The Lost World,” complete with the ridiculous payoff. James Woods is playing Ed Harris in “The Rock” here, and he does exactly what he was hired to do. It’s just that there’s no surprise to it. And the entire structure with a normal guy caught inside a harrowing situation, dealing with the team behind the incident and slowly realizing that they’re not after what it initially seems like they’re after, is so very by-the-numbers “Die Hard” that I’m surprised they didn’t add a “based on” credit to the opening titles.
Tatum stars as Cale, a guy who wants desperately to work for the Secret Service. He’s applied, and in the meantime, he’s got a good job working for Speaker Of The House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). He takes his daughter Emily with him to the White House on the day of his job interview because he knows she’s absolutely fascinated by government and that she’s underwhelmed by him in general. He’s hoping to score some points by taking her on the tour. He is surprised when his interview is with Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a face from his past, and she quickly shuts him down, telling him he won’t be getting the job.
All of this is basically just legwork to make sure that Channing Tatum and his daughter are inside the White House when a group of armed men manage to bomb the Capitol and seize the White House at the same time. Jason Clarke plays Stenz, who appears to be the leader of the group at first, and because their plan is so masterfully executed, Tatum ends up as the only person who is in any position to help rescue President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) and preserve the chain of command.
The film spends most of its time cutting between the command center where Gyllenhaal is located, the White House where Tatum and Foxx are trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys, and the various clusters of bad guys who are working to do something very specific. The films gets more patently ridiculous as it goes, and I am sure no one who goes to see this over the weekend is looking for a realistic look at the geopolitical ramifications of a hostage situation in the seat of American government. This is the sort of film where there’s a high speed chase on the lawn of the White House with the President firing a rocket launcher. If you read that and you still want to buy a ticket, you’re going to have a grand old time.
Last year was a major turning point for Channing Tatum as a performer, and I think he does really nice work in “Haywire” and “21 Jump Street” and “Magic Mike.” I also think he’s a guy who needs a strong filmmaker to collaborate with if he’s going to be shown at his best. Emmerich has never been an actor’s director, and Tatum really isn’t a cookie-cutter action hero, so this is not the strongest showcase he could have. He’s fine, but it’s such an earnest, goofy movie that I felt slightly embarrassed for him in a few places. No one could make some of this dialogue work. Joey King, who plays his daughter, is also in “The Conjuring” and she was the China Girl in “Oz The Great and Powerful,” and I think she’s very good in both of those movies. Her role here is purely about giving Tatum a reason to stay involved in the story, and by the time she’s got her big moment on the front lawn at the end of the film, it’s just silly.
Really, James Woods is the one guy who seems to have known exactly what he needed to do to sell the material. He charts the shifts of his character over the course of the film very well, and he delivers some preposterous dialogue like it is a matter of life or death. I’m impressed, and it’s a reminder why Woods has been doing this for so long. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, just can’t make this President seem… well… Presidential. He’s fine in the action scenes, and he knows how to nail a punchline, but I don’t believe for a second that this guy got elected to the highest office in America. He just doesn’t have the presence that we ask of our Presidents, and the film pretty quickly devolves into him throwing punches and blowing stuff up because they have no idea what to do with the President otherwise.
If you really want to see a President kick some bad-guy ass while everyone in the film chews scenery mercilessly, “Air Force One” is still a better bet than this, but “White House Down” is pretty much exactly what the trailers promise. You know it’s a Roland Emmerich film because of silly characters like Donnie the tour guide (Nicolas Wright), who the film is determined to turn into comic relief even if no one figured out anything funny for him to do. There’s not a subtle bone in Emmerich’s body, and overall, “White House Down” is big, loud, dumb, and harmless. If you’re okay with all four of those things, enjoy.
And, yeah, it’s slightly better than “Olympus Has Fallen,” but only because that film was so relentlessly and pornographically violent that it ceased to be stupid fun. “White House Down” knows we don’t want our heroes to look like bloodthirsty psychopaths, and more often than not, it does what it can to show that none of this really matters. That’s fine… that’s what Emmerich does. But it means I never really engaged with it, and a week and a half after seeing it, it’s already starting to fade. “White House Down” is inconsequential summer programming, which should be Roland Emmerich’s family motto at this point.
“White House Down” opens everywhere this Friday.