WHITE HOUSE DOWN Review

At this point I can't even recall much from the White House under attack movie that appeared in theaters earlier this year, Olympus Has Fallen. I remember it being a rather care free, brainless piece of fun with a surprisingly brutal aspect to it while more than anything being a tribute to those 90's action flicks of yesteryear that had now been replaced by superheroes and sequels. While I always expected Roland Emmerich's version of this similar story, White House Down, to be the clear victor in terms of quality it turns out they are neck and neck as far as pure entertainment value goes, but with the more pedigreed cast, the bigger budget and a director more adept at handling large scale action sequences Emmerich's version of Die Hard in the White House seems as if it will have the repeatability factor moreso than the Gerard Butler redux that will no doubt still go down as the lesser of the two. Though I'll have to wait and see if anything about White House Down remains ingrained in my mind come September as of now it is certainly the film I enjoyed more. The comparison between these two films is inevitable as it has been lurking over both releases since word came out two movies with the same premise were being released within months of one another. This didn't seem to hurt the second one out of the gate last year in the same situation (Snow White & the Huntsmen easily trounced Mirror, Mirror) but these two movies are much more similar in tone and it's clear that despite Channing Tatum's mass appeal to the ladies they don't necessarily care to see him in a straight up action flick. It is his charisma and the chemistry that exists between he and co-star Jamie Foxx that makes the film so endearing and in turn makes this film the experience I took more fun away from. That could be a good or bad thing depending on what you're expecting or what you were looking for, but Emmerich has always had a way about making his films self-aware while still executing action set pieces with seamless transitions between the tones. He does the same here balancing the ridiculous with the tongue-in-cheek that allows the audience to realize the majority of whats happening on screen is in fact ridiculous, but brushing it off as nothing more than exhilarating, B-movie fun which is exactly what this is supposed to be.

John Cale (Channing Tatum) finds himself rescuing the President (Jamie Foxx) when the White House falls under attack.
If it is any consolation for the massive amounts of action we receive in the latter part of the film the first half hour or so is surprisingly calm and restrained in setting up the characters, their roles and their motivations. It is surprisingly paced yet effective in that it builds our relationship with the main protagonists and creates an affection for them and their loved ones that is critical to us caring as the action set-pieces take over soon enough. From a script by James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man, Zodiac, The Rundown) the film focuses on non too competent father John Cale (Tatum) who works as part of the security team for Richard Jenkins Speaker of the House. Naturally, for a vet who's done several tours of duty and has a knack for responding logically this is a rather slow-paced job and he wants more. He begs his way into an interview with Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) of the secret service but despite his credentials doesn't have the attitude the agency is looking for. Cale has brought his daughter Emily (Joey King) along on his interview in the White House as she has a love for all things politics. It is at this point that a vengeful head of the secret service (James Woods) puts into action his plan of reversing everything President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has been working for recently in terms of world peace. The President has initiated an order to pull all remaining troops from Iraq and Afghanistan after discussing deals with the leaders of those nations. It is easy to see why some members of the political party surrounding the President would be upset by this and Emmerich makes an attempt with these details to make the films central conflict not necessarily about the standards of money or bombs, but principal. Despite these efforts to use current issues (and depending on who you agree with you might understand where the bad guys are coming from) the relevance of what they are trying to say is ultimately lost in the more immediate plot of Cale saving the President and his daughter while making it past the gang of mercenaries led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke) who were instrumental in taking over the home of the President.

The lush supporting cast paired with the chemistry of leads Tatum and Foxx help the story rise above the standard beats it hits along the way as well as avoiding any tendency the film might have to try and take itself too seriously. What surprised me most here, and likely differentiates it most from Olympus, is the fact that saving the President is not the climax of the film,  it isn't the ultimate goal that our hero is working towards (though getting him to safety is certainly part of it) but instead of being left to wait for help to come as Aaron Eckhart's President Asher was Foxx's President Sawyer is made a part of that action. He doesn't turn into a superhero who knows all there is to know about weapons and hand to hand combat, that is what Cale is there for, but he knows the grounds and the bad guys of course want him alive so he is able to play the value card throughout that saves them more than once. Foxx also adds plenty of little quirks to his character that make him human, giving us an impression we aren't necessarily accustomed to when talking about the most powerful man in the country. He'll take the time to give a little girl a shout out on her blog, he'll recognize the right time for peace and the right time for action and he'll do all of this while wearing his Jordan's. To the somewhat same effect is Tatum's Cale. In retrospect the guy is a pretty dull character. There isn't anything about him that makes him immediately engaging (other than the fact he is portrayed by Tatum), but as the film goes on and he develops the strong rapport with the President we see Tatum allow his comedic skills to come into play. The film has a camp aspect to it as all of Emmerich's films do and as I said earlier the director recognizes this, but in the same way Emmerich adds those one-liners, those over dramatic shots in slow motion Tatum adds a camp aspect to the banter he exchanges with Foxx and with how he approaches the bad guys. This won't necessarily add layers to your character or make him the next John McClane, but at the very least it makes him fun to watch and more than reliable in guiding the audience through the mountains of action he must face in order to earn that hero badge and redeem himself to his daughter just before the credits roll.

Special Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) heads up the rescue mission in White House Down.
Placing that relationship at the heart of the film and casting two such charismatic actors in those roles certainly upped the quality of the overall film, but going a step further to surround those key players with credible names allows for us to see a real consideration for the story. Though this is clearly not a political drama intent on making a point or striking a specific chord the presence of people such as Gyllenhaal, Clarke (a magnetic actor who is finally getting more screen time after supporting turns in Lawless and Zero Dark Thirty) Jenkins, and especially Woods hamming it up adds a certain weight that the film would have otherwise lacked and in turn been interpreted more as a complete farce rather than having some kind of political stance. Given, the plot does tend to get a little too contrived towards the end and it might have been better for the overall tone of the film if they didn't take it so seriously some of the time, but in the end this is nothing short of an entertaining picture. It is dumb, but it's supposed to be. It is far-fetched, but it's supposed to be. It is too long and drags in some sections, which it shouldn't do, but the bottom line I was basing the judgement of this film on was whether or not I had a good time. Did I check the time? Was I rooting for the characters? Did it allow for an escape where I was still rooted in a reality, but one where the implausibility of the situation allowed me to have no bad conscious about those who lost their lives? That I answered more of those with "yes" than "no" was good enough for me.

I've never been a huge fan of Emmerich as he's come to be known for making things go boom while his more horrible efforts like Godzilla and 10,000 BC tend to be overlooked for his box office successes, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Two years ago though, when nobody went to see Anonymous I found a very stylized and elaborate film with a director yearning to do something more than craft gigantic action sequences. He wanted to work with character and not have it's point of conflict be where to run next. Granted, it wasn't a great film and it still allowed for a certain amount of camp, but it also took an interesting myth and made a game of politics out of it. There is much of this in that first part of White House Down while the latter meshes that with what the director does best. The fact Emmerich has not become stagnant by this point is reason enough to celebrate, that he is trying to push himself to do more is even better and in that respect he gets an A for effort.