' Cinema Romantico: White House Down

Monday, July 08, 2013

White House Down

In “White House Down” director Roland Emmerich, bless his heart, attempts to reclaim the summer months from the wrenchingly self-serious superheroes. It is pure idiotic spectacle, $150 million trash, a pastiche gleefully, greedily cribbing from its predecessors. Consider: Channing Tatum is eventually running around in a blood-stained undershirt in an attempt to defend a liberal President who will not negotiate with terrorists from a zealous band of bad guys who have gone rogue in the name of misplaced militaristic patriotism. In other words, it’s John McClane teaming up with President James Marshall to do battle with General Francis X. Hummel.


The opening is a master class of Set-Up Absurdism, comically inorganic in the way that every line, every action, is merely laying groundwork for the festive paramilitary White House takeover to come. For instance, if someone mentions the tunnels beneath the White House that JFK used to smuggle in Marilyn Monroe, you know full well those tunnels will turn up later. (If you think that’s a spoiler, well, then I will refrain from mentioning the movie’s mentioning the White House burning down during the War of 1812.)

Tatum, who, it must be said, has a winning kind of self-deprecating charisma that is growing on me, is John Cale (and I was disappointed to learn it was not spelled Kael in an attempt by Emmerich to atone for his Mayor Ebert sins), a strapping wannabe secret service agent who fails his secret service interview with Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) because – gasp! – she has a past with John and knows he doesn’t “see things through.” You know, like his marriage to Melanie (Rachelle Lefevre) who, in accordance with Hollywood Dictum, must remain mostly on the sideline and be mean to her ex, though I got the feeling she fronts a politicized punk band by night. This is specifically why he squires his daughter Emily (Joey King) to the White House with him for his interview and an accompanying tour. She’s a sweeter Kaylie Hooper, a young politico, claiming righteous President James Sawyer as her hero, and her old man wants to give her a reason to look up to him. Oh, Cale, little do you know.

The Prez, played by Jamie Foxx, subdued but in control, is pushing for peace in the Middle East. This will be his undoing, as the US Capital Rotunda goes up in flames and the head of Sawyer’s Secret Service detail (James Woods), the week of his retirement (huzzah!), is forced to “crash” the White House. But soon enough the White House will be crashed into – more than once! – as terrorists make their demands, all sorts of things go kablooey, Tatum & Foxx play Buddy with genuine success, Emily slinks around “the safest house in the world” (“today it isn’t”) with her iPhone like a teen dream war correspondent, and, in a glorious case of thinking outside the box, a movie essentially trapped inside a residence (sprawling though it may be) still finds a way to work in a car chase.


The car chase is actually broadcast live to the whole world via various news channel reports that keep popping up like Sportscenter updates, evoking front row seats to America’s personal Armageddon. One of the film’s finest throwaways involves a newscaster claiming this is all a cover for a coup d'état. If the White House really was Down, well, I can only imagine Twitter would literally catch on fire from all the coup d'état claims. And it’s really these little bits where Emmerich & company excel. They keep things level even as the requisite nuclear launch codes are compromised by peppering in ridiculous one-liners and, best of all, offering a wonky supporting character in the form Donnie the Tour Guide (Nicolas Wright) who continually takes personal offense at the destruction of precious White House artifacts and metamorphoses from a weakling to a blazered commando.

At two hours and seventeen minutes it’s overlong, undermined by a few too many Reversals, the ultimate comeuppance of the bad guys is disappointingly pat, and Gyllenhaal unfortunately spends most of the movie jabbering on a headset from a remote location when I would have liked to see her sport a Rambo-era bandana and play with the boys. But hey, that’s the law of summer blockbuster averages, and the averages tip in Emmerich’s favor. “White House Down”, adrenalized to the last, is not based on an amusement park ride but it still feels like one.

Yes, WWIII is imminent, but don’t let that harsh your buzz. Politics are present, sure, but they are merely engines for the plot, and to wrestle any meaning from them is utter folly and I will not hear of it. The only American ideals in which the German Emmerich and his screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, are interested in are the ideals of its action movie forefathers. Ours is a nation founded on certain inalienable cinematic rights – landmarks blown to smithereens and the ghost of John McClane.

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