Should I talk about how White House Down (2013) has a similar plot to Olympus Has Fallen (2013)? How about Salt (2010)? Let’s just say that this is an epic action movie taking place at the White House. White House Down is brought to you by a pretty credentialed pair of Roland Emmerich the director of Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), The Patriot (2000), and some more epic and less appealing fare with James Vanderbilt the writer of Zodiac (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and some more foolish stuff. This isn’t their first rodeo and it shows. There is a lot of exploding and shooting and betrayal. So it surprised me a little that this 10pm showing, albiet on a Thursday, had about 20 people in the audience. It certainly wasn’t that bad. Though people could be excused for thinking it would be.
John Cale (Channing Tatum) is an officer in the Capitol Police, on the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) protection detail. His ambition is to join the Secret Service and protect the President (Jamie Foxx). He makes friends with a VP staffer (Jackie Geary) who gets him an interview with the Secret Service and passes for a White House tour. That’s double-duty because his daughter, Emily (Joey King), with whom he has a difficult relationship, is a precocious political junkie and being a Secret Service agent will get him proximately closer to her obsession–though he seems to have pretty sweet access to the Speaker–and the passes will do the same for both of them. While on the tour, a delicate operation is in the works. There’s an explosion in the rotunda of the Capitol building, which causes a lockdown at the White House, where a team of mercenaries (disguised as workmen) (led by Jason Clarke) quickly takes apart the Secret Service agents and soldiers defending the President. But Emily and Cale somehow escape enhostagement doing what they do such as opportunity presents: blogging and killing people, respectively.
I’m coming around on Channing Tatum. He’s not consistent as an actor. He certainly needed more rage and range in White House Down than he could muster to really pull of an action-masterpiece, but he wasn’t a complete fool. And let’s be honest, he is not incapable of playing a fool on accident. But he’s getting opportunities with some good directors–of which I am not counting Emmerich as he seems satisfied to rely on the innate capacity of his actors rather than bring out a sterling performance. How many actioneers do otherwise?
White House Down is like a more traditional, less classic version of Die Hard (1988). In fact, there is a character and sequence that is so exactly like Die Hard, that some of you will be unable to keep back your laughter. A renowned hacker with a dark sense of wit, Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), comes into a computer room (where its guards had recently been murdered), admires the glory of the technology and begins to tinker to Beethoven’s Symphony #5. I was dying for a Beethoven bookend for the finale, but Emmerich/Vanderbilt either didn’t notice or didn’t want to risk plagiarism. Personally, I would have found that a more flattering homage than the wholesale theft of this character/device with a Beethoven wink. Even the cinematography (Anna Foerster), with the camera in close (when people aren’t sailing through the bullet-ridden air), reminds me of Die Hard. In perhaps an even bigger Die Hard homage to a scene I feel confident we all despise but for our enduring nostalgia, White House Down also has a second, painfully wrapping-up ending that we could have done without. C’est la guerre.
One of my favorite parts of White House Down is it’s spatial awareness. They seem to know where in DC everything is located and how the White House is put together. That is, despite the fact that the poster puts them somewhere in the Potomac. I’m tempted to see Olympus Has Fallen just to find out whether it’s as well cartographed as White House Down. That sense of place made some of the crazier action elements much more bearable. There’s a part where a tank fires a shell into the White House and I thought, “Yeah, get ’em!” It rang true that they wouldn’t mythologize a building when the snipers start killing people.
But here’s something that might convince you that White House Down is worth your time. People very rarely are killed without a pang. Whenever the mercenaries get killed, someone usually is angry about it. If a hostage is harmed, people want to intervene. Of course, there is an element of “how can we kill this person in an interesting way”, but you take the bitter with the sweet. The subplot of humanity rallying round a new soldier-free peace deal is a little canned when the movie glorifies violent reprisal, but hooks need hangings.