White House Down (United States, 2013)

June 28, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
White House Down Poster

White House Down is what it's advertised to be: a Roland Emmerich Film. Those familiar with the director's work won't be surprised by anything in the movie. It follows the Emmerich template: a spectacle-tinged, compelling setup; a dumb, disappointing midsection; and a cheese-topped denouement that veers so close to self-parody that one is tempted to call it funny. White House Down is better than Godzilla and 2012, not quite as good as The Day after Tomorrow, and about on par with Independence Day. This sloppy mess also pales in comparison to the better-paced, taut Olympus Has Fallen, which represents 2013's better White House invasion story.

For a while, White House Down makes a game attempt at verisimilitude. The security processes shown early in the film seem credible. The sets are well designed, although I have no idea if they're accurate replications of the inside of the First Mansion. We're given perfunctory, by-the-book introductions to the main characters. Channing Tatum, currently a legitimate box office draw, is Cale, an ex-soldier who's currently working as protection for Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) and is looking for a Secret Service position. He visits the White House with his precocious 11-year old daughter, Emily (Joey King). After an unpromising meeting with Secret Service Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who remembers Cale from his hell-raising days, he and Emily opt for a White House tour before heading home. While on the tour, they encounter President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), who lets Emily record him for her YouTube channel. Shortly thereafter, the White House comes under attack by terrorist Stenz (Jason Clarke) and his band of Merry Men. Turns out, however, it's an inside job masterminded by the head of the president's protection detail, the deranged Walker (James Woods), whose motivations are somewhat murky. Time for Cale to jump into action. After all, seeing Channing Tatum kick bad guy ass is what we paid $10 for.

That's pretty much what we get: Channing Tatum kicking bad guy ass. And hiding in elevator shafts. And engaging in a car chase across the White House lawn. And dodging explosions. And throwing out one-liners that are so unmemorable I can't recall any of them as I'm writing this. For those who're more interested in seeing Jamie Foxx kick ass, there's some of that, but you'd be better off renting Django Unchained. For those who're in the theater for Maggie Gyllenhaal kicking ass, ask for a refund. Then again, Emmerich's films aren't known for strong female characters.

White House Down is at least a half-hour too long, and that may be generous. About 60 minutes into the film, the plot gets to the point where it seems there's nowhere to go except the wrap-up. That's when Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt begin the delaying contortions necessary to keep things going for another 70-odd minutes. These include the ever-popular child in danger subplot, the twist out of nowhere, and the bad guy explaining his convoluted revenge scheme. There are also some editing issues. A climactic hand-too-hand fight, for example, gets butchered in order to reduce the brutality to PG-13 levels.

Emmerich apparently wants this to be " Die Hard in the White House," but Olympus Has Fallen beat him to it. In fact, this is closer to weak 24, right down to the dumb daughter. No cougars, though. The action sequences are moderately diverting but nothing special, although the car chase across the White House lawn (arguably the movie's height of stupidity) has the distinction of being unique, and the image of the President leaning out the car window with a rocket launcher could have been iconic in different circumstances.

I'm getting tired of action films that insult the intelligence of the average movie-goer. Who decided that smart scripts and big explosions are mutually exclusive? It's possible to craft a film that gets the adrenaline pumping without demanding that the cerebral cortex be disconnected beforehand. Filmmakers have become lazy. Movies like White House Down are noisy distractions - about as satisfying and empty as a mediocre fireworks display. Olympus Has Fallen is a recent example of how this sort of story can be done much better and even that wasn't without its share of flaws. It's a shame that the talent of Jamie Foxx, Richard Jenkins, and Maggie Gyllenhaal and the charisma of Channing Tatum have been wasted in this overlong, meandering example of disaster porn.

White House Down (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: 2013-06-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1