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White House Down

June 28, 2013
White House Down

Nobody, but nobody, blows up the White House like Roland Emmerich. We’ve had two cinematic takeovers of the President’s residence this year, and it’s no comparison: White House Down is by far the better movie than Olympus Has Fallen. This is not to say that it’s a great movie — in true Emmerich style it’s ridiculously brash and unbalanced, but in its enthusiasm it manages to be remarkably effective. It’s a rare film that can build to a climax where I’m acutely aware of how nakedly and unabashedly manipulative it is, and yet I choke up anyway. And if only for this feat of emotional engagement I must hand it to Emmerich: he has put together a solidly entertaining summer blockbuster that works much more than it has any right to.

Most of the action takes place in the famous central building of the White House — which the tour guide helpfully reminds us is the one that got famously blown up in (Emmerich’s) Independence Day — as it is attacked by a paramilitary group seeking to capture the President (Jamie Foxx). As in Olympus Has Fallen, there’s inside help from a Secret Service agent — this time the head of the President’s security (James Woods) — that neutralizes the defenses. Again, there’s an unexpected hero on the inside — John Cale (Channing Tatum), a bodyguard to the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) who aspires to the Secret Service — and a young kid who knows more than expected about the building — Cale’s daughter Emily (Joey King). Again there’s lots of small-arms fire, a helicopter assault driven off by surface-to-air missiles, and of course the nuclear football will come into play.

The biggest step up from Olympus Has Fallen is that the antagonist’s motivations are simple — even simplistic — and more or less clear from the get-go. The team is led by a disgruntled Special Forces commando (Jason Clarke) and filled out with right-wing fundamentalists, white supremacists, and a rogue libertarian hacker (Jimmi Simpson). And it’s all but stated explicitly that they’re backed by defense contractors unhappy about President ObamaSawyer’s peace talks with Iran leading towards a radical draw-down of U.S. military forces.

The movie’s politics are decidedly progressive, though even less sophisticated than those of The Purge, but they’re more center-left than really left-wing; the President notes that boots on the ground are largely for show when military force can be projected via a drone from the deck of an aircraft carrier, and he seems to have no misgivings about doing so. As a clarion call about the military-industrial complex the movie is laughably ham-fisted ad facile, but again this is Roland Emmerich we’re talking about here. Besides, what if a blockbuster like this draws in some people who otherwise wouldn’t ever have thought about the outsize power exerted by the defense sector?

Inside the White House we’ve got John Cale doing his best John McClane, determined to protect both his daughter and the President; Tatum, by the way, is much more suited to this role than Gerard Butler, in part because he seems to be aware of how silly it all is. Outside we’ve got the chaotic bickering between the Vice President (Michael Murphy), an unspecified-but-really-important general (Lance Reddick), and Cale’s college friend who did make it to the Secret Service (Maggie Gyllenhaal), all of which goes on with cable news talking heads, including the inimitable Ben Mankiewicz, in the background.

There’s a lot going on, and I’m sure given time to think it wouldn’t make much sense at all, but Emmerich keeps the pace up and for the most part it hangs together. There are very few moments of active stupidity — three Black Hawk helicopters flying under the Chinatown arch is a notable exception — which is more than I can say for the previous movie on the same premise.

And it all builds towards a final confrontation involving one of the cheapest shots of emotional manipulation I’ve ever seen on any screen, which somehow still resonates even though I know how thin and hollow it is. The action and spectacle are great popcorn fare, yes, but it’s little moments like this that show how well-made dumb blockbusters like White House Down set themselves apart from poorly-made actively stupid blockbusters like Olympus Has Fallen.

Worth It: surprisingly, yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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