Roland Emmerich is not a subtle film director.
That’s not necessarily a criticism – more an observation. For a man obsessed with grandiose catastrophic scenarios and earnest protagonists fighting for selfless causes, Emmerich is someone who wants his movies to share the same virtues.
In some ways, that makes him perfect for a film like White House Down, especially in a year that earlier on had another movie depicting the silly scenario of the most secure building in the country getting taken over by bad guys with their efforts thwarted by one awesome guy.
If you’ll recall my review of Olympus Has Fallen, I liked the film but was probably a little too kind to it given my predisposition for this kind of material. What can I say? I’m the biggest 24 fan/junkie ever.
White House Down is definitely a better film than Olympus even if it’s not THAT much better. It’s funnier and bears fewer rip-offs from Die Hard than its fraternal twin. It’s action is big, varied, and all around fun.
Olympus Has Fallen was a White House attack built around a group of butthurt North Koreans that were looking for payback on the entire United States because their country blows and we don’t. White House Down, conversely is about a White House attack built around a group of various interests all interested in undermining the President’s lofty peace agenda.
Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a divorced ex-military middle class Capitol Police officer and personal bodyguard to the Speaker of the House. It’s needlessly implied that he got that job because he saved the Speaker’s son in combat in Afghanistan. I guess the film wanted to downplay how awesome Tatum is so he could surprise us later (didn’t work). He’s divorced from his wife and has a daughter who hates his guts and calls him “John”. Emily Kale, played by Joey King (the voice of China Girl in the excellent Oz The Great And Powerful) is obsessed with American history and politics. She’s basically the all-American 11-year old girl.
Jamie Foxx plays President James Sawyer. He’s either how Hollywood views Obama or he’s Hollywood’s vision of what Obama should be. He’s a humble and sober leader of the free world with an eye to the sky and who looks like the hero of his own story. He’s made mistakes but he sincerely wants to make peace with the Middle East and with a newly elected sovereign in the Republic of Iran (a la Mikhail Gorbachev), he finally stands a chance of doing just that. So he’s making good on his vows to pull the troops out of the Middle East, make amends with a nation that we’ve had a complicated history with, and start anew. But the core of the American military industrial complex has interests to protect that they must perpetuate the endless cycles of violence in the region to continue profiting. Sawyer wants to end that, and he stakes his re-election on doing just that. At one point, he’s asked if he wants to make history. He responds by saying, “I want to make a difference.”
The bad guys are a bit of a hapless assembly of degenerate right-wing racists, ex commandos hell bent on revenge because…actually the movie doesn’t really care that much about that, which is a little problematic, money grubbing mercenaries, a hacker with an ostensible personality who…actually the film doesn’t really care about him either, and various scheming corporate and political interests in the background that not only stand to directly benefit from the President’s submission and death, but may or may not also be directly behind it.
Roland Emmerich would do well to remember that the best villain he ever put in a film (Jason Issacs as Colonel William Tavington in The Patriot) was someone who was just so incredibly loathsome and detestable the film was all about the main character inevitably getting revenge on him. And it shouldn’t be that difficult to re-create a character in his spirit when you make a movie about the f**king WHITE HOUSE getting attacked. That’s the thing about Americans – we’re an incredibly patriotic people, even if we don’t always act that way. We rally around our leaders and our pride as a people when something terrible happens to our national figure, no matter who he is. The only reason the country didn’t freak out too much when George W. Bush had a shoe thrown at him in Iraq was because the man ducked. That said, I’m not going to bash the bad guys too much because they’re held together by the excellent performances of James Woods and Jason Clarke as the spear tips. Sure, there are more than a few handfuls of scenes where the bad guys look utterly lost and bewildered, but Clarke is one of those actors who’s in his early 40s despite having not been in very many American films and it seems as if his career can only go upward from here.
I can at least appreciate the effort to give color to the bad guys, and I’ll even say that tying many of their motives to standing affront the President’s agenda was a good idea. The reason is because it gives the film its own identity.
Ultimately, that’s what sets it apart from Olympus Has Fallen. This movie is more politically charged, painting what amounts to the biggest Hollywood leftist wet dream since Green Zone. The plot, barely serviceable as it may be, does succeed in making the film more about something. In some ways what we’re left with is a more extreme version of the other movie. And well…I like that. It even goes as far as to answer questions that everyone knows better than to ask but we’re silently all wondering. The President is obviously a Democrat. The Speaker of the House is obviously a Republican. Channing Tatum’s character didn’t vote for the President…something he tells him.
White House Down is pretty ridiculous all around but unlike other disaster porn out there, Roland Emmerich seems to be a little in on the joke. He even gives a shout out to Independence Day. Perhaps its lack of subtlety is what depreciates the substantiality of what Emmerich was going for, and the second act is a little muddled, with its brighter moments being the scenes that we get to see Channing Tatum bond with the President. Not all of it works, but the film is honest enough to build its own sand castle and then proudly own up to it. There’s fun to be had if you’re into this kind of thing.
The Good: The acting, the action, and the willingness to politically charge the film so to make it different enough to not feel like as big of a Die Hard or 24 ripoff.
The Bad: The film isn’t particularly subtle or as smart as it wants to be. It seems more like a movie that wants to say something rather than a movie that has something to say.
The Ugly: The non-Jason Clarke and non-James Woods bad guys are a little hard to take seriously.