It’s Die Hard in the Oval Office again as another example of working class heroism (this time, in the guise of hot property Channing Tatum) helps an otherwise powerful figure (Jamie Foxx, as the slightly loopy Leader of the Free World) face off against an inexplicable threat in White House Down, Roland Emmerich’s “Oops, too late” take on Washington D.C. under siege. Arriving a mere three months after Gerard Butler did the same for Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen, our story centers on an African American President (Foxx) who has just announced a weird Middle East Peace Plan — basically, the U.S. abandons the region to its own devices — and is dealing with the political fallout from same.
Enter John Cale (Tatum), a member of the security team for Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) who desperately wants to work for the Secret Service. Sadly, his record does not impress Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is in charge of recruitment. She thinks John is a good guy, but that’s about it. Hoping to impress his White House-obsessed daughter (Joey King), our hero scores a couple of passes for the tour. In the middle of the visit, a group of insurgents blow up the Capitol and seize 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Led by a member of a radical paramilitary group (Jason Clarke) and with the help of an unlikely ally (James Woods) with an axe to grind, John must rescue President Sawyer before a series of nukes start up World War III.
In the standard classroom game of compare and contrast, White House Down can’t trump Olympus Has Fallen. Both are goofy, loud, overlong, riddled with plot holes, and permeated with a kind of careless disregard for the nonsensical kneejerk patriotism they inspire. Each one offers engaging performances, ridiculous rationales for the decisions made, and the kind of forced finale which will have the great unwashed up on their feet and cheering. But whereas Olympus understood that it was Grade-Z schlock cheese and ran with it, White House thinks it’s a serious thriller with some minor comic moments. Sure, it has a tour guide whose job seems to be to crack wise whenever someone disses “the People’s Palace,” but for the most part, we are supposed to hear the wounded cries and desperate actions of those affected by Sawyer’s plans (and race) and grit our teeth, hoping for payback.
For the most part, Emmerich delivers. Not on the level of 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow and certainly not on the scale of Independence Day, but when you consider what he has to work with, the action scenes spark some interest. What doesn’t work are the long, lugubrious sequences where Tatum tries to prove that he is merely misunderstood, that he really is a good dad, and that he has the right stuff to protect the President and his office. These dialogue-heavy asides, meant to add character, only distract from the reason we’re really watching — that is, to see stuff blow up and bad guys get shot. A thriller is crafted for just that, to thrill, and when it wants to, White House Down does. More often than not, however, it has other, less entertaining things on its mind.
Because of its herky-jerky movie methodology, because it can’t decided if it has something reasonable to say about the state of politics and our country’s current “us vs. them” suspicions, White House Down is a disappointment. Coming from the king of contemporary disaster cinema, this should have been a lot more fun. In fact, three months ago we saw what a sillier, sloppier version of this idea could be. By trying to add meaning, Emmerich and crew just made a mess.
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