The audacity of dope: ‘White House Down’ a goofy, fun ‘Die Hard’ rip-off

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White House Down

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Written by James Vanderbilt

USA, 2013

Subtlety is a skill Roland Emmerich has not mastered. Subtlety is not, nor ever will be, in his repertoire; it is likely as alien a concept to him as opposable thumbs are to all non-human creatures. Most of the time, his thudding portentousness doesn’t serve him well as a director, with previous misfires like The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and 2012 lining his filmography, movies that are big and loud enough to make money despite being massively, unpleasantly stupid. So it’s a nice surprise that his newest picture, White House Down, is unsubtle, wildly preposterous, but fun. White House Down, honestly, may be the silliest movie Roland Emmerich has directed, and this is a man who’s directed movies about aliens, nuclear monsters, and the Mayan apocalypse.

The easy way to summarize the plot of White House Down is to quote what must have been the script’s logline: Die Hard in the White House. There’s more detail, of course, but down to the choice of classical music (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the 1988 film, Beethoven’s Fifth Sympthony here) at key moments, James Vanderbilt’s script cries out to be sued for copyright infringement by 20th Century Fox. Instead of a wisecracking lone-wolf NYC cop, we’ve got a wisecracking lone-wolf would-be Secret Service agent (Channing Tatum) who takes his politics-obsessed daughter on a tour of the White House the same day he has an unsuccessful job interview to be on the President’s detail. It’s also the same day a group of domestic terrorists led by Jason Clarke take the White House hostage, all except the Commander-in-Chief (Jamie Foxx, calling to mind President Obama, nearly emulating his halting speech patterns). So it’s up to our sweaty, desperate, yet heroic lead to protect the President even as the terrorists reveal their inside connections and try to start a third World War.

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The stakes may be higher, but it would be very easy to rewrite this script ever so slightly and change the lead character’s name from John Cale to John McClane, with the audience being none the wiser. The most dramatic difference between White House Down and the first Die Hard movie is simple: the latter never feels aggressively, laughably silly. Die Hard may not be the product of a group of Rhodes scholars, but even 25 years after its release, it’s witty, clever, and tense. What White House Down does, to its advantage, is allow the audience in the joke. “Yes, it’s silly. We know it is. You know it is. Feel free to chuckle,” Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt might as well be intoning to us during the quieter moments.

Where Emmerich steps wrong is in, every so often, amping up the melodrama to an uncomfortable degree. Because this story is about, in effect, an attempted terrorist takeover of the White House, even a heavily digitized image of a presidential airplane being blown out of the sky or of the Capitol building sinking under the weight of explosives are less intensely cathartic as they may have been in Independence Day, and more unsettling and off-putting. Contrast these moments with the one where Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum essentially do a wheelie on the South Lawn of the White House and fire rocket launchers at some nameless bad guys, and the cognitive dissonance is evident.

But still. Thanks almost entirely to its cast, White House Down manages to not get too bogged down in self-seriousness. Tatum, who co-produced, continues to riff on his good looks, getting to be as loose as he was in 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike last year. Foxx, as a peacenik President, is laid-back even when he’s being fired upon by domestic-terrorist baddies, even cooler and calmer than he was as the lead in Django Unchained. The moments—too few and far between—when Tatum and Foxx get to bounce off each other are the film’s strongest, Tatum stammering through sentences and Foxx smooth and low-key. Among the supporting cast, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a dedicated Secret Service agent, James Woods as her gruff boss, and Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the House are all bright spots, especially Woods at his Woodsiest. Visually, though, Emmerich has stepped too far from the effects in Independence Day. It’s clear that greenscreen was employed in a ton of this film’s outdoor scenes, especially those with the White House as a backdrop, and it’s never not distracting and cheap-looking.

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White House Down may yet be the silliest movie of this summer, and amazingly, it’s also entertaining. This is not exactly a leave-your-brain-at-the-door affair, in that the filmmakers and actors are too smart to not know just how goofy this movie is. Channing Tatum, in his quest to become America’s next favorite leading man, has hung his star on another breezy picture; of course, that a movie about the White House under siege is breezy may seem impossible. And yet, that’s what White House Down is: insane, gleefully dumb, action-packed, bloated, and weirdly likable. The film may not hide its political affiliations, seeing as the good-guy President is a cartoonish version of Barack Obama, but it’s winning all the same. In effect, the charm of this movie is simple: it’s the audacity of dope.

— Josh Spiegel




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