In Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, there’s no adorable canine to miraculously emerge from the rubble once the dust settles, but there’s a puppy-doggish tour guide (Nicolas Wright) who, while walking visitors through the sacred residence of which he’s an encyclopedic fanboy, turns and says, “Now here’s the room that got blown up in Independence Day.” That’s right: Just when you thought Emmerich had jumped the shark years ago, the auteur of high body counts whips out a big, swinging nod to his own work, coming full circle at the home base of his perversely destructive desires.
Yet, whoever thinks Emmerich has suddenly become a fully self-aware killing machine is giving the director way too much credit. In this preposterously plotted, insanely frantic actioner, the meta reference to Emmerich’s mega-hit is one of scant few components to intentionally elicit laughs. Exactly what White House Down aims to say about things like foreign policy and the current administration is a ping-ponging muddle. But it seems to unwittingly make a joke out of just about everything, from its hilarious depiction of newscasters (is that reporter turned broadcast film critic Ben Mankiewicz?) to the casting of Jason Clarke, who goes from torturing prisoners of war in Zero Dark Thirty to invading the White House as a traitorous pseudo-expat. In one doozy of a scene, Secret Service head Martin Walker (James Woods) asks his workaholic agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) how she’s still awake. “Caffeine and patriotism, sir,” Carol replies with a straight face. One might be tempted to quip that the same things fuel White House Down, but crystal meth and shamelessness would likely be more appropriate.
If Emmerich indeed considers himself a patriot, as films like The Patriot would suggest, he certainly has an odd way of showing it. From White House Down’s first scene, which illustrates young Emily Cale’s (Joey King) presidential obsessions via political Google alerts and a nightstand full of White House snow globes, the director makes love of country into a thing of unabashed hokum, which bleeds through every nook of this overstuffed jumble and leaves no character untouched. After landing in a helicopter on the White House lawn with President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), a spouter of fluff who carries Lincoln’s pocket watch as part of a banal fixation, agent Hope (Jake Weber) says to Carol, “Do we have the best job in the world or what?” setting a smiley, soon-to-be-shattered tone evoking Lynchian horror.
The president’s big announcement at the start of the film is that he’s made a deal with the Iranian president and is proceeding to withdraw all troops from the Middle East, a move that comes with a boatload of stunningly puerile speeches, and sparks the ire of right-wingers and big corporations invested in the business of war. To say that White House Down, written by James Vanderbilt, has a layman’s grasp of politics would be putting it quite kindly. Regarding the goings-on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, consider it CliffsNotes for Dummies. It’s uncertain if the film even has a firm opinion of our sitting president, for with Sawyer’s reductive preachings about a stereotypical black upbringing, and actions to end a “limitless war on terror” that plainly contradict current events, the movie is both a simplistic Obama insult and an aspirational Obama fantasy (and if you don’t think it’s channeling our real-life president, look no further than the Easter egg of Nicorette gum, which Sawyer keeps in his own nightstand).
The movie’s MVP is Channing Tatum, a supremely capable and convincing action hero who, fear not, indeed strips down to a wife-beater eventually. Tatum is John Cale, a good ol’ boy and Capitol cop who’s too reckless to be accepted into the Secret Service, but who works closely with the speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). While granting daughter Emily a tour through the White House, at which point the girl gets all data-head-y a la Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire, John Cale pulls a John McClane, becoming the only non-hostage amid a paramilitary assault, and conveniently having the skills to fight back (he’s ex-military too). Say what you will about Olympus Has Fallen, but at least that film wore its jingoism on its sleeve, and merely paid homage to Die Hard. Too dumb to take a stand or make a tribute, the self-serious White House Down can only photocopy John McTiernan’s classic, going so far as to have a protagonist lose a shoe, and feature a terrorist hacker (Jimmi Simpson) who’s horny for cracking nuclear missile codes.
Essentially, there isn’t an action-movie trope or extravagance to which Emmerich says no. And while certain sequences, like a jaw-droppingly gonzo car chase around the White House grounds, are well worth the eventual YouTube search, most elements comprise a strata of ridiculousness, like the ever-mounting motives of an immediately unmasked villain. Emmerich may have wanted to make a hoo-ra, mega-budget slice of American heroism, replete with literal flag-waving, but the result tells a different story. With my theater loaded with laughter, and with Tatum and Foxx running around like Gibson and Glover, or Nolte and Murphy, I’d say the director’s actually made the funniest biracial buddy-cop film in years.