I was no great fan of Olympus Has Fallen, a movie that I lamented “turns Americans in uniform into unwilling human fireworks.” So why was it that I sat through the almost identically-plotted White House Down with a goofy grin on my face?
The difference between the two is like the wide gap between the deliberately junky Armageddon and the straight-faced Deep Impact, the campy Volcano and the dour Dante’s Peak. White House Down is a movie that knows it’s ridiculous, and embraces it. It makes fun of itself at every turn, and offers giddy, effervescent action movie thrills instead of feigned, grim faux-serious gravitas. Most movies during summer check their brains as a matter of obligation, but White House Down is one of the only recent entertainments that seems to be fessing up to it.
Admission of guilt is not the same as absolution, and only a few moments actually suggest a deliberate effort to shuffle the movie’s ridiculous scenario into the realm of Paul Verhoeven-esque satire. But the movie still wins on points.
Making no attempt at all to appear stentorian, Jamie Foxx stars as U.S. President James Sawyer, who’s fond of sneakers and bringing, for once and for all, peace to the Middle East. Channing Tatum is John Cale, a slumming police officer trying to parlay his only connection with the Secret Service — supervising agent Carol Finnery (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — into a job that will impress his estranged daughter Emily, a pint-sized patriot who comes on like Little Orphan Annie running a political vlog.
As John and Emily tour the White House, the U.S. Capitol blows up. It just blows right up.
Everything in White House Down happens just as bluntly from then on out, as terrorists of the domestic division (which is another crucial way in which this movie differentiates from the North Korea-baiting Olympus) invade the title locale and attempt to take the president into custody. The motely band of nationalists, arms dealers, superstar hackers, disgruntled ex-soldiers and garden-variety racists are all acting on behalf of a nefarious double-crossing federal servant, the identity of whom will hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the concept of typecasting. Let me break it down for you. Taut, clean-cut young man wearing A-shirt while toting large firearms? Noble. Old man who fondles the American flag pin on his suit lapel? Suspicious.
Director Roland Emmerich, who notably tore apart 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before in Independence Day and 2012, has always had an insalubrious appetite for destroying Time-Life’s America. But the ridiculousness of his obsessions seems to have finally caught up with him. The film’s gliding images all feel dual-edged, both hagiographic and corrupt, no more so than when young Emily’s talent show act of “flag-waving” is revisited at the movie’s cheerfully ludicrous high point. Well, that moment and the turf-tearing chase between presidential limousines around the South Lawn water fountain that ends when the Chief Executive lighting up a rocket launcher.
With its release falling right at the nexus of Twin Cities Pride and the Fourth of July, the best way I can think of to sum up White House Down‘s bizarrely charming meta-mayhem is to call it the drag version of that speech Bill Pullman gives at the climax of Independence Day. It takes the same basic message, but blows it so far over the top that it leaves the sentiment tattered in the wind.
I’m tired enough of overlong comedies to make my review of the new Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy comedy The Heat short: The Heat is too long.