Blockbuster extraordinaire Roland Emmerich was last seen provoking yawns with his monotonous Shakespeare drama Anonymous in 2011, and received zero box office interest in return. Looking to get back to his old tricks, 2013’s White House Down is a grand, big-budget offering of explosions and general spectacle, with the screenplay by James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) giving the director ample space to perpetrate scene after scene of wanton destruction, accompanied with a side order of American patriotism. White House Down is actually the second 2013 action movie to abide by the “Die Hard in the White House” premise, after the deliriously enjoyable Olympus Has Fallen. While the earlier flick was a dark, adult R-rated thriller, Emmerich’s take on the set-up yields a safe, generic PG-13 extravaganza, which is admittedly fun but flawed in ways that are difficult to ignore. Overblown, preposterous and often cloying, it elicits eye rolls and unwanted laughs, even if the production values make this a relatively passable sit.
A former soldier stuck in a middling job, John Cale (Channing Tatum) lands himself an interview for a Secret Service position. Also struggling to patch up the broken relationship he shares with his daughter Emily (Joey King), John takes his little girl with him to the interview, as she’s interested in politics and cherishes the chance to visit the White House. Though John is shut down at the interview, he is soon given the opportunity to prove his worth. Following an explosion in the Capitol building, a team of domestic terrorists work from the inside to take over the White House and kidnap the President, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Separated from Emily, John works to find his daughter, but soon winds up protecting the President, teaming up with Sawyer to navigate the building and disrupt the terrorists’ plan.
White House Down runs a completely unnecessary 130 minutes, as Vanderbilt overcomplicates the narrative to unnecessary extremes, in the process disrupting the pace and lessening the sense of fun. Most egregious is the added B-story concerning the Vice President (Michael Murphy) high in the air on-board Air Force One, and the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) who takes refuge in a bunker. Such material is treated as decorative in pictures like Olympus Has Fallen and Air Force One, but the subplot here is actually integrated into the terrorism scenario, adding another ten minutes to the already much too long runtime. Moreover, the film disregards logic and realism; Vanderbilt demonstrates minimal knowledge regarding how civilians, the American government or the Secret Service would handle such a crisis situation, and the White House takeover is so easy that it will induce groans. Plus, at one stage John warns the military about the dangers of an air rescue due to the terrorists’ equipment, but the suits in charge decide to discount his eyewitness testimony for no good reason. This is a Roland Emmerich movie after all, hence it’s a shallow popcorn actioner built on contrivances. White House Down is corny, as well; the material that involves John’s daughter (who hates her father, but winds up bonding with him through the experience) is obvious and trite, while a moment involving flag waving during the climax is ridiculous.
On the surface, White House Down is at least serviceable enough. Emmerich directs films with the same level of intelligence as a Michael Bay production, but displays a better cinematic eye. Rather than using shaky-cam, Emmerich relies on steady, tripod-heavy set-pieces, making for smooth viewing and allowing us to bask in the picture’s destructive glory without suffering a migraine. The $150 million budget was put to good use here, resulting in an attractive motion picture with impressive special effects (though some of the CGI is occasionally obvious). Emmerich raises the pulse at times, too, especially during an entertaining set-piece spotlighting a prolonged chase on the White House lawn. However, as with most American action films, it would seem that the firearm accuracy of a henchman depends on how important their target is: no-name agents are gunned down effortlessly, but John can never be hit, despite the thousands of bullets that are fired in his direction. There’s also a huge contrivance towards the end involving the accuracy of a bullet that’s destined to provoke derisive chortles.
As to be expected on account of its mammoth budget, White House Down is a PG-13 blockbuster, and the watering-down to achieve this docile rating is some of the most awkward and distracting in recent memory. Olympus Has Fallen never baulked from graphic violence, but White House Down‘s refusal to show any blood makes for astonishing incoherence, with strange cutaways and awkward framing to avoid capturing viscera. PG-13 films can work, but Emmerich’s film contains R-rated content that’s executed with a PG-13 sensibility. It’s distracting.
In terms of acting, there isn’t a great deal to criticise; the performers are serviceable without being overly brilliant. Tatum is a fairly flat action hero, but he does make good use of the light, comedic side of his screen persona that we saw in 21 Jump Street. Nevertheless, Tatum is not memorable enough for these types of roles; Gerard Butler was much more successful. As President Sawyer, Foxx acquits himself agreeably, creating a charismatic leader reminiscent of Barack Obama. There are a few other big names in the cast here, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and James Woods, but their work just okay, with the script clearly below their abilities. Jimmi Simpson looks to be having a good time as one of the bad guys though, and Jason Clarke is a fun antagonist.
White House Down sticks by the formula that worked for Roland Emmerich in the 1990s, when he basically invented the dumb popcorn blockbuster. It’s very simple and dumbed-down, produced to play for the widest demographic possible, and it’s in need of a tauter screenplay. After all, it’s not like the movie is worried about careful character development, and it lacks the class and sophistication of Die Hard. Action junkies may be pleased by White House Down, but it’s hard to imagine serious cinema-goers finding much of value here.