Mark Reviews Movies

White House Down


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)

Running Time: 2:11

Release Date: 6/28/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 26, 2013

First and foremost, White House Down is a comedy. It's unclear if the film realizes the extent of its own comedic accomplishment, but it is fair and safe to say that screenwriter James Vanderbilt and director Roland Emmerich are at least partially aware they're working for laughs. Honestly, there's no reason to even consider taking seriously a film that contains the working head of the Secret Service's Presidential security detail asking the man currently serving as President of the United States the following question: "Your first order as President is to bomb the White House?"

If one needs further proof, the Commander in Chief on the receiving end of that question is the third man to hold the title over the course of the plot, and the actual head of Presidential security is busy at the time, given that he's holed up in the Oval Office coordinating a group of mercenaries in the White House to find the actual President in order to hold him for ransom—namely the hundreds of millions of dollars in the Federal Reserve. Of course, that's not his actual plan, but if you've seen any movie in which the villain asks for a specific thing, you already know that's not what he's really trying to obtain.

By the way, the idea to bomb the White House isn't even the endgame of the film's suggested destruction. This is a film that keeps upping its stakes until we begin to wonder if someone is going to say that it's likely the moon will be destroyed, too, if the terrorists get their way. There are limits, of course, but the limit of the threats in White House Down really only ends with the complete destruction of civilization as we know it in World War III.

Obviously, the film cannot fulfill that promise, but there are many other promises—made in acts of foreshadowing so subtle that we have to actively think back to this or that seemingly random reference—that Vanderbilt's screenplay keeps. For all the excessive chaos, it might be easy to overlook how logical said pandemonium is in terms of the screenplay. There's a distinct method to this madness, and it cannot be emphasized enough that the film is—in its own genre-satisfying and expectation-twisting way—an act of madness.

After a (perhaps too) long amount of exposition in which we meet the assortment of characters who will eventually fit snugly into the demands of the plot, there's a massive explosion in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. Meanwhile, a bunch of home-grown terrorists led by Emil Stentz (Jason Clarke), who have slipped into one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the world disguised as technicians working on the mansion's movie theater, take over the White House.

John Cale (Channing Tatum), a member of the Capitol Police, happens to be there with his precocious daughter Emily (Joey King) for a job interview for the Secret Service and a tour of the building. Father and daughter are separated, and he barely escapes being taken hostage in order to find her. Along the way, he saves President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), an academic who wants to remove all troops from the Middle East and chomps on nicotine gum (Does any of this sound familiar?), from Martin Walker (James Woods), the turncoat Secret Service agent in charge of the President's security (We get the generic scene where the powers that be try to use a family member to talk him out of his plan; the results are far from generic).

Cale is the type of guy who possesses raw talent but cannot quite live up to his potential and who has a problem with authority. We know this because the screenplay tells us quite directly (and in many of the same words) during a job interview with Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who winds up trying to stop the takeover from the Pentagon. The clichéd nature of those descriptors gives us a solid hint that this entire affair is going to be a tongue-in-cheek one.

What we get is a sneaking, diving (often in slow motion, natch), and climbing tour of the White House as Cale—carrying a tour map, no less—makes his way through every major room, office, and super-secret nook and cranny, from the Lincoln Bedroom to Emergency Operations Center—from the pool to the secret tunnels John F. Kennedy used to sneak in Marilyn Monroe (Kirk M. Petruccelli's production design is entirely convincing). There's also a ride-along on the South Lawn in the President's armored, missile-resistant limousine, which, of course, must be tested for its resilience (The podium in the Press Briefing Room is apparently made of the same material). Cale and Sawyer banter back and forth in the same way the story implements the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution—like it's going out of style.

The villains are only slightly less incompetent than the instruments of government that are left behind (The film really becomes a comedy of errors as it progresses). Both are far more effective than the news media, which gives blow-by-blow analysis of everything happening to the point that they put Cale's daughter in jeopardy. Emily is put in major peril three times, including during the climax in which she must be willing to die for the greater good, and it's the most distasteful element of the film, which gets away with a lot of other questionable material (e.g., the entire premise and one of the best bad Lincoln assassination jokes one will ever hear) through humor.

Everything is ratcheted up to the extreme, and as evidence, there's the over-the-top way in which the story finds a way for the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) to become acting President. Without giving away the gag, it involves NORAD's missile defense system. This would be the major threat in a movie with less insane ambitions; here, it's just a throwaway plot point.

It becomes more than a bit tedious to see a string of genre movies that want to be as ridiculous as they can be and still be taken seriously. White House Down will have none of it. Here's a film that is gloriously ludicrous without any phony posturing and doesn't care one bit if we see it for what it is. Bless it for that.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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