Roland Emmerich has been making over-the-top disaster movies for so long, I’d almost forgotten he could direct anything else. Two years ago, Anonymous demonstrated that period pieces and fictional biopics lie a bit outside his range, but White House Down plays closer to his strengths, allowing him to blow up an iconic American monument while underused character actors pace in dark computer rooms, discussing ominous deadlines. More to the point, the constraints inherent to the action thriller genre bring a much need sense of focus to the man’s narrative approach, providing a relatable, linear context for his big budget flights of fancy.
It occurs to me I’ve just described the Die Hard (1988) formula. Indeed, White House Down could easily have served as the next instalment in the blockbuster franchise, what with it starring a sarcastic everyman trying to mend a relationship only for terrorists to come in and force him into action. In this instance, our unlucky protagonist is Cale (Channing Tatum), a former war hero applying to the President’s security detail in order to gain his daughter Emily’s (Joey King) respect. When the White House falls under siege, he finds himself the last line of defense between President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) and a paramilitary strike force with suspiciously intimate knowledge of the place.
In the Die Hard tradition, the villains’ ploy features a major twist in the final act, and each of the major henchmen is given a recognisable personality quirk so that it means something when our hero takes them down. For example, we’ve got the playful hacker (Jimmi Simpson) with his love of candy and classical music, the temperamental second-in-command (Jason Clarke) who starts holding a grudge against Cale, and the inappropriately casual mastermind, whose identity I won’t spoil, even though most of you will have figured it out ten minutes into the movie. Suffice it to say that, in terms of presence, he would have made a worthy successor to Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.
I suspect, though, that Bruce Willis might have requested a couple of rewrites. Tonally, James Vanderbilt’s screenplay strikes me as all over the place, starting off as a shallow knock-off of The West Wing and then oscillating frantically between balls-to-the-walls action thriller and lame slapstick comedy. Some of the dialogue also leaves to be desired, such as when Emily asks about President Sawyer’s peace treaty for the Middle East: “How did you come up with a single fair and mutually beneficial peace treaty for a region encompassing twenty-four separate nations with diverging cultures, religions, and interests?” The line gets a huge laugh, but I’ve grown weary of writers cheekily pointing out the inconsistencies in their work instead of fixing them.
With lines that reflect such an empty, jingoistic take on world politics, is it any wonder that Jamie Foxx struggles with his character throughout White House Down, conveying the surface of a dignified intellectual but lacking that unique cadence proper to every American politician. It doesn’t help that Cale keeps treating President Sawyer like just another buddy cop, barking orders and cracking wise. I understand that’s the joke. However, because Foxx never establishes himself as a believable presidential figure, the whole thing falls kind of flat.
The biggest distraction, though, pertains to the preposterous ease with which the baddies take over the White House. An action thriller like White House Down is only as good as its villains’ scheme, and here the plan relies too heavily on the U.S. Secret Service having the worst security protocols on the planet. Surely, the armory ought to have better protection than two rent-a-cops picking their nose while the alarm is sounding. Surely, the West Wing ought to have cameras in every hall so that Emily doesn’t have to film the terrorists with her cell phone and post it on YouTube. Surely, the army ought to have surrounded the place immediately instead of waiting behind the fence with only one tank. This is where the President lives, for heaven’s sake!
Such uncanny levels of inanity taint every dramatic beat, turning even the most creative set pieces into unintentional farce. It’s too bad because Emmerich knows how to frame an action sequence and keep it exciting. Besides, White House Down proves no dumber than any of the Die Hard sequels. I guess it comes down to the facts that Cale can never replace John McClane, that Channing Tatum doesn’t have Bruce Willis’ charisma, and that, “No Disneyland for you, you little bitch!” is a poor substitute for, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”