Roland Emmerich has destroyed Washington, DC more times than anyone. He’s done it via death ray (Independence Day), ice age (The Day After Tomorrow) and flood (2012). With his new movie, White House Down, he underachieves, in that he only destroys parts of the city this time out.
Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a former marine who’s now a Capitol policeman working security for the Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Raphelson helped him get the job as thanks for saving his son while in combat in Afghanistan. Cale dreams, though, of becoming a Secret Service agent. He’s a divorced father whose daughter Emily (Joey King) is a political junkie and supporter of President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). When Cale gets an interview with the Service, he calls in a favor to get his daughter a pass so she can accompany him.
The interview, conducted by the assistant head of the White House security team, Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), doesn’t go well. Finnerty was Cale’s college girlfriend and remembers how he was then. Cale tries to convince her that he’s changed, that he’s become more responsible and serious, but his record derails his quest for the job. Finnerty has just returned from an overseas trip with the president, so the head of the detail, Martin Walker (James Woods) orders her to take the rest of the day off. Walker has been in charge of the protection detail for decades, but is retiring in a few days.
While they’re leaving the White House, Emily spots a tour starting, and prevails on Cale to let them join it. At the same time, a man dressed as a janitor rolls a cleaning cart to the center of the floor beneath the Capitol rotunda and then runs away, escaping the massive explosion that happens moments later. In the White House, a group of repairmen supposedly upgrading the home theater system reveal themselves as mercenaries under the leadership of Stenz (Jason Clarke). They take out most of the Secret Service agents in the building and access the Service’s armory, then use snipers on the roof to shoot the agents on the grounds and cover the entrance of the rest of their team. Emily gets separated from Cale, who’s taken hostage by the mercenaries along with the rest of the tour group. Cale manages to escape and comes looking for Emily, but instead he saves President Sawyer from a traitor in the Secret Service. Cale has to keep Sawyer out of the mercenairies’ hands and somehow save Emily, as well as figure out the reason for the attack.
This is, of course, the second similarly themed movie to be released this year, after Gerard Butler’s Olympus Has Fallen a few months back. I’d enjoyed that movie, which had a fairly serious tone. White House Down won me over, though, through its humor and its completely over-the-top plot that keeps the action coming hard and fast throughout. It does owe a lot to the granddaddy of all locked building hostage dramas, Die Hard – it even has a wry computer hacker as part of the mercenary team – but they say mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery. They flatter Die Hard a lot.
Tatum does well in the role of Cale, especially handling the physical aspects of the role. Emmerich does find a way to get him down to his t-shirt, another bit of flattery for Die Hard and a treat for the ladies. There are nods at Obama in Foxx’s portrayal of Sawyer, down to chewing nicotine gum to keep from smoking, and he and Tatum play off each other well. Gyllenhaal has a more cerebral role, but she’s an actress who can communicate that even without saying a word. Her battles are with words and against men in the Pentegon Situation Room.
Movies like this are a race where the director is trying to outrun the audience’s sense of reality. If he can keep both the action and humor coming at the audience rapidly enough, they will ignore reality, and the director wins. That’s the case with White House Down: as you walk out of the theater you know it was completely unreal and over the top, but for the 131 minutes you were sitting in your seat, you didn’t care.