The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
White House Down

Reviewed by Greg Frame.

Director Roland Emmerich
Length 137 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article It seems White House invasion movies are like buses. You wait ages for one, and then two turn up (almost) at once. Like this year’s earlier Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down concerns a terrorist invasion of the White House, the (attempted) capture of the president James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), and his protection and rescue by a muscle-bound wannabe Secret Service Agent John Cale (Channing Tatum). What precipitates this attack, if you’re interested, is President Sawyer’s promise to withdraw all U.S. forces from the Middle East, which upsets the corporate interests who profit directly from the American imperial war machine. Like Roland Emmerich’s other films, notably Independence Day (1996) and 2012 (2009), the source of the problem at hand is irrelevant to your enjoyment of the film, but very, very important to an understanding of the film’s politics. I’ll save the latter for the Alternate Take, and explore some of the pleasures the film offers.

White House Down was a box office flop when it was released in the U.S. in June. This was celebrated by many on the right-wing of American politics as a victory over it supposedly “liberal propaganda,” arguing that its financial failure demonstrated the American people had little interest in a film in which a liberal black president attempts to work for peace in the Middle East (a fanciful notion given recent events) while thwarting aggressive, conservative forces at home (we can dream). I think its failure can more easily be explained by how closely it followed the similarly-themed Olympus Has Fallen. Much the superior film, White House Down simply failed to differentiate itself successfully. So I’ll attempt to do that here.

White House Down has a sense of humour. Where Olympus Has Fallen was po-faced, unctuously sentimental, and somewhat joyless, Emmerich handles this slice of spectacular absurdity with a constant wry smile. Much of this revolves around the easy chemistry between Tatum and Foxx - where Olympus Has Fallen was a rescue mission like Die Hard (1988), White House Down has far more in common with Lethal Weapon (1987). Tatum and Foxx trade one-liners and witty observations in amongst the flying bullets and explosions, and there are some neat jokes about presidential footwear and nicotine addiction (clear references to Obama’s penchant for Air Jordans and Marlboro Reds). Emmerich also includes some wonderfully daft action sequences including a car chase around the White House’s back lawn, and good laughs at the expense of the president trying to master a rocket launcher.

The other performers support Foxx and Tatum ably, particularly a haggard James Woods as chief bad guy Martin Walker. Woods has the acting chops to consume vast quantities of scenery, and he does so with relish. And what scenery! Although Olympus Has Fallen has the better of White House Down in the action set-piece stakes, there is something extraordinary about watching such a lovingly-assembled replica of America’s most famous residence being systematically dismantled by a variety of sophisticated weaponry. Coupled with joyous helicopter rides past the Lincoln Memorial that bookend the movie, and soaring shots over Washington D.C., Emmerich clearly knows his monuments, he loves them, and he knows how to destroy them very well indeed.

Emmerich may never quite scale the heights of Independence Day again, but this belongs very much alongside 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) as one of his better efforts. For me, White House Down joins Pacific Rim as the purest, most unadulterated entertainment released this summer. While Emmerich’s politics continue to fascinate, for now I will simply revel in watching him blow shit up.

This review was published on September 21, 2013.

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