White House Down: D.C. Meets Die Hard

Jamie Foxx (as POTUS) and Channing Tatum (as protector) make an engaging pair of First Buddies

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Reiner Bajo / Columbia Pictures

How to categorize White House Down, the new summer offering in which brutes take over the White House and imperil the safety of the free world with high-tech weaponry, computer hacking and good old-fashioned head cracking? It certainly looks (and sounds) like an action movie à la Die Hard—its divorced, blue collar hero, John Cale (a charming Channing Tatum), even has a name that vaguely echoes John McClane’s. Its director is Roland Emmerich, who blew up the White House in Independence Day and is not too modest to reference the 1996 summer blockbuster in his new movie. But what makes White House Down not just tolerable but frivolously entertaining is its slapstick soul; a scene where the presidential limousine does doughnuts on the South Lawn plays like an homage to the Keystone Kops.

This is the second 2013 movie to feature 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue under attack, a President held hostage and a brave and brawny type risking his life to save him. Olympus Has Fallen imagined North Koreans as the occupiers, while White House Down presents the more interesting fetidelementsfrom-within situation. Gerard Butler’s hero in Olympus had been a Secret Service agent in charge of the Presidential detail; Tatum’s Cale, a military vet with two tours in Afghanistan, is a Capitol Hill cop assigned to the Eeyore-like Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) but with aspirations to be part of the force protecting President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx).

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His motivation is patently ridiculous and Disney Channel cute; it seems his pouty 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King from Ramona and Beezus) loves the guy. Emily gets news alerts on her phone whenever POTUS is flying over her Washington neighborhood. (This civics-lesson plot point might lead parents to assume it’s perfectly O.K. to bring their own 11-year-olds to this PG-13 movie. But make no mistake: this is a violent movie.) Meanwhile, thanks to all those tours in Afghanistan, her dad barely gets a grunted “hello” when he comes to get her for the weekend. Most parents desperate to please might download that obnoxious app the kid has been asking for, but Cale goes big (and strange), bringing Emily to his interview at the White House.

He’s quickly and briskly put in his place by a Secret Service hotshot named Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who finds him extremely underqualified for the job. And small world: we learn they once hooked up in college. The first rule of White House Down is, Question nothing. Not whether the Secret Service really conducts its interviews at the White House or your first instincts about the identity of the bad guy (because you’d be right). And definitely not the narratively convenient confluence of coincidence and timing. The terrorists attack just as the Cales are joining a White House tour led by an amusingly officious tour guide named Donnie (Nicolas Wright). Father and daughter are separated, creating one of those cinematic situations where a “big” decision has to be made: Save the child—or save the world?
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The movie doesn’t actually make you think—there are no Bourne Identity complications to keep straight—but it makes you feel as if you had, just a little. Its politics are left-leaning, right down to the set dressing (you catch glimpses of the famous portraits of Jackie Kennedy and JFK but nary a Reagan or a Bush) but extraordinarily simpleminded. Everything gets explained, as if to a sixth-grader. “You’ve heard of the military-industrial complex?” President Sawyer asks Cale when they’re hiding out in an elevator shaft together. When Halliburton comes up, I might have heard a disapproving hiss on the soundtrack.

Sawyer is the big-screen version of Obama, down to the Nicorette habit, professorial bent and his smart, strong First Lady. But he’s an Obama new to office, presented as such an idealistic pacifist (he’s pulled all troops out of the Middle East and believes he can truly broker a peace agreement there) that he even The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet might suggest he’s too much of a dove. The movie isn’t in conflict with Sawyer’s politics, but at the same time, its intent is to get this guy to man up and pick up a rocket launcher. Foxx plays it for pure fun, and he’s just right in the part. He and Tatum have such easy chemistry and are so damn cute that the well-worn conceit of two opposites (here, POTUS and protector) thrown together in a difficult situation hardly seems tired at all.

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The movie’s bad guys are not its strong suit. I perked up when Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke showed up but was disappointed when it turned out he was just the muscle and that the mastermind of the operation was being played by an actor whose name has long been synonymous with villain. (I won’t reveal it here.) But the action sequences are pretty swell (even if some of the D.C. overhead sequences are too blatantly computer-generated). “We’re going to put this bird at 30,000 feet in 45 seconds,” says the Air Force Two pilot attempting to whisk the Vice President (Michael Murphy) to safety, and watching it race up that trajectory, my stomach responded accordingly. Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow and 2012) is obviously an expert in staging disasters, but I question, particularly in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, whether Americans under direct attack—the Capitol building is blown up in an early sequence—would really would crowd into the streets to watch rather than taking cover.

Since the release of Man of Steel, there have been a number of laments in the media about how much destruction is involved in recent movies. It’s not an unreasonable complaint, but the notion that it would take anyone until 2013 to start complaining about this strikes me as more shocking than any property damage. The first Die Hard movie came out in 1988, Independence Day in 1996. It’s definitely gross and probably symptomatic of something twisted in the world’s soul, but we’ve been burning down the cinematic house for decades. At least White House Down, which ends with Donnie the tour guide conceding that it might take a “few weeks” to get the tours back on track, winks at the audience as it does so.

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