Director Roland Emmerich has essentially dedicated his career to tongue-in-cheek disaster epics from Independence Day to 2012. Big budgets played for big explosions and big laughs. Most of the time it works as far as base-level entertainment is concerned, but there’s no denying the false emotions his films evoke. Where they succeed is in their level of self-awareness. It’s a way of making a dumb movie and saying, “Yeah, we know it’s dumb. That’s the point!” His new film, White House Down, walks the same path, but where the majority of Emmerich’s films play to the side of dumb, this one delves straight into stupid and, even worse, boring.
John Cale (Channing Tatum) is a Capitol Policeman with an 11-year-old daughter, Emily (Joey King), who’s obsessed with politics and current President of the United States, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Cale’s dream is to become a member of the Secret Service, but his credentials don’t exactly place him high on the list. Yet, a friend has secured him an interview. He takes his daughter on a trip to tour the White House and impress her with what might be his next job, protecting the man she so adores.
Of course, John doesn’t get the job, but their subsequent tour of the White House is about to get cut short when a group of domestic terrorists begin blowing things up and shooting people. It would seem John’s interview isn’t quite over as he eventually finds himself protecting the President while also trying to find and protect his daughter who went for an ill-timed bathroom break.
As with the majority of films like this, situations involving being at the wrong place at the wrong time guide the plot and White House Down relies tremendously on the “Who is pulling the strings and why?” question. Every step of the way, any moment played for dramatic and/or comedic effect simply lands much softer than it should. You can almost read on the actors’ faces, This is funny, you should laugh now. And any plot reveal may as well be accompanied by the cliched “dun, dun, dunnnnn” for as overplayed as they are.
Tatum and Foxx don’t work well as a team, largely because you never once believe Foxx as the President of the United States and I’m pretty sure neither does Emmerich. An early scene features Foxx speaking at a conference, talking about his plan for foreign relations, and trying to look “Presidential”. It doesn’t work. It looks cheap, like a spoof you’d see on YouTube rather than something you’d see on CSPAN.
My issues with the film seemed to click during one scene where Foxx gives himself up to save another character. It struck me because you almost forget this is the President handing himself over to terrorists. I’m sure many will tell me, “It’s just a movie.” Yes, but it’s a scene where the emotion of the moment requires you to realize the President of the United States is sacrificing himself in a situation where nuclear weapons and the destruction of the world are involved, all to save one person.
On top of that, the safety of the President seemed to be an afterthought for the majority of the film as no fewer than two others are sworn in over the course of the film’s massive 131 minute running time. Is it possible to give in to the ridiculous and at the same time allow it to have an emotional effect on you?
Emmerich does a good job, however, convincing us the terrorists that lay siege to the White House are willing to kill just about anyone, which helps with the scene referenced above, but the balance of serious to comedic to harrowing to absurd is so all over the place I was never able to find my footing. As much as I can tell the characters are winking at me, I only felt the need to wink back so I didn’t feel too out of place wondering what kind of enjoyment I was supposed to be getting out of it all.
As much as Emmerich may get a pass for his years delving into disaster epics, it’s no longer the ’90s. After nearly two decades of this it’s time to do something a little different or at least make an attempt to do it better. Even compared to his previous work this is a bottom-of-the-barrel effort that lazily mines the cliches of the past.
This is not Die Hard in the White House. The villains are many and most of them paper thin and their motivations unclear altogether. I need more than governmental buildings laid to waste, obvious current affairs jokes and White House front lawn SUV chases for me to give over to the “silliness” of it all. Yes, absurdity may be the point, but when you lazily use that as a crutch and play the other 70% with such seriousness it’s difficult for me to find any pleasure in what’s taking place.