Last night I watched White House Down, and a mere 24 hours later the headache it induced is gone. I was led to believe that this would be an action thriller: the DVD cover shot features Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, giant guns, and a flame-engulfed White House. But this is flagrant false advertising: the first 45 minutes were totally action—free, and the remaining hour and a half was one long spas attack.
This 2013 action spoogefest was directed by Roland Emmerich, the same man who blasted my ears off in Independence Day. Here’s the premise of White House Down (the title, I’m sorry to say, is also an actual line—as in, “Aaahhhh! White…House…down!”): a beefy DC cop, John Kale (Channing Tatum), takes his moody 11-year-old daughter Emily on a White House tour for some father-daughter bonding (did you guess he fought in Afghanistan, then returned home and couldn’t fit in, resulting in a divorce and a bad credit score? Correct). But, they pick the exact morning that a group of highly elite and unbelievably stupid terrorists attack, and father and daughter find themselves trapped between smelly hijackers and priceless antiques. [Note to the screenwriters: it’s not a good idea to name the protagonist of your action movie after a vegetable. Every time someone yelled “Kale!” I yelled back: “Eat more!”]
Kale leaves his daughter on a bench outside the Secret Service office (where kids are most welcome, certainly) and heads in for a job interview—the tour was a front to drag her along. Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is high up in the Secret Service and conducts the interview; apparently she and Kale had some brief, sexually unfulfilling relationship years before, so he doesn’t get the job. Standing in the background is a wimpier agent, who smirks and guffaws at Kale’s pathetic responses; needless to say, that guy is the first to be gunned down by the hijackers. The top agent of the Secret Service, bodyguard to the President, is Martin Walker (James Wood), and he’s one week away from retirement. At this point, half an hour in, there’s only twenty minutes to go until something interesting happens.
The terrorists infiltrate the White House and Capital with ease; disguised as janitors and maintenance men, they bring duffel bags full of ammo inside, without having to go through any security pat-downs or x-ray machines whatsoever. Three bad guys manage to take down thirty or forty bumbling White House guards, all of whom obediently stand up from their desks to get shot in the chest. The President (Jamie Foxx) is shocked to learn his personal bodyguard is behind it all; Walker, the inside man, forces President Stuart down to a basement vault at gunpoint, to begin a nuclear holocaust for reasons known only to him. Luckily, John (“leafy green”) Kale is able to outrun AK-47 fire, breaking away from the tour and rescuing President Stuart before the vault doors slam shut. Essentially, Kale’s role for the rest of the movie is to protect the President using cartoon physics.
Agent Finnerty, who’s over at the Pentagon for some reason, is able to call the President’s cell phone and direct the pair down into the secret tunnels below the White House. She’s the only adult female character with more than two minutes of screen time, and is routinely shouted down by military brass. In her first appearance onscreen, her boss, Walker, offers some free advice about improving her looks. But how does this movie really feel about women?
Emily, the moody preteen, left the tour to pee before the first major explosion; she cleverly hides behind a potted plant, videos the terrorists acting cocky, and uploads the file to Youtube. Instantly, news stations broadcast her brave footage, incensing the terrorists to set about tracking her down. A bad guy finds Emily, puts a gun to her 11-year-old head, and forces her back to the tour group; several guns are put to her head in the next two hours, and she also sees people shot in the face, exploding car crashes, rockets taking down helicopters…and yet, at the end of the movie she skips across the White House lawn, smiling for the TV cameras. PTSD for life? Nah.
If it’s unclear from my review what the terrorists want, please blame the movie, not me—this rather important point was never addressed. Agent Walker apparently has a brain tumor and a vendetta against the President, who he blames for the death of his marine son, but that’s it—the other twenty guys appear to have no motives for embarking on such a doomed mission. Except for Bill Gates’ doppleganger, who spends the whole movie hacking into government computers in the basement and listening to Mozart sonatas (yes, he was a child prodigy, got it)—his personal mission is to launch nuclear warheads at Apple headquarters. This guy’s name is “Skip Tyler;” despite that hindrance (or because of it?) he grew up to be an evil genius. His fate is left totally undetermined—does he escape? Get trapped in the sewer system? Just one of 2 or 300 plot holes. As for production values: every transition was abrupt and choppy, camera angles crowded faces out of frames, the lighting was poor—whole scenes were actually lit with an iPhone.
A note about the soundtrack: it goes away entirely once Kalishnakovs begin rapid-firing into early American textiles and priceless Ming vases. 90% of this movie’s sounds are gunfire (hence my day-long headache), and the other 10% are bad dialogue (“You just killed the Secretary of Defense!” “Well, uh, he wasn’t doing a very good job”). And some of the script is outright propaganda: Martin Walker says to the President, “On any given day, the Federal Reserve holds in excess of $400 million in cash.” (Just in case you hadn’t heard, movie, the Fed’s broke).
Fighting off cold-blooded mercenaries with household objects (toasters, sneakers, etc.), Officer Kale and President Stuart (whom they tie to Obama via a shared love of Abraham Lincoln and Nicorette) make it to the White House garage, where they drive out in a giant black SUV, are promptly followed by the terrorists in two more giant black SUVs, and they all play a rousing game of Mario Kart through the Rose Garden. Kale and the leader of the free world are thrown into the White House pool; they escape by blowing up the Presidential cabana. Sloppy cut to the next scene: everyone crashing around the greenhouse, needlessly sacrificing exotic flowers; Kale and the worst bad guy (and actor) fight each other with little garden rakes. The 35–year-old, athletic President Stuart is taken down by his bodyguard, a flabby 65-year-old with terminal cancer. Not to worry, Kale crashes a spare SUV into the Oval Office and runs over Walker, who strikes a maudlin death pose—one hand thrown over his head, tongue sticking out.
At some point the producers must have run out of money, because the movie ends with a few rooms of the White House still intact. Some lame-ass side plot about the corrupt, sniveling Speaker of the House is patched on four minutes before the credits in a half-hearted attempt at continuity. Speaking of continuity, despite fifty or sixty explosions and twenty minutes of sprinklers raining down, all the TVs and computers in every room of the White House are working just fine.
Burning helicopters hang from balconies, smoldering SUVs lie in piles around marble fountains, soldiers’ corpses rot in the sun; cue John Kale and his daughter walking blithely arm-in-arm, ready for a father-daughter picnic. But wait! In one last bit of sheer impossibility, the President invites them both aboard his helicopter, for an impromptu joyride over government center. As the credits finally rolled I reached for another beer, having earned it.
So what’s my lasting impression of this movie…”Bureaucracy kills?” Perhaps: “Don’t get stuck in a video game.” I rate White House Down one star, and that’s only for the CGI artists and stunt men, who did all the heavy lifting in this rotting corpse of an action movie. I hereby move to impeach Roland Emmerich from the Director’s Guild…all those in favor?