Movie Review: White House Down (2013)
“He’s last man standing. Everyone else that could possibly guard the White House, I mean every single motherfucking one of them, dies. Why? Because it has to be just one guy. We don’t know how to do it otherwise.”
-- Me, in my review of “Olympus Has Fallen,” March 25, 2013
And we still don’t.
If “Olympus Has Fallen” was “Die Hard in the White House,” then “White House Down” is … also “Die Hard in the White House.” It’s just not quite so offensive. It’s not patriotism porn.
But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.
Put the left one in
Once again, one man (John Cale, played by Channing Tatum) is in a closed-off location by accident (part of a tour group) when terrorists take over a building (the White House); and just as the terrorists systematically, almost immaculately, wipe out all of the buildings defenses (Secret Service, etc.), he, for the rest of the movie, wipes out the terrorists. There’s a rooftop battle in which the hero’s allies mistake him for the enemy and shoot. There’s a gum-chewing, scenery-chewing computer geek who’s annoying as all fuck out. (Presciently, he’s a hacker formerly with the NSA). There’s a loved one among the hostages (Cale’s daughter, Emily, played by Joey King), who is used by the terrorists as barter. The terrorists also mask their true intentions. In “Die Hard” they pretend to be political when they really want money. Here, they pretend to want money when they’re really political. Most of the outside people keep making the wrong moves but our guy keeps making the right ones to keep saving the day. Because the day must be saved. That’s why we paid our $12.
How does “White House Down” differ from “Olympus Has Fallen”? Hardly at all. Channing Tatum has a lighter touch than Gerard Butler, but then so does a gorilla. No, the biggest difference is who America’s enemies are and what this means politically.
In “Olympus,” the enemies are a North Korean terrorist group, which plans to blow up all of our nukes in their silos, and thus destroy the United States of America (and, one imagines, most of Canada and Mexico) for all time.
In “White House Down,” the enemies are a combination of mercenaries, warmongers, and right-wing racists who despise our African-American president, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), and who are brought together by the outgoing head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (James Woods), whose son was killed during a special ops mission designed to uncover nukes in Iran. (No nukes were uncovered.) For most of the movie, even as Walker lays out his subterfuge to the Joint Chiefs about wanting money, we, who’ve had a ringside seat this entire time, assume he’s in it for revenge. But that’s wrong, too. Pres. Sawyer, you see, has made historic peace overtures to various countries in the Middle East, and plans to withdraw our troops from the region. Walker sees this as a betrayal, and, in conjunction, with … wait for it … Speaker of the House Rafelson (Richard Jenkins), who is secretly doing the bidding of the military-industrial complex, they, or more accurately he, Walker, gets set to launch nukes targeting key cities in the Middle East. Because he wants the war to end all wars. He wants the missiles to fly. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
So if “Olympus” is the White House takeover from the paranoid right-wing perspective, “Down” is the White House takeover from the paranoid left-wing perspective.
And only one man, and a little girl, can stop them.
Wake up, Maggie
I need a new word.
You know how sometimes you can laugh and throw up in your mouth at the same time? I felt something similar during “White House Down.” It was a button-pushing moment—I don’t remember which one—that was so absurd that, even as I felt emotion welling up in me, even as I felt tears in my eyes, I burst out laughing.
I think it might’ve been the moment when the Speaker, now President, orders an attack on the White House, and Emily, running from the half-destroyed Oval Office, makes big sweeping motions with the presidential flag to warn them to stand down; and they do. Because of this speck of a girl doing something with something.
Then again, this movie is nothing but absurd scenes. How about the moment when the President of the United States, riding shotgun in a presidential SUV, gets out an RPG and blows away the White House gate so he and Cale can get out? “That’s something you don’t see every day,” one character says—a wink from the filmmakers on the absurdity of their own film. Of course, the two men still don’t get outside. How could they? We need to keep them in the one place, the White House, so they wind up face down in the White House pool, wheels spinning.
How about the moment when super-baddie and former special ops yadda yadda Stenz (Jason Clarke) realizes his buddy is among the first of the terrorists killed by Cale and reacts as if death is unthinkable? That they were going to take over the White House, and nuke Iran, and no one would get their hair mussed except Pres. Sawyer and Iran. And various Secret Service and military officers. And whoever was in the U.S. Capitol. Which is blown up as a diversion.
How about any scene with Killick (Kevin Rankin), the right-wing racist, who sports a full moustache and sleeveless fatigues, and struts around almost bow-legged as he guards the hostages? I guess he’s supposed to be terrifying, or maddening, but he looks like somebody who’s wandered away from a Village People tribute band.
My favorite absurd moment, though, is a line reading from Maggie Gyllenhaal. Was she ever any good as an actress or were we just fooled into thinking she was good? Because she’s awful in this. Aw. Full.
She plays Finnerty, who apparently has a past with Cale (go figure), and who, that morning, interviews him for a Secret Service job. She turns him down, of course. He was a C student, he has trouble with authority, etc. You, basically. When the shit goes down, she’s outside, winds up with the Joint Chiefs and the Speaker, butting heads, and delivering lines like, “Your first act as president … is to blow up the White House?” She’s supposed to be the movie’s Sgt. Powell, the ally on the outside, but she’s too high-level, not working-class enough, and almost everything she says grates like nails on a chalkboard. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is this: After John Cale single-handedly saves the country, and certainly the Middle East, and possibly even the world from massive death and destruction, she, Finnerty, meets him on the White House lawn, and, with all of the press buzzing around, and the White House still smoldering in the background, looks him squarely in the eye and says, “Thank you for everything you did today,” in a tone that my boss would use if I’d just done a pretty good PowerPoint presentation.
Thank you for everything you did today? In that officious tone? Maggie. Hon. Put a little love into it. Or at least a dollop of emotion.
On opening day, we fight back
You want to hear my idea for a paranoid action movie? Here it is.
It’s about a writer-director who makes big-budget action movies in which, even post-9/11, our most beloved landmarks and institutions are destroyed. Let’s make this guy, I don’t know, German. That’s an easy mark, right? Let’s call him … Franz Heimlich. No, too silly. How about … Roland Emmerich? That’s silly, too, but we’ll work on it.
So this German, Roland Emmerich, secretly hates America and the world, which is why, in his movies, he keeps destroying America and the world. His first big movie was an alien-invasion movie in which the money-shot was the White House getting blown up. He called it “Independence Day.” Then he goes on to destroy New York City (“Godzilla”), the world (“The Day After Tomorrow”), the world again (“2012”), and the reputation of William Shakespeare (“Anonymous”), before returning to destroy the U.S. Capitol and the White House (“White House Down”). In his wake, the world lies in ruins, smoldering. He is able to do what Hitler only dreamed of doing.
Best of all? He does it with our help. We pay to see these things happen. Over and over again. Even though none of them are any good. Even though all of them are eventually low-rated (< 7.0) on IMDb.com. But by then he deed is done. By then, he’s in his bunker somewhere, laughing, and covering himself with our money.
That’s the villain of my paranoid action movie.
And the hero? The hero is you. Because you stop going.