White House Down: Emmerich’s Vision of Civilization’s Collapse Is So Loony, You’ve Got to Admire It

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June 28 2013 10:06 AM

White House Down

Roland Emmerich is back to demolish our nation’s capital, and not even Channing Tatum can stop him.

Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum in White House Down.
Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum in White House Down

Photo courtesy of Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc./Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

Should Roland Emmerich be put on some sort of government watch list? Nearly two decades after he first publicly fantasized about the destruction of Washington, D.C., in Independence Day (1996), he’s back with another massive imagined attack on our nation’s capital in White House Down—this time not via alien invasion, but a humanity-driven inside job. In the Mayan-calendar disaster epic 2012, Emmerich demolished not only the seat of U.S. government but a large portion of the Earth’s surface. And when not compulsively re-enacting the annihilation of all that America holds dear, the German-born director has been known to espouse radical-fringe ideology—namely, in his last film Anonymous, the belief that William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of the plays published under his name.

I’m glad, though, that the NSA hasn’t yet spirited Emmerich off to a remote location, because I rather enjoy his movies (the more self-serious Anonymous being a rare exception). Emmerich’s vision of civilization’s collapse is so loony, the scale of the damage he imagines so vast, that his best movies (that is to say his worst) achieve a strange tone of devil-may-care merriment. In White House Down, the spectacularly disturbing image of the Capitol rotunda exploding into flame—which dominates the film’s marketing campaign—isn’t some sort of action-climax dessert; it’s an amuse-bouche of excitement that occurs about 15 minutes in. Things only escalate from there, as the battleground quickly moves from Capitol Hill to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (as impressively replicated in the production design of Kirk M. Petruccelli).

Channing Tatum plays John Cale, who (having presumably time-traveled from his days as a founding member of the Velvet Underground) is an Iraq vet serving on the security detail of the speaker of the House, Congressman Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Cale’s dream is to move up to the Secret Service—in part because his 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) is a politics nerd with a crush on the sitting president. You can see why given that, as played by Jamie Foxx, President James Sawyer is basically Barack Obama (complete with a secret addiction to cigarettes and a not-so-secret obsession with Abraham Lincoln) after an extra spin through the sexifying machine. In addition to being handsome and charmingly self-effacing, Sawyer is honest, idealistic, and righteous. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” he announces in a speech on the eve of a major Middle East peace accord. It’s an adage that will come in handy later, when weapons around the Oval Office are in short supply.

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Cale’s interview for the Secret Service job doesn’t go so well. His interviewer, Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) turns out to be an old college flame, which is not only socially awkward but professionally disadvantageous—she remembers her ex’s bad study habits and poor impulse control, and suggests he content himself with a less prestigious post. But as Cale and his daughter are about to leave the White House (in an attempt to win her reluctant tween affection, he’s wangled a day pass for them both), some heavy shit starts to go down. First there’s the aforementioned explosion at the Capitol, then a full-scale armed invasion of the White House by domestic terrorists. Cale and his little girl—not to mention the president, his staff, and a roomful of nervous tourists—become the hostages of a nasty crew of heavily armed malcontents, including a resentful war vet (Jason Clarke), a sadistic white supremacist (Kevin Rankin), and a traitorous presidential staffer whose identity I won’t disclose, but whose treachery is revealed early on.

Just what this ruthless bunch is after—and why it’s so important to them, in all the surrounding mayhem, to capture the president alive—won’t make sense until the last few minutes (and, unless you’re on mescaline, probably not even then). All Cale knows is that he must find and protect his daughter, who’s gotten separated from him in the chaos. But in his search for Emily, Cale happens upon President Sawyer being held at gunpoint—and suddenly, that Secret Service position he wanted is all his, along with the unenviable responsibility of saving the world from all-out war. You see, the bad guys have also brought along a computer hacker (Jimmi Simpson)—one of the evil kind who, in an apparent nod to Die Hard, enjoys blasting Beethoven symphonies as he cracks the NORAD missile launch codes, one by one.

Even as the story accrues preposterousness, the action moves along crisply, and Tatum and Foxx hit a nice buddy-movie vibe, especially in the scenes where the bookish, retiring president (again, shades of Obama) learns to enjoy the pleasures of putting on a pair of Jordans and firing a rocket launcher out the window of a limousine. In this season of solemnly manly blockbusters, I appreciated the boyish energy of White House Down, a movie that, for all its flamboyant destructiveness, has a playful innocence at its core. In essence, it’s 137 minutes of action figures being bashed together, and even if that’s about 20 minutes too long, there are plenty of laughs and thrills all through—many of them at the expense of plausibility, which, as the film’s last act makes clear, might be the one thing Emmerich enjoys destroying more than Air Force One.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.