REVIEW: White House Down [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 131 minutes | Release Date: June 28th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Roland Emmerich
Writer(s): James Vanderbilt

“My father is a very special man!”

It’s a shame Hollywood blockbuster fare has a contractual obligation for contrived happy endings with unnecessary and unsurprising “twists” because Roland Emmerich‘s newest disaster porn entry White House Down is a legitimate winner until its cheesy finale. There’s actual suspense, authentic humor, and charismatic leads to hook us into its plausible terrorist attack scenario with plenty of action to sustain our interest over its two-hour plus runtime. But just as James Vanderbilt’s script inches towards the finish—and our government protocols are severely tested—cliché inevitably rears its ugly head. To gloss over a courageous depiction of an eleven-year old girl believably understanding the need to sacrifice her life for the greater good in an impactful, honest way by quickly switching to heavy-handed, cartoony patriotism only proves the industry’s lack of trust in its audience.

Despite relying on the lone hero strategy of right place/wrong time luck, I never saw the central conceit of John Cale (Channing Tatum) doing what no one else could as false. A veteran of three tours in Afghanistan currently working security for Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), the whole reason Cale is in the White House during its hijacking is to make his daughter proud by interviewing for a Secret Service post. Young Emily (Joey King) resents her Dad for leaving, but her appreciation of America’s government and idolization of President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) allows his bribe of a House grounds tour to win a smile. We see John’s love for the girl and as a result believe his insane decision to find her once all hell breaks loose.

Serendipitous meetings like Cale’s interviewer being a college acquaintance (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol Finnerty) or President Sawyer running into he and Emily walking the halls may seem lazy, but each comes off more natural than small detail set-ups for YouTube and flag twirling which ham-fistedly return to play a larger role later. These films need this because coincidence helps connectivity—look at Independence Day making Jeff Goldblum’s ex-wife the President’s press secretary. So if Cale’s friend happens to work for the Vice President in order for him to call and say he got Sawyer out of trouble, you either accept it or prepare yourself for a very long and arduous evening. Thankfully the scope of what’s happening renders such tiny plot points forgivable because time doesn’t allow us to linger on their convenience.

Look no further than the three-tiered enemy contingent to comprehend how fast we must move through the story. Secret Service Director Martin Walker (James Woods) seeks vengeance for his Marine son’s death, a Rogue’s Gallery of home-bred terrorists at his disposal is led by ex-Delta Force Operator Emil Stenz’s (Jason Clarke) greed for money, and an elite hacker named Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) appears motivated by nothing more complex than proving he can hack into the Department of Defense. While another deeper-seeded reason for their actions of course exists, we learn what it is slowly due to Cale’s uninvited opposition screwing up their timetable. Luckily for us the interim includes an armored car chase around the White House lawn, surface to air missile helicopter attacks, and a tour of the residence’s more secretive structural secrets.

As much an excuse to shed light on the mythical underground tunnels JFK smuggled Marilyn Monroe through and rooms like the PEOC (Presidential Emergency Operations Center) as it is to blow up the Capital, riddle the White House in bullets, and set everything on fire, Emmerich’s action thriller is also effective because of its characters. Clarke and his men are badasses with chips on their shoulders, Woods is reined in but still elastic enough to partake in villainous fun, Simpson is a sarcastic/over-the-top hoot, and Jenkins is as regal as ever in his sage ability to always be contemplative in and torn by the weight of his decisions. Add in military stoicism from Gyllenhaal, Lance Reddick, and more and you have a nice group of peripheral players to act as support for our leads.

On that front we have young Joey King giving us more authentic emotion and maturity than anyone probably expected from the usual damsel in distress mold as well as a visible representation of what Tatum’s Cale and Foxx’s Sawyer are fighting for. These two have a brilliant chemistry together; play up the former’s heroics and the latter’s “pen is mightier than the sword” philosophy—before its metaphor is usurped for literal practice; and constantly find themselves in harrowing circumstances of physical endurance to earn the fake cuts, dirt, and bruises increasing on their bodies every minute. The levity that arrives to diffuse the suspense works almost every time and Foxx’s performance places an everyman humanity to what’s usually a worldly figure of the utmost severity not seen since Dennis Haysbert in “24”.

Despite all these positives making White House Down Emmerich’s best since ID4, it simply couldn’t sustain its effectiveness. The Middle East politics in play are timely and the disastrous extreme the bad guys are willing to go to rectify the situation is acceptable, but the whole “stars and stripes” adrenaline rush of fatefully cheating death and somehow slowing an eight-minute deadline to what felt like twenty is too much fabricated manipulation. With the amount of sacrifice occurring during the course of the film, I don’t see why Vanderbilt and company wouldn’t find the confidence to end it with a darkly bittersweet edge instead of the music swelling, against all odds finale onscreen. For a fleeting moment it appeared we had received a summer popcorn flick with real stakes—and than mainstream appeal prevailed.

[1] Channing Tatum stars in Columbia Pictures’ “White House Down,” also starring Jamie Foxx. Photo By: Reiner Bajo © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[2] Jamie Foxx stars in Columbia Pictures’ “White House Down,” also starring Channing Tatum. Photo By: Reiner Bajo © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[3] Maggie Gyllenhaal in Columbia Pictures’ “White House Down,” starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Photo By: Reiner Bajo © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

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