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Entries in White House Down [2013] (1)

Thursday
Jul042013

White House Down (2013)

A Good Day to Watch Die Hard

No, you haven't entered a time warp: this White House Down review is almost a week late. Though I saw it on opening day, I've had zero enthusiasm for writing about summer 2013's billionth bombastic blockbuster. To put things in perspective, I saw Hatchet 3 the other night, and am chomping at the bit to tell you how incredible that movie is. These are dark times, indeed.

In fairness to director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, they couldn't have foreseen being the second movie of the year to cram an entire season of 24 into a single, two-hour adventure (specifically, the season where special agent Jack Bauer was trapped in the White House during a terrorist attack). I haven't seen Olympus Has Fallen, but during this film's many stretches of clock-checking boredom, I prayed for an interdimensional rift that would allow Channing Tatum, Kiefer Sutherland, and Gerard Butler to take back the Oval Office from a cadre of international thugs.

Instead, I yawned through a "Greatest Hits" of every Die Hard rip-off you've ever seen. Tatum plays John Cale, a White House security guard who dreams of getting on President Sawyer's (Jamie Foxx) Secret Service detail--mostly to impress his estranged daughter, Emily (Joey King). On Take Your Daughter to a Job Interview Day, the disgruntled, cancer-ridden head of the Secret Service (James Woods) orchestrates a government coup. A few explosions and several dead tourists/cops later, Cale, Emily, and Sawyer find themselves skulking around the White House, ducking a colorful gang of super-criminals.

The best part of White House Down is the terrorist group. Though you've seen these archetypes a hundred times before, rarely (never?) have they been gathered in the same Dark Knight-style rogues gallery. You've got your standard-issue cocky hacker-nerd (Jimmi Simpson); your tatted-up, English-defiling white supremacist (Kevin Rankin); and the super-soldier-hero-turned-bitter-traitor (slumming-for-dollars powerhouse Jason Clarke). Had these guys and Woods gone up against, say Batman or Jack Bauer, maybe this movie might have stood a chance.

But, no. They're fighting Magic Mike* and a Barack Obama caricature in a PG-13 popcorn flick. For the record, I have nothing against a well-executed Die Hard rip-off. But White House Down is so by-the-numbers, so unimaginative,** and so anemic (like World War Z, all the violence in this ostensibly adult movie has been trimmed to a cops 'n robbers tameness) that there is literally no reason to see it--unless this is your first experience with the genre. But if that's the case, there's no excuse to not start with the classics, so let's just file this one under "No Reason to Exist".

It's unfair to do a drive-by review on any movie, I suppose, no matter how obvious its awfulness should be to anyone who's paying attention. Here are just a couple of my big problems with White House Down, in no particular order:

1. Tone Deafness. This can largely be pinned on Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander's score, and Anna Foerster's cinematography, particularly in the opening twenty minutes. If you didn't know anything about what kind of movie this was going in, you might think it was a Washington-set rom-com in the vein of Dave. The music is light and bouncy, every shot of the city is as romantic as Sawyer's wide-eyed, slobbery affection for it, and Tatum's job interview with former college buddy Maggie Gyllenhaal plays like a TNT remake of His Girl Friday. And up until the moment when she is suddenly and horrifically killed by a terrorist rocket, the Vice President's plucky aide (Jackie Geary) is treated as lovelorn comic relief.

2. Fear of a Black President. Sure, in an era presided over by the first African American POTUS, it's weird to see new movies where an old white guy holds the highest office in the land. But instead of offering us a truly post-racial political figure in Sawyer, Vanderbilt serves up a campaign-poster version of Obama that nearly made me puke--and I voted for the guy. Sawyer is moments away from solving all of the Middle East's conflicts; he carries a pocket watch inscribed by Mary Todd Lincoln; and is best friends with all of his would-be political enemies. It's as if the filmmakers were so afraid of somehow tarnishing this historical moment that they turned the President of the United States Fantasyland's Magic Negro mayor.

I don't expect total accuracy in my escapism, but a film's protagonist must have some recognizably human traits that an audience can latch onto. The poorly drawn President Sawyer is merely the peak of a slippery slope that leads to more semi-dimensional characters, pitiful excuses for plot twists, and a mistaken belief that the audience hasn't seen all of this before.

Seventeen years ago today, Roland Emmerich reinvented the blockbuster with Independence Day (which he isn't above referencing like a catch-phrase in his latest 'splosion-fest). That movie may have been junk, but it had a stellar cast who had lots of fun going off the rails in service of revolutionary special effects and a vision of global-destruction-as-mass-entertainment that few had ever before imagined. The director has played that formula out numerous times in the years since, and I think he would have been better served by staying in that sandbox. He has neither the stomach nor the brains to pull off a political thriller, and has settled for characters and situations so unbelievable that they belong in the realm of science fiction.

*Fans of that far superior (though admittedly very different) movie may get a kick out of the fact that Tatum winds up in a version of one of his stripper character's outfits by the end of this film.

**This is the third action movie this season to feature an airplane getting blown up in mid-air; how sad is it that such a spectacle can now be considered old hat?