Review: ‘White House Down’ is hard to believe, easy to enjoy
“White House Down” is a hoot and a half, a shameless popcorn entertainment that is preposterous and diverting in just about equal measure.
This story of “the worst day this country ever had” — a roughly 12-hour period when an armed paramilitary group blows up the Capitol and takes over the White House — is very much something you get a kick out of against your better judgment.
In fact, if the amount of disbelief that needs to be suspended to enjoy this movie could be turned into dollars, it would pay off the national debt with some money left over to buy star Channing Tatum, director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt a round of beers.
Emmerich, as the $3 billion worldwide gross accumulated from films such as “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” indicates, is a director with an instinct for the obvious, a past master at making overblown versions of old-fashioned Saturday matinee-type stories.
But though the director knows how to keep action moving, he’s done himself no favors in the past as a screenwriter. Here, however, he has the benefit of a script by James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”) that has a fine pulp premise and keeps the cringe-worthy lines to a minimum.
Emmerich also has the great benefit of Tatum, an actor who is ideally cast as the kind of regular guy you might not look at twice. Someone, however, who just happens to possess the kind of extraordinary skill set that comes in handy when the fate of this nation, not to mention the entire free world, is on the line. That kind of regular guy.
Tatum plays John Cale, a man with a dream. Yes, Cale’s had a rough past, including two combat tours overseas and an insubordinate personality that’s made holding a job difficult, but his aspirations extend all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Currently an employee of the U.S. Capitol Police, assigned to guarding Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (the veteran Richard Jenkins), Cale burns to be a Secret Service agent keeping watch over President James Sawyer (a low-key Jamie Foxx), an idealist who’s pushing a controversial plan for peace in the Middle East.
Cale didn’t even vote for Sawyer, but he’s a divorced dad in the doghouse with his sullen 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), and she just happens to be obsessed with all things White House.
So when Dad wangles a job interview with the Secret Service inside the building (realistically duplicated by production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli in a series of Montreal sets), he brings Emily along.
Unfortunately for Cale, the person he has to go through to make the career change is Special Agent Carol Finnerty (a buttoned-down Maggie Gyllenhaal), who, wouldn’t you know it, had a fling with Cale back in the day and is the last person likely to forgive his checkered past. Unwilling to break the bad news to Emily, Cale takes her on a conveniently timed White House tour instead of leaving the building. Which would have ended the movie right there.
For while Cale has been fruitlessly pleading his case, a gang of nefarious intruders so suspicious looking they practically have “terrorist” tattooed on their foreheads, have infiltrated the White House and, under the leadership of Emil Stenz (“Zero Dark Thirty’s” Jason Clarke), make taking over the building look easy.
Martin Walker (a strong James Woods), the outgoing head of the Secret Service and a man with problems of his own, knows just the protocol to follow when things like this happen, but it’s to no avail. Bullets are fired, men are killed (though almost no blood is visible in this PG-13 film) and soon the dread words “White House Down” are heard in the land.
It takes awhile for the aims of these terrorists to be revealed (and, frankly, they are never as clear as they might be) but it matters not. For John Cale and his daughter are among the folks being held hostage, and that is no small thing.
Special Agent Finnerty may have sniffed at Cale’s abilities (O ye of little faith) but they turn out to be formidable. Possibly the most resourceful man on the planet, Cale is soon demonstrating every gift necessary to take on these heavily armed evildoers and keep the president safe. Lots of bullets head in his direction, but the one with his name on it has yet to be made.
Of course all of this is wildly implausible and completely silly if you stop to think about it. But the action in “White House Down” is so continuous and so convincingly photographed by cinematographer Anna Foerster — even when it involves flaming helicopters and armed limo chases around the White House lawn — that it rarely leaves you the leisure for mature reflection.
Helping add verisimilitude are the actors, especially Tatum and Foxx. They end up as a very unlikely buddy team able to share laughs — as well as armaments.
At 2 hours and 17 minutes, “White House Down” goes on for too long, and even by its own admittedly loose standards it has an ending that defies belief. But if this film had a sensible bone in its body, it wouldn’t be the kind of fun it turns out to be.
‘White House Down’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: In general release
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