White House Down
WHITE HOUSE DOWN. Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, and Jason Clarke. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Rated M (Action violence and coarse language). 131 min.
Bearing some similarity to movies such as “Die Hard” (1988) and “Air Force One”, (1997) this is an American action film about an attack on the White House by a paramilitary group disenchanted by decisions made by an African-American President of the US. The film is directed by the same person who brought us “Independence Day” (1996). In that film aliens attacked the White House. Here, it is under attack from armed mercenaries.
A US Capitol Police officer, John Cale (Channing Tatum), who is twice a veteran of Afghanistan, wants to get a job with the Secret Service, but his hopes are dashed by an interview with Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gylenhaal) who knows him from the past and thinks him quite unworthy for the job. Cale wanted the job to impress his daughter Emily (Joey King), who loves politics, adores the President of the US, and is far from settled in her relationship with her divorced father.
Cale lies about his job interview, and both Emily and Cale join a tour of the white House just as the President, James W. Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), happens to be proposing a peace initiative to “withdraw all American troops across the entire Middle East”. The President’s proposal makes a number of people deeply unhappy, including disavowed ex-Delta Force operatives like Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), a terminally-ill Head of the President’s Secret Service, and two men ambitious to be President.
While the tour is in operation, a bomb that has been planted goes off and destroys part of the building. The White House is put into lockdown, which separates Cale from Emily. The person controlling the invading group is Martin Walker (James Woods), who heads the President’s Secret Service, and he wants revenge for his son’s death in a failed military operation in the Middle East. He wants access to the President’s nuclear launch codes and tries to pressure Sawyer to hand over the codes to mount a nuclear attack. Sawyer refuses, and when the President is assumed to be dead others step forward to assume his office, and do what they think should be done.
A new President, Eli Raphelson,(Richard Jenkins), the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, orders a strike on the White House. At the last moment, Sawyer reveals that he is still alive, and Cale is reunited with Emily. All is put right at the end, but there is much action violence in-between. President Sawyer officially enlists Cale into his Secret Service and he takes Emily and Cale on a personalised aerial tour of Washington, D.C. on his way to the hospital that will look after the injuries that he has valiantly sustained.
This is a movie that pulls the stops out on patriotism at all levels. Cale tries single-handedly to save his President on behalf of the USA, and the background to the attack pulls several key political issues into central focus such as the war in the Middle East, how to exit from it, the threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation, personalised ambition out of control, and targeted attacks on patriotic icons of US democracy such as the White House, the buildings on Capitol Hill, and Air Force One.
This is an action movie that uses its special effects to hold the tension. It is full of disasters, but aims effectively at times for a comic edge in its scripting. There are multiple explosions, violence on a grand scale, and copious attempts to create obvious contemporary relevance. The movie doesn’t explore the inevitable tensions between the Secret Service and Military Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the plot suffers seriously from the lack of credibility in one armed man being able to save his President, and make that much difference.
The result is a movie that sacrifices political sophistication to achieve popular action appeal. It lacks the show-case brilliance of “Independence Day” and it is immensely patriotic with lines like “our country is stronger than one house”. But for some, it will have the right amount of appeal to be enjoyable.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
September 5th 2013.