(by Dustin Putman
When Antoine Fuqua's "Olympus Has Fallen" was released in March 2013, it automatically won bragging rights as the year's first of two scheduled big-budget action pictures about a terrorist takeover of the White House. Positioned as mainstream Hollywood entertainment, the exceedingly violent R-rated film instead disturbed and unsettled, hitting too close to home to be anything but a reminder of 9/11 dressed up as a "Die Hard" clone. One supposes it is a testament to the technical prowess and relative plausibility of "Olympus Has Fallen" that it affected like it did. By comparison, the moronic, PG-13-rated "White House Down" carries none of that sense of unease, eliciting unwanted laughs and a steady stream of eye rolls rather than emotional discomfort. Directed with cloying artificiality by Roland Emmerich (2009's "2012") and written with little to no connection to reality by James Vanderbilt (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man"), it's a political disaster movie that also, little by little, turns into a cinematic disaster. Article continues below
On the same day that U.S. President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) makes a controversial Middle East peace proposal and ne'er-do-well military vet John Cale (Channing Tatum) brings along 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) to a job interview with the Secret Service, a deadly explosion at the Capitol Building suddenly puts the White House on red alert. What no one yet realizes is that the lead culprit works for the President and is already on the property with his rag-tag radical underlings. A request is promptly made—$400-million in federal reserve money—but tireless Secret Service agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) suspects that there is a more personal motive at play. Meanwhile, John goes into hero mode, vowing to protect President Sawyer through this ordeal and unwilling to escape himself until he is reunited with Emily.
"White House Down" really presses one's threshold for condescension and nonsense, beginning with Agent Hope (Jake Weber) smilingly saying to colleague Finnerty as they land on the White House lawn and drop the President off, "Tell me we don't have the best job in the world," and then segueing to John Cale's introduction as he performs shtick with—no kidding—a squirrel in a birdhouse. When the D.C. attacks begin, the central villain (whose identity will go unmentioned despite it being laughably obvious from the moment he comes on-screen) utters old action-movie chestnuts such as, "Consider this my resignation," as he shoots a member of the White House staff. One of his psychotic cronies, hacker mastermind Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), sits in a room surrounded by computers, waving his arms like a composer as classical music plays on the soundtrack and his malevolent deeds come to fruition.
The cavalcade of clichés don't stop there. Of course, Cale has a strained relationship with his kid, and of course, they will bond over their life-and-death situation. Of course, he seems to always be in the right place at the right time to save the President and crack some skulls. Of course, Emily becomes a hero when she sends a video of the terrorists to the media. Is there any doubt that her established flag-waving in the talent show her dad missed the night before will come into play by the end? Not since Jeff Goldblum's daughter performed a gymnastics routine to escape from velociraptors in 1997's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" has a plot point involving a child been so egregious and groan-inducing. By the time Cale and Sawyer are zooming around the front lawn being chased by the bad guys and one journalist standing with the media exclaims, "There's President Sawyer with a rocket launcher!" all bets are off.
As John Cale, who will be guaranteed a job with the Secret Service before the day is out, Channing Tatum (2013's "Side Effects") has the physicality and swagger of a regular guy as well as an action star, but he has little to do here other than slowly disrobe down to a form-fitting A-shirt, all the better to show off his muscles. As President Sawyer, Jamie Foxx (2012's "Django Unchained") tries too hard to emulate Barack Obama. His anger over one of the terrorists touching his beloved shoes (Get your hands off my Jordans!") is a low spot. The rest of the cast are slumming it, not because they aren't solid in their roles, but because they so clearly are acting beneath their natural intelligence levels. So it goes with Maggie Gyllenhaal (2012's "Won't Back Down") and James Woods (2011's "Straw Dogs") as Secret Service Agent Finnerty and her retiring mentor Walker, as well as consummate professional Richard Jenkins (2012's "The Cabin in the Woods") as Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson. As the young, wise-beyond-her-years Emily Cale, Joey King (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful") shows plenty of confidence, but is saddled with some of the clunkier, more manipulative scenes.
Movies like "White House Down" don't have to be beacons of authenticity as long as they treat their audience with a modicum of respect. This one doesn't. It's patently asinine, tediously formulaic, and drags on to an unnecessary 129 minutes when it could have clocked in at a much fleeter, less meandering 100 minutes. After all, it's not like the picture has to worry about hard-hitting character development. "White House Down" is lit by cinematographer Anna Foerster (2011's "Anonymous") with a romantic golden hue that affectionately portrays Washington, D.C. with much reverence (scenes set around the exterior of the White House, clearly green screen, are less convincing), but some pretty location shooting and aerial footage does not a successful action flick make. "White House Down" sends the country's capital to its knees, yet ends with the President bypassing the crucial need to address the American public in favor of showing new friends John and Emily—both of them still riddled with dirt and bleeding wounds, mind you—helicopter-flying tricks across the Mall. The makers of this film really ought to be impeached.