Making a silly, fun action movie is a difficult balance. If the film takes itself too seriously in order to make the stakes feel more immediate, then the audience can become uncomfortable (e.g. Olympus Has Fallen). If the film is constantly winking at the audience, then they can grow tired with a movie that’s trying way too hard to be ironic (e.g. Snakes on a Plane). Director Roland Emmerich has rarely had trouble striking the right balance. Emmerich knows to pepper the movie with snappy, funny dialogue, have the good-hearted characters take their situation seriously, and never be afraid to go melodramatic, over the top, and do so in a way that’s unashamed rather than shameless. White House Down is Emmerich at his best, and delivers exactly the movie we’ve come to expect from the blockbuster director.
President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has made the bold decision to entirely pull out of the Middle East thus delivering a crippling blow to the powerful military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, John Cale (Channing Tatum) is applying to become a Secret Service agent not only out of a sense of duty, but also to impress his estranged daughter, Emily (Joey King), who is a bigger fan of the President than she is of her dad. After getting turned down for the job, father and daughter go on a White House tour only to have a group of bad guys storm the building, and try to take the President hostage. Emily and Cale get separated, and while trying to find her, he manages to rescue Sawyer. Cale must try to find his daughter and get the President to safety while a larger conspiracy swirls around them.
The plot sounds fairly convoluted, and to an extent, it is. There are a lot of players, like Secret Service deputy Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Cale’s boss and Speaker of the House Ralpheson (Richard Jenkins), leader of the bad guys Stenz (Jason Clarke), eccentric bad guy hacker Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), and Secret Service chief, Walker (James Woods). The script never gets bogged down in its loaded cast, and instead uses them to create a fleet-footed narrative that is constantly flipping between the various players rather than resting solely on Cale and Sawyer. Thankfully, the strong cast never has us aching to get back to stronger players. Even Stenz, who’s motives are nebulous and personality consists of being angry and really angry, finds some life thanks to Clarke’s intense performance.
But the film’s biggest strength is relying on the chemistry between Tatum and Foxx. For all of the cheerful stupidity of the plot, the clever center of the picture is taking Die Hard, giving Cale and Sawyer a buddy-cop dynamic, and trapping them inside the White House. By smashing these formulas together and then anchoring it with two charismatic performances, everything else can begin to fall in to place. We know that no matter how serious everything seemingly becomes, we have an enjoyable pairing between two characters we care about.
Every when the film is going for the “dramatic” moments, it’s still having fun. At times, White House Down feels like a fake movie you’d see in a real movie. During Cale’s interview with Finnerty, she tells him that one of his previous evaluations describes him as having “raw potential but does not aim to realize it.” It’s a safe assumption he’ll realize it over the course of the two hour action movie that involves him saving his daughter and the President of the United States just for starters (the stakes get even bigger as the movie goes along). For Emmerich, the tone of the “emotional” scenes has to match the scale of the action scenes.
This is the third time in Emmerich’s filmography in which he’s destroyed the White House, but demolishing it from the inside-out is a nice change of pace. Most of the action is fairly intimate, and involves fast-paced shootouts and fist fights. It’s only when he steps out the door that the action gets crazy, and not necessarily for the best. There’s a big explosion at the Capitol (the equivalent of a flashing sign saying “This shit just got real” even though shit gets much more “real” as the movie progresses), but Emmerich feels like he’s showing off when he has a car chase that’s basically the President’s armored limo going in circles on the White House front lawn. Staying practical is Emmerich’s best friend because even though he’s been able to pull off terrific visual effects in his past films, the CGI in White House Down is underwhelming. In addition to the poorly rendered jets and helicopters, the spectators standing outside the White House front gate all look like they’re in front of a green screen as if the film ran out of money to do decent composite work.
But these are minor quibbles in a movie that is unapologetic and can laugh along with its audience. White House Down never feels like it’s talking down to us because it implicitly acknowledges that we’re smart enough to recognize the film’s overwhelming silliness. This isn’t Olympus Has Fallen where the movie misguidedly tries to convince us the dumb action we’re watching could actually happen. Barack Obama nor any other President is going to be firing a rocket launcher out of his Presidential limo any time soon. Emmerich’s commitment to the tone even manages to successfully sidestep the pesky problem of a President who’s trying to shut down weapons manufacturers in a movie that features plenty of weapons. White House Down happily skips along as macho action rains down in a cartoonish manner that invites us to have fun rather than come up with a pretense to join the party.