Roland Emmerich sure has an edifice complex: The filmmaker who severed the Statue of Liberty in The Day After Tomorrow, laid waste to Manhattan in Godzilla, and dive-bombed the White House in Independence Day is back for another shot at the White House. Following Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down is the second movie this year that has as its premise the takeover and destruction of the White House – and the similarities don’t end there. I don’t pretend to know whether this redundancy is mere coincidence or a window into the cultural zeitgeist, but I do know this: Laying waste to the White House is certain to sell a lot of popcorn.
Although it doesn’t quite equal the spirited verve of Independence Day as a holiday classic, White House Down is amply endowed with enough tension, humor, and calamitous action to ensure it a solid berth in the summer box-office sweepstakes. Channing Tatum comes into his own as a leading man in this picture, proving himself as a beefy yet agile action star and not just the pure beefcake of Magic Mike. He plays John Cale, a Capitol cop and ex-military man, who now wants to join the Secret Service. Coincidence places him in the White House for an interview with Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal, who is a strong woman but looks too much like a 98-pound weakling to seem a believable chief of presidential security) at the exact moment the initial assault on the White House occurs. Also present is Cale’s adolescent daughter Emily (King), whose affection he is trying to win. Like the heroes in Olympus Has Fallen and Die Hard, Cale is a lone hero, succeeding with pure pluck where scores of others have fallen.
As President Sawyer, Jamie Foxx follows the mold of President Obama: a liberal academic who is also the father of a teenage girl. Unlike the North Koreans who were the bad guys in Olympus Has Fallen, the villains here are an interesting but not-quite-probable collection of American insurrectionists ranging from white supremacists to political dissidents to inside operators. (In a devious turn, the head of this renegade militia is played by Jason Clarke, who played the chief military torturer in Zero Dark Thirty.) The real enemy, we are told at a couple different points in the film, is the conveniently faceless “military-industrial complex.” Many details are sketchy and don’t hold up to close scrutiny (e.g., how a bomb could be smuggled into the White House in the first place), but the film moves at a good clip, features catchy banter (the screenplay is by Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt), makes creative use of the White House grounds and trappings, and showcases two likable leads. It’s safe to say that John Cale passed his Secret Service exam.
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