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Sunday, February 5, 2023


White House Down Manages to Pleasantly Surprise

Channing Tatum, wearing less and less as the film wears on

Channing Tatum, wearing less and less as the film wears on

By Kevin Cook (@KevinCookUH)

A movie needn’t be cerebral to be good, and veteran director Roland Emmerich (Independence DayThe Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has banked heavily on that with White House Down, an unabashedly crowd-pleasing action flick that will hardly be accused of overthinking things.

Emmerich, who has famously said that he is “a filmmaker, not a scientist,” in response to criticism suggesting that his films are superficial and poorly thought out, considers himself a director for the people, a “popcorn” moviemaker that caters to the wants and needs of the general admission public, not the media or critical community. And, as his films have grossed over $3 billion worldwide to date, he’s certainly not wrong.

White House Down, not to be confused with Olympus Has Fallen (which Millennium Films rushed to cast and shoot so it could beat White House to the box office), is probably exactly what you’re expecting. It has this year’s hunk du jour, Channing Tatum, as John Cale, the lovably flawed Capitol-policeman-and-father who brings his daughter to his failed Secret Service job interview (“You’ve got raw potential, Cale, but you’re a loose cannon and you never finish what you start,” etc.) at the White House in an effort to impress her. And, as you’ll know from the trailers or production posters or — heck — even the title of the movie itself, things go terribly wrong from there.

The plot, as such, is a hodgepodge of Die HardAir Force One, and Independence Day. Cale, not an official Secret Service officer as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol Finnerty makes painfully clear in his interview, is trapped inside the White House when it is stormed and taken over by a paramilitary crew, led by Jason Clarke’s Emil Stanz. Fortunately, Cale is wearing his shoes.

Look, the plot unfolds in precisely the way you’re probably imagining, and probably at exactly the pace you’d expect. Emmerich didn’t gross $3 bil as a director by making experimental, Andy-Warhol-style explorations of color and sound. The man makes blockbusters. I think it’s only fair to judge a movie like White House Down against its peers, and pitted against similar films, this one fares pretty well.

Compared to Millennium’s attempt earlier this year to make (basically) the same movie in OlympusWhite House Down is an outright masterpiece. With twice the budget and ten times the heart, White House manages to avoid the bleary, dark, dull self-importance of Olympus. Channing Tatum, no matter your feelings about his sex appeal, may be the most likable action star in a long, long while, and the film benefits tremendously from his effortless, self-deprecating acting sensibilities, and from his easy chemistry with virtually anyone he shares the screen with (not counting Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is incapable of generating chemistry with anyone, anywhere).

The script of White House Down is predictable, but competent. Olympus Has Fallen, for example, was predictable and incompetent. In White House Down, the saw-them-coming lines aren’t unbearable or groan-inducing, and Tatum and Jamie Foxx (as James Sawyer, POTUS) lend them enough verve and character to mitigate their obviousness. Interestingly, Sony Pictures bought this script from writer James Vanderbilt in 2012 for a staggering $3 million, which The Hollywood Reporter called, “one of the biggest spec sales in quite a while.”

The emotional linchpin of the plot — and I’ll grant you, there isn’t much in the way of emotional investment required here — is Cale’s daughter, Emily, played by Joey King. King has had quite a year, appearing in The Dark Knight Rises as a young Talia al Ghul, then in Oz the Great and Powerful, The Conjuring, and now White House Down. She is remarkably adept onscreen, and does a tremendous job, in what might charitably be described as a limited role, alongside Tatum and Foxx. An annoying child actor in this role would have absolutely killed this movie and made it totally unbearable, but she is charming, quirky, and tenacious and has terrific chemistry with Tatum’s dryly understated Cale.

This is not a film that will teach us something profound about the human situation. That’s fine, I suppose. It wasn’t really intended to be. Where the movie does divert into politics and ideology, it does so poorly and ham-handedly — with plenty of eye-rolling blather about evil defense contractors and the soulless business of war — but blessedly briefly.

This is a film that blows a lot of things up, including the titular building (not a first for Emmerich, of course; see Independence Day’s treatment of the White House), but unlike Olympus Has Fallen, it manages to do so with a little bit of charm, a little wit, and really nails the beats in between the very-foreseeable plot points that get us from A to B in the script. White House Down is, surprisingly, a pleasant potpourri of moving pieces that adds up to considerably more than the sum of its parts.


Kevin Cook is a movie reviewer for The Daily Cougar and and can/should be followed on Twitter- @KevinCookUH

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