White House Down Sells Its Absurdities!

01 - Reiner Bajo

Although this is the second invasion of the White House of the year, it’s bigger, louder and, paradoxically, safer – thanks to its PG-13 rating – than Olympus Has Fallen. Also, it has an outstanding cast supporting an equally excellent core of stars who appear to be having the times of their lives. It takes the basic idea of bad guys invading the White House for nefarious purposes and then spins out all kinds of fun sub-plots.

Before 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum was pretty much awful (I referred to him in a review from that period and ‘noted fencepost Channing Tatum’), but in 21 Jump Street, he put it all together and hasn’t given a bad performance since.

Here, he’s John Cale, a guy who works on the security detail for Speaker of the House Rafelson (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor). In order to get back in his daughter Emily’s (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful) good books, he applies for position with the Secret Service and wangles a White tour to impress her. The interview is conducted by Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhall, The Dark Knight), with whom his has an unexpected pass (needless to say, it does not go well) – but there’s still the tour.

While they’re taking the tour, all hell breaks loose – which Emily misses, at first, because of a need to avail herself of the nearest facilities. When the tour group is taken hostage, she isn’t among them, which sets Cale into action – but he’s not trying to be a hero. He just wants to find his little girl and get her out of there. From there it’s just, as Clifton Fadiman once said, one darned thing after another – until suddenly we find Cale and Jamie Foxx’s Obama-like President James Sawyer in the president’s tank of a limo with a rocket launcher!

Like I said, absurdities…


From James Woods’ retiring head of the president’s Secret Service detail to Kevin Rankin’s white supremacist psycho; from Richard Jenkins’ quietly cheerful Rafelson to Nicolas Wright’s nerdy Donnie the Tour Guide; from Lance Reddick’s General Caulfield to Rachelle Lefevre’s Melanie (Emily’s mom, Cale’s ex), everyone onscreen is beautifully cast (Reddick may be the most intense man in the world; Woods plays villainy with an undercurrent of pathos that almost makes him sympathetic – but not quite). King, though, is the movie’s revelation. Emmerich puts Emily through the wringer and King makes us believe she’s the smart, scared, brave kid the movie needs to make everything work.

The action set pieces are striking visually and character-wise – and, as with all Emmerich movies, superbly executed. The effects vary from surprisingly subtle to incredibly bombastic (pun intended) and are exquisitely timed. The cinematography (by Anna Foerster) is perfection.

In keeping with big smart/dumb summer movie tradition, though, the intricate plotting only works if some stupid decisions are made – by bad and good guys alike (one wag in the audience shouted, ‘Just shoot the girl, idiot!’). Personally, I think Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt have done this deliberately to give people a reason to shout at the screen (like the aforementioned wag), but I can’t really be sure, so White House Down loses points for that.

Otherwise, though – to borrow a line from Stephen King’s new novel, Joyland – Emmerich is selling fun, here, and doing a bang-up job (again, pun intended).

In short, Roland Emmerich makes big, loud summer movies with guns, and brawls and explosions – but also with characters we can care about. Unlike some other directors I could name (*cough*Michael Bay*cough*), Emmerich is completely aware of the absurdities of his movies – as are his cast and crew. With White House Down, as with most of his movies, he’s saying, ‘Of course this is absurd – that’s why it’s so much fun!’

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Photos by Reiner Bajo/Courtesy of Sony Pictures