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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

White House Down Movie Review

In this season of wanton destruction (in movies) and political upheaval (in reality), it's hard to think of a film less necessary or less appropriate than "White House Down". This is the second film in which director Roland Emmerich has laid waste to the President's residence, and the second film this year (after the almost identical "Olympus Has Fallen") to show an assault on the White House. Emmerich treads no new ground here. Instead he blows it up, relieves himself, plants a flag in the rubble and expects us to cheer. Um...yay America? Granted, Emmerich isn't known for making documentaries -- live-action cartoons are his schlock in trade. But even as a brainless summer popcorn movie, "White House Down" is too ridiculous and off-putting to be a satisfying escape.

Here's the premise in a nutshell: Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a war veteran and Secret Service wannabe. On a visit to the White House with his daughter, Emily (Joey King), he finds himself in the middle of an assault on the building by armed commandos - an inside job orchestrated by Secret Service Director Walker (James Woods). In the ensuing chaos, Cale and Emily are split up and President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is taken hostage by Walker. As the entire White House security detail and military rescue teams are systematically blown up, shot or blown out of the air by the commandos, it falls to Cale to get the President, his daughter, and the other hostages to safety.

In the film's 137 minutes, Emmerich packs the film with enough cliches, hokum, and cheap, unfunny jokes to make Michael Bay jealous. Every shot and every line of exposition might as well include a giant red arrow and sign that says, "PAY ATTENTION! THIS WILL BE A PLOT POINT LATER!" If Emmerich has one saving grace, it's that he knows how to cut an action scene. Each set piece is coherent and easy to follow (a surprising rarity with most action films today, grudgingly worthy of at least a singl- star review). Unfortunately, he just doesn't know when to stop. It's one crisis after another, mounting in ridiculousness.

Tatum, for his part, seems in on the joke. He knows his role is to take off his shirt and to fight bad guys, and does his job gamely. But he isn't able to keep the film from going off a cliff. Tatum and Foxx have a nice repartee, but the constant chase sequences keep them from building up a real chemistry. Foxx has possibly the hardest job in the whole film. It's nearly impossible to make his character at all believable: an Obama-esque, peace-lovin' President with a penchant for vintage Air Jordans and Lincoln's watch in his pocket (er...shouldn't that be in the Smithsonian or something?).

It would be easy to dismiss all this folderol as dumb fun, but key events portrayed in the film seem especially dark and inappropriate in the current climate. Emmerich has a history of insensitivity: a mere three years after 9/11, he did not see a problem with destroying New York City in "The Day After Tomorrow". "White House Down" suffers from the same tone-deafness. Emmerich apparently has no qualms showing Americans shooting elected officials in the head, two years after Sen. Giffords was shot in Arizona. Or even slightly bothered about threatening schoolchildren with guns, a scant six months after Newton. This insensitivity is completely inexcusable.

Worse, Emmerich wraps the whole mess in a kind of faux patriotism, embodied by Cale's daughter, Emily. She's so enamored of politics (just like all little girls her age), she did a flag routine for the school talent show. Yes, she literally is a flag-waving patriot. Not only that, she's a champion of the press. While hiding from commandos, she documents the siege with her camera phone and posts it to her "video blog" (don't get me started). Never mind how security allowed her to bring her camera phone into the White House (after all, why should the President's house have more security than, say, a movie screening?), she's a journalistic hero. I won't even go into her Big Moment, which is so insultingly schmaltzy, the audience either laughed or groaned audibly. With that one unfavorable, unanimous audience reaction, I almost felt truly patriotic.

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