‘White House Down’ movie review: Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx save America

The second of 2013’s terrorists-take-the-White-House thrillers (after Olympus Has Fallen), Roland Emmerich’s White House Down fares a little better than its serious-minded predecessor: this thing is so over-the-top dumb it almost becomes a parody of itself, and turns into a subversive little satire of the Gerard Butler-Morgan Freeman film in the process. 

Of course, we expect no less from Emmerich, the director of 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day (at one point here, a White House tour guide even mentions ID4). While the lack of out-and-out global destruction makes this one of the director’s more restrained efforts, it gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. 

Hollywood is no stranger to the competing blockbuster: Dante’s Peak and Volcano were released within months of each other in 1997; Deep Impact went head-to-head with Armageddon the following year. Presumably, one studio will hear of a can’t-miss premise in production and fast-track their own version, attempting to get it into cinemas first (the later release is almost always the “bigger” film). 

Still, these films typically don’t have a whole lot else in common besides a strikingly similar premise; last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror were wildly divergent takes on the Snow White story that couldn’t have been less similar.

But watching Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down within a few months of each other, it’s amazing how similar these films are, right down to individual plot points. It’s Die Hard in the White House as terrorists storm the capital, kidnap the president, take hostages, hack into the government database…when nuclear launch codes and the big red button turn up, you can’t help but laugh. (Both films also feature a hilarious scene where the title is solemnly spoken over the radio.)

Of course, there’s one man… with something to prove… hiding behind enemy lines… 

Here, that’s Channing Tatum as John Cale, security officer for the speaker of the house (Richard Jenkins), who just happens to be at the White House to apply for a job with the Secret Service. His daughter has also tagged along for the journey, so that she may be taken hostage by the bad guys and then used as leverage when they find out who she is.

The baddies here are a group of mercenaries led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), who just seem to be chillin’ at the White House, even though each has extensive criminal histories. They wipe out the Secret Service in a matter of minutes (the USSS is getting a bad rap… the same exact thing happened in Olympus Has Fallen) before gathering up a small group of hostages.

The bad guys are working for the head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (James Woods), who has just had his retirement party. To celebrate, he kidnaps President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), briefly, before Cale – who had given the slip to the other baddies – swoops in and saves the day. 

Up until this point, 30 or 40 minutes into the film, White House Down is played relatively straight. Once Cale and Sawyer team up to take out the baddies, with Prez firing a rocket launcher from the backseat of the Presidential Limo, which is doing doughnuts on the White House lawn while the world watches… well, this thing goes off the deep end and never recovers.

That’s not a bad thing: the zanier White House Down gets, the more entertaining it becomes. You either go with this kind of thing or you don’t, but you gotta buy into the go-for-broke, live-action cartoon tone to have any fun here. This ends up being just as ridiculous as the director’s previous films, but the straightforward opening – and the inevitable comparison to Olympus Has Fallen, which played the same material straight – makes this come off as a subversive little parody.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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