I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I don't subscribe to the "so bad it's good" or the "turn your brain off" schools of film loving. I don't need every film to be THE TREE OF LIFE, but I need something or someone to grab onto and give a shit about. The latest from disaster film maestro Roland Emmerich (2012, INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW), WHITE HOUSE DOWN, is not a great movie, but it fulfills a very basic need in me in that it gives me several characters whose fate I actually cared about because I liked them as people, or at least movie people. Much of the reason I empathized is that the actors inject a pulse into their characters that simply isn't there on the page. But that's allowed, and it worked wonders for me.
WHITE HOUSE DOWN is the second film this year (after OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN) featuring an attack and takeover of the president's residence. Just before that happens, Capitol Police Officer John Cale (Channing Tatum, exuding a confidence and charm that seems to grow with each film) applies for a job as a US Secret Service agent, and is politely refused by the head of the White House detail, Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Cale has his young daughter (Joey King) with him, and he manages to get them passes for a tour of the White House before they leave. Naturally, while they're on the tour, the White House is attacked by some kind of domestic paramilitary group (seemingly led by Jason Clarke), which moves in quickly and deadly.
Cale just happens to not be with the rest of the group when the attackers swoop in, and he hides to fight them and rescue his daughter, still with the rest of the terrified tour group. As for President James Sawyer himself (Jaime Foxx), he is being taken to an underground bunker by his chief of security (James Woods), who not surprisingly betrays him. Also featured are Michael Murphy as the vice president and Richard Jenkins as the speaker of the House, both of whom are swept away into some remote corner of trying to rescue the president.
The first very odd aspect of WHITE HOUSE DOWN is that it's never quite sure what the end game is. Without ruining anything, it seems like each new layer of bad guy (and there are a few) has a different motivation for betraying their country and a different idea of how to wrap up this catastrophic event. Emmerich and his team have done a remarkable job re-creating the White House and its many lawns, gardens and fountains, all of which get totaled by the end. The attack itself, both the initial invasion and then the many attacks that try to draw out the bad guys from the White House, are spectacular, as one would expect from Roland Emmerich.
As thinly drawn as some of the film's villains might be, the amount of character development put into Cale and Sawyer is a nice counterbalance. The president is a bit of a lover, not a fighter, and when he and Cale are in hiding, their exchanges are actually really dialed back and enjoyable to listen to in way that just casual banter wouldn't work. They actually have conversations while they wait to see if the bad guys will come to them, and we get to know them throughout the course of the film. Is Tatum basically just stepping in for old-school DIE HARD-era Bruce Willis? You bet he is; right down to the filthy wife-beater undershirt and walking with purpose. But who else is going to do it?
One of my favorite elements of WHITE HOUSE DOWN was something I was sure I'd loathe. I actually think Joey King is one of the most talented actresses in her age group (her voice work in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL as China Girl stone cold broke my heart), and she proves why by playing Cale's estranged daughter. Her character actually does things to forward the film besides getting kidnapped. She shoots cell phone video of her captors, and before too long, the government has their names—something they were trying to hide. King plays this kid as something more than average, and she succeeds.
While my brain was mercifully untaxed by WHITE HOUSE DOWN, it didn't shut down either, and I ended up having a terrific time with this film. I want Tatum and Foxx to make seven more films together, all road movies set after President Sawyer finishes his time in office. They work and play so well together, and the results save this movie, unquestionably.
The film tries to go big, as it gives us a sense of how other nations are responding to America's big news. And anytime Tatum and Foxx are on screen together, things began to spark and take off. When we're watching a scene where they aren't featured, things tend to drag a bit and I lost interest in the overly explained background story, whose biggest crime is taking us away from the leads. WHITE HOUSE DOWN never wants to be your only source of daily intellectual goodness, but it has enough going for it to entertain certain, more primal areas of the brain.