Roland Emmerich toys with slapstick during his ugly assault on America's most sacred building.
White House Down may be the most violent slapstick comedy in cinema history. Part pastiche, part celebration of Die Hard and its everyman physicality, Roland Emmerich’s cagey action film portrays gun battles and aerial manoeuvers as a series of ridiculously staged pitfalls between soldiers and their war machines. This provides ample opportunity for destructive situations to take on an absurd quality, focusing on the close proximity between metal and muscle.
While the level of mayhem never reaches the heights of this year’s other White House siege movie, Olympus Has Fallen, Emmerich nevertheless achieves a relentless pace that replaces traditional comic blunders with the likes of explosions and car crashes.
Ex-Marine John Cale (Channing Tatum) exhibits the sort of mindless guts and instinctual wherewithal necessary to thrive within the insane juggernaut that is White House Down. While visiting the first residence with his daughter Emily (Joey King) to interview for a Secret Service position, Cale finds himself caught in the middle of a terrorist attack orchestrated from the inside out. After the Capitol Building gets explosively topped like an overgrown tree, mercenaries posing as audio technicians take out President Sawyer’s (Jamie Foxx) entire security detail with little effort and ingenuity.
Once under duress, Cale and Sawyer meet cute and eventually find themselves hunted through the White House corridors and tunnels by an armed band of walking clichés led by Jason Clarke’s hulking special ops brute. Essential historical trinkets get blown to bits, proving once again that no hallowed infrastructure is safe from Emmerich’s bloodlust. A White House tour guide eventually gets so fed up with the destruction of priceless artifacts that he takes revenge against his hillbilly captor.
White House Down really gets nutty when the carnage spills out into the open with a kinetic chase sequence that finds a trio of black SUVs pursing the first limousine. As the media, National Guard reserves and hundreds of citizens look on from beyond the gates, Cale and Sawyer drive around the North Lawn Fountain over and over again, trying to figure out the best escape route. It’s like watching a dog chase its tail, except with machine guns and RPGs.
Emmerich revels in the outlandish spectacle of the event, filming from a bird’s-eye to properly convey the grandiose stupidity on display. For all its welcome silliness, White House Down eventually succumbs to its more derivative impulses. The final act is so bloated with plot that you almost forget the spry nature of the early sequences. And what do we make of Jamie Foxx’s Obama stand-in? There’s certainly some dumbed-down political themes and simplifications of race that can’t go unnoticed.
Like most Hollywood blockbusters, though, the strangely subversive strands that manage to survive the production process are the most interesting to consider. Take for instance Emily’s ascent from smart history junkie to YouTube sensation, or Sawyer’s daredevil need to literally hover over Lincoln’s memorial.
White House Down frames these tangential ideas as pieces to a slapstick puzzle it has no interest in solving. Emmerich just wants you to sit back and laugh at how quickly our democracy can crumble.
Another White House siege movie?
The most violent slapstick comedy ever.
An expensive blockbuster chuckle that doesn't last.