Roland Emmerich is mainly known for his big budget spectacles, but ever since the dismal ‘2012’ he seems to be scaling it back a bit. His newest effort has only the White House under siege, but in this case, smaller isn’t necessarily better. Here he manages to deliver a pretty stale summer blockbuster, in which both the action and comedy are just a step off. After watching, there isn’t a discussion about “was it good” or “was it bad,” but rather, “why did they bother?” The film is tired, and it wants to masquerade as geopolitical commentary, but it fails on virtually any conceivable level. The film isn’t even entertaining. In the end, there doesn’t seem to be any real passion behind ‘White House Down,’ and it shows with every minute that ticks by on-screen. Spoilers to follow.
The film stars Channing Tatum as a want-to-be secret service agent who gets caught up in an attack on the White House while he is there for a tour with his daughter (the surprisingly-effective Joey King). Tatum is actually pretty decent in the role, but is nothing spectacular or praise-worthy. His performance is simply good and believable, all one could want out of a summer blockbuster, but especially from Emmerich. Also believable is Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer, and while Foxx does add flourishes of depth to the character, these are brief and barely sidenotes once the action gets going. The film doesn’t really spend a lot of time on Sawyer as the president, what he believes, or any of that- it simply focuses on the action plot so as not to try to make the film overly political. At least not yet, anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal is barely effective as a secret service agent and isn’t given much to do with the role but stand around looking concerned.
James Woods also stars in the film as the head of the secret service, agent Walker, and is also the film’s villain. This isn’t a spoiler, since it immediately establishes this in the first moments he is on the screen. Once the actual attack begins, Woods turns out one of the hammiest performances in recent memory and has a lot of fun with his role, even if most of it is relatively nonsensical. The mercenary team that attacks the White House is able to dispatch all of the guards and secret service personnel therein within a matter of seconds; they might as well have been shooting at dummies. If anyone should be angry about the film it is the secret service, who are here portrayed as either traitors or ineffective wimps or target practice. Suspension of disbelief falls to pieces here. Sure, some of the mercenaries were well-trained, but Emmerich wants the audience to believe that the secret service is made of up retired mall cops and wanna-be security guards.
For a big summer blockbuster, the film is a relative snore. Sure, it has some pretty effects, but none of its action set pieces, twists, or comedic moments hit the mark. The only funny moments come from Nicolas Wright as the White House tour guide, but they are peppered in as a distraction at best and probably to make sure the audience is still awake. Lots of things explode, and there is plenty of money on the screen, but none of it is really compelling or exciting to watch. Emmerich quite literally seems to have just thrown it on the screen, and it shows. It doesn’t do anything surprising to throw off the audience or keep them engaged. It is literally action-by-numbers, quick comedic scene, quick heartfelt scene, exposition, more action-by-numbers. It was boring, Roland, and watching the Capitol explode shouldn’t be boring. Its concluding action piece- the “race to complete the mission before the planes bomb the building” scene, is boring and is also standard fare. Nothing that happens in the film isn’t predictable, save for the final reveal of the real villain, which comes so far out of left field that it is cringe-worthy. Throwing in a big twist at the very end to try to “gotcha” the audience is just lazy writing on the part of James Vanderbilt.
Where the film is at its most-flawed, however, is in its blatant attempts at geopolitical commentary. While one can appreciate that no political party is ever given for Sawyer’s administration, the film turns into an over-the-top political cheesefest with Vanderbilt’s revelations that the whole attack was motivated by a military-industrial complex desperate to keep the war machines running. Sawyer makes note in the film that war equals profit, which is true, and while no one can argue that Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex is a very valid point, it all comes off as an afterthought, and a halfhearted one at that. The film’s decidedly anti-war and war-exhausted atmosphere is something that a lot of Americans can connect with, but in the end it all falls apart. It is a conspiracy script, desperate to give credence to the conspiracy mindset that there must be more at work than we can know. Like most conspiracies, ‘White House Down’ doesn’t hold a lot of water, nor does it hold up to any kind of scrutiny in the end. Dwight Eisenhower’s warning is as true today as ever it was, but it needs a better spotlight than this ineffective garbage. Two and a half out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
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