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White House Down Gets No Thumbs Up

<i>White House Down</i> Gets No Thumbs Up

DVD Release Date: November 5, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: June 28, 2013
Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language, and a brief sexual image.)
Genre: Action
Run Time: 131 min
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods

It’s open season on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. at the multiplexes this year.

Just three months after the ludicrous Olympus Has Fallen, we're given another "Die Hard in the White House" actioner. This one’s even more amped up in style yet curbed back on violence (well, gratuitously graphic violence anyway) – plus it’s merely ridiculous rather than completely ludicrous. Unfortunately, though, White House Down only looks good by direct comparison. On its own, this is just another dumb action movie, one that will likely fill seats yet seems fated – like most Roland Emmerich extravaganzas – to be a one-term proposition.

Bloated like a federal budget, White House Down spins its expository wheels for a good half-hour before any action kicks in. Much of it is needless as the characters and relationships all fit genre archetypes, starting with the lead, John Cale (Channing Tatum, G.I. Joe: Retaliation). He wants to join the Secret Service but, despite being a war hero, is too much of a loose cannon. If only a dire scenario requiring incredible heroics against impossible odds with national security at stake would just spiral quickly out of control so that Cale could prove himself...

Well lucky day, there are some vendetta-minded government insiders with scores to settle who are more than willing to create that opportunity with a militarized takeover of the Presidential mansion. Moreover, not only does Cale find himself in the perfect position to prove himself to the President (Jamie Foxx, The Soloist) but also to his angsty-yet-bright tweenage girl with whom he’s sort of estranged post-divorce (natch). There’s also a Speaker, Veep, and other government types (including a romantic interest from Cale’s past) to fill out the ensemble, and it’s all par for the course. Blah blah yada yada, can we get to blowing up the White House already?

Despite the explosive orgy of destruction that unfolds – once it finally gets going, for crying out loud – there's no sense of danger or suspense, as very little is really at stake. Oh sure, the very existence of the free world is on the line – and even, eventually, nuclear Armageddon – but never once are you worried if any of those doomsday scenarios will actually come to pass, or if anyone you care about (and I use that term lightly) will actually die. It doesn’t matter how many thousand bullets are sprayed through the halls, rooms, and vehicles that Cale and the President find themselves in; you know that no bullet will connect with a fatal blow – and when a villain's gun needs to jam, it will.

Which brings us to the bad guys themselves. Though we live in a world in which apparently everyone – from Islamic Radicals to North Korean crazies to your run-of-the-mill Superpower haters – has it in for the United States, the only PC-acceptable villains nowadays are other Americans. Right-wing extremists, to be more specific. All white, male, and some racist to boot.

Not only does this ring false in the context of the true terrorist threats that our nation faces, but the liberal Hollywood slant reflected here is laughable to the point of insult. Even the surprise of who the "inside man" is that enables the domestic terrorist unit to smuggle a militia-level armament into the White House (a ridiculous proposition in itself) proves easily predictable based on casting alone. We're either way ahead of this movie's rather foreseeable beats, or left thinking "You’re kidding me, right?" with the rest.

The action onslaught, with all its gusto, has few legitimate thrills. The only inspired set piece is a bullet-riddled car chase sequence across and around the White House grounds – not on the nearby streets, mind you, but on the lawn perimeter itself. It's sort of a gonzo idea and they pull it off, but it’s the film's lone highlight.

As for the violence, it’s a perfect PG-13 mix of destructive overkill with mostly bloodless results. Yes, victims fall at the hands of gunmen with regularity, and several at point blank range, but rarely are killings displayed to any particular graphic degree beyond the quick convulsion and collapse of yet another nameless body to be added to the count. Suffice it to say that people are blown up and/or gunned down often, and at length, but on a desensitized videogame level.

In case this all sounds too grim, director Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow) goes out of his way to create a light atmosphere with ongoing banter and one-liner quips. It’s an old-school 80s action sensibility – and not an entirely unwelcome one – but in the context of our nation’s capital in a post-9/11 world it often comes off as too light, even tone deaf, and at times borderline insensitive. At the very least, all attempts at suspense or dramatic weight fall flat.

The cast acquits itself well enough despite playing generic roles, while the two poster boys Tatum and Foxx provide some of their best and worst work, respectively. Tatum is built for blockbusters like these, not just physically but also with his easy-going charm and dry charisma. He makes for a very appealing action star, to both sexes. Foxx, on the other hand, is miscast and his take on a President isn’t remotely presidential. He's more attitude than temperament. While that's clearly by design it’s the one aspect of the film that demands credibility and Foxx just doesn’t provide it.

For all my particular gripes, I have to confess that the crowd at my public screening seemed to lap this mess up, laughing and cheering along the way. If that's at all indicative, White House Down may prove to be a classic example where film critics and the masses part ways. While no one will mistake this for being art, it’s a bit disheartening to know that enough may mistake it for being good.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: None
  • Language/Profanity: A good deal of profanity throughout. The s-word is used often. About eight variations of the Lord's name in vain. Four uses of a-hole. Three SOBs. One f-word.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: An infrared thermal scan silhouette image of a couple in bed together as they begin to have sex (seen briefly, from a distance). A verbal reference to "2nd base" is made. A man and woman kiss.
  • Violence/Other: Heavy amounts of gunfire and gun-related killings throughout. A few killings have a low-to-moderate level of blood involved, but most don’t. Some shootings are point blank killings of individuals. Missile launches, explosions. Bombs detonated, one in a crowd of innocent people. Some violent fight scenes. A girl is slapped once violently. The same girl is also placed in serious peril at times, including having a gun pointed to her head as she cries. A bloody wound in a man’s side.

Publication date: June 28, 2013