Columbia/Sony’s contribution to the summer blockbuster line-up, White House Down, stars Channing Tatum as Capitol cop John Cale, who wants two simple things out of life: the attention of his daughter, Emily (Joey King), and a spot on the Secret Service’s Presidential Guard.
That’s not too much to ask, right?
Nope. And let me tell you why. White House Down is an action-packed political thriller second, and a feel-good movie first. Sure, it pays enough attention to the office and global affairs to spark a heated debate in the nearest poli-sci department, and yes there are plenty of explosions. Lots of people die. The White House and Capitol Building both get pretty much shredded. That aside, the full cycle of the hero’s journey plays out and the rewards matches the stakes.
It goes like this: John and Emily are visiting the White House. John has a job interview, and he’s brought his wee daughter, who is very interested in politics, along to tour the building. John interviewer is not unknown to him, though, and their past puts the kibosh on his aspirations. But Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is only doing her best to keep ol’ POTUS safe. John’s got a track record of leaving unfinished business, and she doesn’t buy into his supposed improvement.
So John goes on about his day, joining Emily on the tour.
Meanwhile, some pretty spectacular stuff is going down. An explosion rocks the Capitol Building, and the subsequent evacuation provides cover for a band of mercenaries, led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), to take the White House. Within minutes, hostages are gathered, defenses are overwhelmed, and the grounds are locked down. The President (Jamie Foxx) and his Chief of Security (James Woods) are pinned inside.
The action that follows is more believable than the inciting incident described above. The first minutes of the action go way too smoothly for an assault on what may be the most well-defended single family dwelling in the world. By the time the alarm is raised, it’s too late. I understand the convenience an action flick set-up requires, but much of what occurs here is beyond suspension.
Fortunately, it gets better from there. But I won’t spoil it for you.
Screenwriter James Vanderbilt provided a pretty good foundation for Roland Immerich’s direction. Combine that with the excellent synergy of Tatum and Foxx as well as an all-star supporting cast (Richard Jenkins, Nicholas Wright, Michael Murphy, Rachelle Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Peter Jacobson and others) and White House Down turns out to be one of the summer’s most watchable action films.
There’s enough story to make the time fly, enough characterization to allow for some actual acting, and enough action to balance those elements. The special effects are good, if you forgive that one bulletproof mirror, but don’t overpower the other elements. White House Down largely eschews shaky-cam too, actually keeping an eye on the action, which this reviewer finds particularly refreshing. The plot is pretty straight-forward, with a few telegraphed twists, all of which lead back to the hero’s return and the gifts he was promised: the freedom to join his daughter’s world while keeping a foot his own, and mastery over his own future.
That’s really what makes mono-myth based stories feel so good after all, and when you stack it on top of saving the world and getting the bad guy, well, that’s just the kind of tale America loves. But White House Down has a dash of nuance, too. There’s plenty of comedy, a lot of very difficult choices, and some very important themes.
See, this flick doesn’t tell you what to think about global politics, individual liberty, national service, or even the gun-control debate. Instead, it presents these as the complicated topics they are. And in a country where red, white, and blue are too often black and white, these are things we should all be considering more thoroughly. White House Down isn’t heavy, though. In the end, the good guys put hope back on the table, and peace prevails.
But the final result doesn’t depend on the actions of just one hero, and that theme runs deep, too. Everyone in this movie makes choices and fights their fight. The bad guys, while pretty two-dimensional, have their reasons. The guards, the politicos and even the pilots all have their reasons. Small players can make major contributions. And that, too, is the American Way.
White House Down isn’t a great American film. It probably won’t hit Man of Steel’s box office numbers, and nothing about it is truly exceptional. Still, it’s fun to watch, it’s smarter than a lot of the competition, and will definitely scratch that summer movie itch.
White House Down (www.whitehousedown.com) opens nationally in wide release today (June 28). For locations and show times in the Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image, 137 min. Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by James Vanderbilt. Starring Jamie Foxx, Channing Tatum, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Jason Clarke, Joey King and Lance Reddick.
*Photos by Reiner Bajo courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment.