Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods | Written by James Vanderbilt | Directed by Roland Emmerich
White House Down might be the greatest film ever made. At least that was my immediate reaction as the couple of people I texted informing them so could testify to. In the cold light of day, I understand that technically it’s not the greatest film ever made but it’s easily one of my favourites of the year so far and the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since Bad Lieutenant.
What makes it so easy to like is that it knows exactly what it wants to do and exactly how to do it really well. It helps that what the film wants to do is provide a showcase for some excellent action sequences, make you laugh and do some really big explosions. I am 100% in favour of cinema being an art form with which to explore characters, relationships and complex ideas but if you don’t also have room in your film-viewing for shoot outs, quips and helicopters then on some level, there’s something you simply don’t get about cinema.
White House Down is Die Hard in the White House. It knows this and totally gets it. An unassuming policeman is trapped in a terrorist takeover of a building and decides to do his bit; there are hostages, an eccentric hacker, machine guns and helicopters. Its hero’s name – John Cale – even sounds somewhat like John McClane. A refreshingly likable Channing Tatum plays the sound-a-like protagonist, who takes his estranged, precocious and politics-obsessed eleven year old daughter (Joey King) along to the White House whilst he interviews for a job in the secret service. Whilst there, gunmen assault the building in response to hipster president Jamie Foxx’s motion to pull all troops out of the Middle East and begin peace talks with Iran, which has angered the arms industry and triggered the most basic conspiracy in cinema. With the building in lockdown and having been separated from his daughter, Cale utilises his intense skills of badassery to save both her and the president. Other characters include Maggie Gyllenhaal as a secret service agent, Richard Jenkins as Speaker of the House, James Woods as the treacherous Head of Presidential Detail and Nicholas Wright as Donnie, the White House tour guide.
There are many wonderful moments in the film – a healthy smattering of shoot outs in the corridors of power, a brilliant car chase across the White House lawn, a ridiculously high octane helicopter assault on the roof of the White House (during which Channing Tatum runs from the underground tunnels of the White House to its roof in order take part in the fight – clearly the guy is in some shape) and a really quite exhilarating rocket assault on Air Force One. This is glued together by some strong comic chemistry between Tatum and Foxx, a zippy sense of pace and some slick direction from serial destroyer of American landmarks, Roland Emmerich.
Where the film really succeeds is in its sense of fun and escapism. Escapism is a very important release that everyone needs to experience at some points in their lives. You could argue that violent spectacle is something that a lot of people would benefit from experiencing less of and you would be correct. However it’s becoming increasingly rare in the real world at least to be able to bear witness to heroism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Heroism is also undervalued at the cinema. Proper, clean cut heroes, whose motives aren’t blurred by mixed loyalties just don’t seem to be in vogue. Heroes that are ordinary people in tough situations, not beings from other worlds with magic powers or billionaires in special suits are rarely seen.
The escapist joy of the film extends to the characterisation of the President too. Foxx is basically everything we thought Obama would be that night on November 4th 2008, before reality and disappointment set in. This idealist, liberal fantasy president is somewhat akin to President Bartlet making the film something like an amazing lost episode of The West Wing where they decided to solve fewer of their problems with witty barbs than with rocket launchers.
I can’t quite put my finger on what I loved so much about White House Down. It was fun without totally jettisoning intelligence. Sure, it ticks off pretty much every cliché in the book and is persistently and ridiculously silly, but it also exercises self-awareness. And yes, it was a quite literally flag-waving, uncritical view of America but it was on broadly liberal fantasy terms that I can get on board with. If you’re in need of an adventure that may challenge your expectations of how good slick, big budget blockbusters can be, then please make an appointment at the White House. My only criticism is that they didn’t call it Machine Gun President. That would have been an act of truly unparalleled greatness.
Note: I watched Olympus Has Fallen, the other White House assault film released this year by way of comparison after White House Down. The reason I don’t mention this is the man body of the review is because I didn’t wish my appraisal of the wonder latter to be in any way tainted by association to the turgid and dull former.