The White House is being taken apart one wing at a time, the nuclear warheads have been activated, the American President is missing and probably dead, and the United Stated Air Force is going to bomb his residence. Why then do the characters in Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster porn offering behave as though they are at a friendly baseball match? Probably because they watched Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen a few months ago and knew how it would all end.
2013 will go down as the year in which not one but sets of scriptwriters and studios raced each other to the finishing line with their versions of the President in peril. White House Down suffers tremendously because Fuqua got there first, especially since there is little to differentiate the two plots. We don’t know what’s more depressing —the sight of studios milking audience sentiment by taking the what-if scenario to a special effects-aided extreme or the fact that there is only one way to approach a White House Attack story: Kidnap the president and activate the nukes.
The beleaguered American president, who has endured assassination attempts (In the Line of Fire), plane hijacking (Air Force One) and impersonation (Dave, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra), has to suffer the ignominy of having his own countrymen turn against him in the latest fantasy scenario. Gerard Butler single-handedly faced a battalion of North Koreans in Olympus Has Fallen, while Jamie Foxx’s Obama-esque President is faced with a bunch of white supremacists led by Jason Clarke’s Stenz who are aided by a master hacker, kind of like Julian Assange teaming up with a heavily armed Ku Klux Klan. Standing between annihilation and the all-American terrorists who infiltrate what should be one of the most heavily guarded properties in the world is Channing Tatum’s devoted dad Cale, who conveniently happens to be accompanying his precocious daughter Emily (Joey King) on a White House tour on that very day. Cale flunks an interview to be a Secret Service agent, and what follows is a 131-minute job interview.
A two-year-old will guess the rest. Secret Service agents flap about hysterically, especially since their boss (James Woods) is the mastermind of the attack, the armed forces dither on the sidelines, while President Sawyer gets to channelize his inner John Rambo. There’s some blather about the “military-industrial complex” being responsible, but we suspect that there’s something else at work: the redecoration lobby.
The screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man) clumsily tries to infuse insouciance into the proceedings, but most of the comedy is purely unintentional. The movie is sorely missing Nicolas Cage, who would have brought to life such comatose lines as “Are you okay? Define okay” and “Can you not hit me on the head with a rocket launcher? I need to drive!” Emmerich, who blew up the White House in Independence Day (there’s a joke about it in the movie in case you had forgotten), goes through the motions of ladling out vast servings of destruction, but for once, he is late to the orgy.