Roland Emmerich’s White House Down stands tall among the stupidest movies I have ever seen.
It begins from a place of relative sanity, though, introducing us to a more or less alternate-universe version of the United States where idealism still has a place in politics. A world where the President can be genuinely optimistic, and actually has the initiative and influence to affect change; a world in which pulling all American troops out of the Middle East is a viable catch-all solution to world peace, where those on the President’s staff can cheerily, non-ironically proclaim that they have the best job in the world, and where a little girl’s innocent but forceful faith in democracy is continually shown to be the proper, admirable attitude to have towards politics. Dumb? Sure. This is not the world we live in – I am writing this on the day the Supreme Court struck down key tenants of civil rights, several weeks after learning of disturbing IRS and NSA scandals, and only a few months after multiple horrific mass shootings occurred without one iota of meaningful legislative action – but as escapism goes, this is a nice fantasy realm to visit. At this moment, our political system is useless, corrupt, and destructive, and has been for the majority of my life, so I have no qualms with a film that wants to stage action in a utopian vision of America, and maybe help us forget about the real world for a couple of hours. I may not be a Roland Emmerich fan, but I can appreciate that his trademark, wide-eyed idealism carries a certain amount of charm.
Optimism is not what makes White House Down so astoundingly stupid, and neither is it the total and complete implausibility of the second act, in which the eponymous mansion is abused to staggering but creative degrees, over-the-top car chases are staged on the lawn, and the leader of the free world hangs himself out from a limousine to fire a rocket launcher. Silly? Of course. That is the point of the entire affair. But contender for dumbest movie ever made? Not quite yet.
It is the third act that does it. By God, that third act, that astoundingly deranged, impossibly mindless, clinically insane third act. It is a work of ludicrously ill-conceived beauty, a stretch of film so wildly dumb, so singularly intent on one-upping its own stupidity at every turn, that White House Down is transformed before our eyes from a forgetful slice of big, dumb summer fun into a film that can be described as ‘so bad it’s good.’ As the film gives itself over 100% to the style of bad military-based video games – even seemingly modeling its dialogue on recent Call of Duty titles, and doing a hilariously poor job at it – each decision made by every single character grows increasingly senseless, the villain’s already convoluted plan turns out to be one of the most ridiculously, laughably psychopathic (and uncomfortably tin-eared) in recent cinematic memory, air strikes are ordered to burn the White House to the ground, and a little girl waving a flag is enough to make Air Force pilots disregard direct orders.
This is only the tip of the moronic iceberg, and yet even now, I cannot decide if the film is better or worse for its idiocy. Given just how dumb the plot becomes, and just how needlessly prolonged the narrative grows to clumsily wedge in plot twist after plot twist, there is no way I can call White House Down ‘good.’ Nor, however, can I deny the extreme amounts of enjoyment I felt watching this symphony of stupidity unfold before my unsuspecting eyes. It is entirely possible I have not laughed this hard at a movie all year, and whether or not 75 to 90 percent of those laughs were unintentional, the sheer mental deficiency of White House Down is practically intoxicating.
This is all, of course, just a roundabout way of saying that if you ever wanted to see a film that mashed up the premise of Die Hard with the overwhelming political ignorance and over-the-top narrative failings of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, White House Down may just be a dream come true. It really is amazing, even given how many Die Hard rip-offs there have been over the years, just how closely White House Down mimics the 1989 action classic. Premise-wise, the films are identical: Terrorists (led here by James Woods as a government turncoat and Jason Clarke as a ruthless mercenary) take over a large building and gather a room full of hostages, and the one man who escapes is a down-on-his-luck cop (Channing Tatum) whose estranged loved one (daughter here, rather than wife) is stuck with the rest of the hostages. There are additional wrinkles – Tatum’s prime objective here is to protect the President, played by Jaime Foxx, and the potential fallout of the attack is obviously much bigger than it was at Nakatomi Plaza – but the framework is cut and pasted from Die Hard, down to a literally explosive battle on the roof and heavy amounts of communication through phones and walkie talkies.
And I am even more surprised, given how little thought I have given the game recently, how much White House Down reminded me of Modern Warfare 2, in all its thoughtlessly destructive, narratively incoherent glory. Like that video game, White House Down is more or less constructed entirely out of plot holes with loose claims on political realities. This isn’t even one of those cases where I can say ‘pull at one string and it will all fall apart,’ because the story was never really assembled to begin with. Even in the film’s earlier, less incoherent stretches, not a single thing about White House Down makes sense. Not the way the terrorist plot is enacted, not the plot itself, and certainly not the government’s reaction to the attacks. Why this situation could not be quickly and easily solved with a call to one of our many covert, precise strike teams, like Seal Team Six – who are name-dropped, even, by Tatum’s character – is never established, unless one just accepts that, in the diegesis of the film, every single person in the government and armed forces is a tremendous ignoramus.
Suspending disbelief is obviously important for a film such as this, but there are only so many suspensions the human brain can take, especially when the movie is, like all of Emmerich’s works, so overstuffed with characters that there is not a single one the viewer may latch on to. Is it ridiculous to complain about unsatisfactory character work in a movie that involves the American military firing tank shells at the White House? Perhaps, but no matter the film, the absolute easiest way to ground silly blockbuster antics is to build them around a compelling human figure. White House Down has at least one potentially fruitful avenue for this in Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, two immensely talented actors who seem to share good chemistry, but the cast is so large and the structure so diffuse, spending only minutes at most with one character or set of characters before moving on to another, that nobody, not even Tatum or Foxx, shines as a legitimately interesting touchstone. Everyone fulfills the archetypal niche they have been assigned to, but little more than that, and I suspect a good twenty to thirty minutes of extraneous material could be cut if several of these characters simply never existed.
The film has its legitimate merits, which I would not wish to ignore. Emmerich remains an effective (if shamelessly attention-seeking) director of spectacle, and there is, as always, a certain perverse sense of pleasure to be had in watching American iconography get blown to smithereens. That pleasure gets diluted more and more as Emmerich continues to rehash it, though, and what works best here is how Emmerich stages action in and around the White House. At the very least, one cannot blame him for failing to capitalize on this opportunity – he commits early on to the notion of doing Die Hard in the White House, and exploits that idea for all it is worth. The production design is creative and immersive, and in the film’s best stretches, Emmerich even manages to wring out some real thrills and tension.
All of that more or less goes out the window by the time that final act rolls around, though, and White House Down evolves into an exercise in pure absurdist fantasy. Pay little attention to whatever star grade I wind up giving this film, because summarizing my overall feelings towards it as a binary, positive/negative reaction is futile. White House Down is not a good film, but I enjoy doubling over with laughter as much as anyone else, and there is always a certain appeal to this sort of polished, over-the-top action lunacy. There are many, many better films playing in theatres right now, but if you have seen everything else, and still need something to pass a couple of hours, there are much worse ways to do so than White House Down. Take some friends. Laugh with them. Openly heckle the film, so long as the theatre is relatively empty. Concentrated bursts of stupidity this powerful only come once in a long while, after all. We must appreciate them while they last.
The film has its obvious strengths and failings, with a nice sense of spectacle and disappointing character work, but overall, I find it hard to deny that the sheer mental deficiency of White House Down is practically intoxicating.