After a detour into the world of Shakespearean authorship conspiracies in Anonymous, disaster master Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) is back to what he does best, with a big, dumb, trigger-happy action flick featuring the destruction of an American landmark. Released, rather awkwardly, on the heels of the identically plotted Olympus Has Fallen, the film sees an improbably chiselled secret service agent applicant (Channing Tatum; G.I. Joe 2) tasked with protecting the US president (Jamie Foxx; Django Unchained) after terrorists invade the White House. From its cliché-ridden dialogue to its kindergarten take on global politics, James Vanderbilt’s script won’t be winning many statues come award season. And yet, as in almost all of Emmerich’s pictures, there’s a sense of populist escapism, as well a simple, goodies versus badies worldview – almost childlike in its naivety – that cheesy action film apologists just won’t be able to resist.
That said, the first thirty minutes are dire. As a critic, you tend to bemoan the lack of plot in most action movies, but if ever there was a case for skipping it all together, it’s the sledgehammer foreshadowing and cringe-worthy character work found in Vanderbilt’s opening pages. Tatum’s John Cale could hardly be more of an action hero stereotype – a decorated ex-marine who plays by his own rules, there’s not a job he can imagine more important than protecting the nations Commander in Chief, except for maybe being a good father (although not so much that he remembered his daughter’s talent show last Thursday, his no good hippy ex-wife reminds him). Likewise, Foxx’s President Sawyer embodies all the determination and sense of social responsible that a Obama stand-in should; he’s a man who likes to take an inspiring morning helicopter ride past Washington’s presidential monuments, before getting down to business bringing peace to the Middle East.
Unfortunately, not everyone wants stability in the region, particularly the big, money-minded weapons manufacturers who profit from ongoing conflict. So peeved are these corporate crooks with Sawyer’s soon-to-be-ratified peace treaty that they dispatch a team of mercenaries – lead by a snarling Jason Clark (Zero Dark Thirty) – to take the President hostage. What that didn’t count on was that all-American hero John Cale was in the building for a job interview, and just itching for a chance to demonstrate his credentials (and what better way than foiling a nonsensically elaborate terrorist plot?) What follows is essentially an entire season of 24’s worth of plot turns crammed into one-hundred and thirty one minutes, complete with double crosses, kidnapped daughters and multiple invocations of the 25th amendment. Put another way: if Speed was Die Hard on a bus, then this is Air Force One on the…uh…ground.
Admittedly, White House Down isn’t actually as good as any of those films. Still, there’s something decidedly nineties about Emmerich’s approach – not just because there are no transforming robots or superheroes on screen, but because of the utter, blessed lack of self-importance or artificial grit. Post-9/11, it’s rare to see a blockbuster that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Frankly, when you consider the aggressive xenophobia and war-mongering of films like Battleship, Battle Los Angeles and Red Dawn, or the recent, ponderous entries in the once fun-filled Superman and 007 franchises, sometimes it’s just nice to laugh and cheer at a scene in which the most powerful man in the world fires a bazooka out of his limo, while baddies chase him in circles around the pristinely kept White House lawn.
None of this is not to say that White House Down doesn’t indulge in flag waving nationalism. To the contrary, a scene of actual slow-motion flag waving is integral to the movies’ plot. But where Emmerich consistently distinguishes himself from obvious contemporaries like Transformers maestro Michael Bay is that, in his films, patriotism never equals prejudice. Loving ones country doesn’t mean hating someone else’s. Indeed, the German-born Emmerich has consistently proven himself as one of humanist directors working in Hollywood today. Almost invariably, his villains are things like aliens, monsters or the weather, instead of other human beings. In this case, the bad-guys aren’t the Muslims or the Iranians, but rather the faceless corporations. Even the traitorous mole at the top of the secret service (an aged but committed James Woods; Too Big To Fail) has his reasons for going bad.
Likewise, there is a preposterous idealism to White House Down that is actually strangely endearing. The only thing less plausible than the film’s plot are its politics: one single treaty, proposed by an American President, can apparently singlehandedly end all conflict in the Middle East, and the shadowy weapons manufacturers – collectively referred to as “the military industrial complex” as if they had banded together into a single league of cartoonish evil and greed – can be brought down by a charismatic hero in a white singlet. It’s escapism at its most ridiculous and wonderful. Peace can be achieved if we want is badly enough, good and bad are clear lines in the sand, and the US of A will always fight for right. If only the real world were that simple.