Near the beginning of White House Down, the president’s head of security walks into a briefing, defeating the odds that she could still be on her feet after a long trip to the Middle East. When asked how she’s still awake, she quips: “Caffeine and patriotism.” The same thing fuels this summer blockbuster. With minimal plot, and even less regard for the specifics of international politics, the film runs on jacked-up action and flag-waving, as director Roland Emmerich does what he does best: blow up the White House.
President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) announces that he’ll be pulling all US troops out of the Middle East in an effort to establish world peace. The move causes near-political chaos in Washington, being unfavourable with Republican hawks and the defense industry. As this news is breaking, a former soldier turned bodyguard, John Cale (Channing Tatum) tries to impress his estranged daughter and presidential junkie by taking her on a tour of the White House. They picked the wrong day, as a group of terrorists blow up Capitol Hill and storm the president’s residence, attempting to start a nuclear war.
Emmerich knows what he’s doing, in more ways than one. As an action director, the large-scale sequences of utter destruction are impressive, thanks not only to the visual effects, but his mastery of capturing the macro. For Emmerich, bigger is truly better, as he envisions the collapse of the Capitol’s rotunda, Blackhawks crashing into the White House, and tanks exploding on the front lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (One particularly inspired sequence involves three limos chasing each other in literal circles on the White House lawn, while being fired upon with heavy artillery.) Being a maestro of devastation aside, here Emmerich also plays White House Down for what it is: a summer blockbuster. The film is interwoven with hammy comedy from the terrorists and good guys alike, and also references to other features like Lawrence of Arabia and even Emmerich’s own Independence Day. Lest we forget, Emmerich reminds us time and again that we’re indulging in some escapism.
For all the visual gloss, problems are evident throughout. With an exposition-heavy beginning, the film lumbers to a start, and loose strings make the multiple re-writes evident. By the time we get to the climax, White House Down starts to feel less enjoyably ludicrous and more legitimately ludicrous. Caffeine and patriotism can only go so far.