’Murica goes boom!
Clever meets dumb and explodes all over the nation’s capital
Of the Hollywood directors who made their names on big, dumb, expensive fun, German Roland Emmerich rolls with a subversive streak, loading his summer popcorners with (admittedly, broad-stroked) political subtext.
Emmerich manages to juggle his issues while delivering explosions with a polish that folks like Michael Bay (The Rock, Transformers) have abandoned in pursuit of the action vérité of shaky shots and quick edits. He also uses scripts—this one by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac). And so the very least you can say about Emmerich’s latest is that no matter how goofy it gets (and it gets pretty goofy), it’s still remarkably coherent.
It’s also remarkably entertaining. A throwback to 1980s and ’90s actioners like Die Hard, it swaps out John McClane for John Cale (Channing Tatum) a D.C. cop who shows up at the White House, daughter in tow, for an interview with the Secret Service. A job protecting the POTUS (Jamie Foxx) ostensibly will redeem him in his disappointed daughter’s eyes, and maybe score a few points with the ex who thinks he’s a total screw-up.
The interview doesn’t go all that well, because there’s some history with his interviewer (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Whoops. It’s that kind of day and he’s that kind of character. But that kind of day goes even farther south when peckerwood terrorists blow up the Capitol as a diversion to storm the White House and grab the president. And Cale is suddenly given a second interview … this time with the president himself. Cue the explosions and gunfire. The countdown to apocalypse. And banter.
Emmerich isn’t exactly subtle, packing every stripe of right-wing extremist into his rogues’ lineup—even a few baby-boomer hawks who think blowing up the world will save it. All that’s missing is a mounted Klansman in bed sheets. The approach does set up some funny stuff, though, like one bit where an Aryan Brotherhood poster boy is fool enough to give our ass-kicking prez time to put on his Malcolm X specs.
Here’s where White House Down pays off: In a genre that generally rolls conservative, WHD is liberally amusing in a dark sort of way. The script is clever and the banter is witty, nailing the pre-Bourne Identity action-ethos perfectly, while still wrapping it up in contemporary spectacle. Sure, it’s big, dumb fun, but it’s clever big, dumb fun. It’s low-brow for intellectuals and other hipsters.
So yeah, it’s a noisy political cartoon goosed with Emmerich’s trademark destruction of historical landmarks, delivered with anarchistic relish and a flag-waving jingoism that almost tastes of sarcasm. Foxx’s President Sawyer is a pretty obvious ode to Obama, and yet a fantasy version that stands up to the military-industrial complex. A liberal’s wet dream of an action flick.