September 11—the comedy
Like Olympus Has Fallen, released three months ago, director Roland Emmerich’s White House Down is laced with images echoing September 11, 2001. What else are we to think when flames erupt from the columns of the United States’ Capitol dome, and the dome collapses in an almost leisurely fashion, like a stately matron sinking onto a couch after one too many dances? It evokes both the memory of seeing the twin towers falling into clouds of pulverized concrete and the thought of what even greater tragedy was spared when United Airlines Flight 93 went down in Pennsylvania. But unlike Olympus, White House Down serves up its scenes not as a shortcut to trauma, but as an invitation to a larky good time.
For those old enough to remember, the picture also evokes memories of 1964’s Seven Days in May. That’s because this seizure of the White House is no terrorist action —in White House Down’s universe, terrorist threats exist only in the minds of hyperventilating Republicans and rabble-rousing Fox News reporters. No, this is an inside job.
The insider is the head of the White House Secret Service detail, Agent Martin Walker (James Woods), in charge of security for President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Like President Jordan Lyman of Seven Days in May, Sawyer is making a controversial career move. In Seven Days it was a nuclear-disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union; here, it’s a treaty for permanent peace in the Middle East. Both, in their time, have been seemingly pie-in-the-sky items on the classic liberal wish list, and both serve as the impetus to get the plots of their respective movies rolling.
Walker’s motive for betraying his country keeps shifting as Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt go along. At first, it’s a simple $400 million shakedown to assuage Walker’s grief over a son killed in Afghanistan. But other members of the assault force drop dark hints about the real objective of their “mission.” Shame on you if you can’t figure out who and what is behind it all. Just remember: There’s no axis of evil here, only a gang of homegrown Timothy McVeighs, and the louder people proclaim their patriotism, the less you can trust them. Oh, and keep your eyes on the sidelines.
The wild card in the game played by Walker, and his co-conspirator is Capitol policeman John Cale (Channing Tatum), who normally works security for House speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Today, however, he’s at the White House to interview for a Secret Service job, which he quickly blows because Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who interviews him, remembers him from college as a screwup. Finnerty is agent Walker’s assistant, but she’s not in on his plot, and she becomes Cale’s key contact on the outside when the blood hits the fan.
Cale is also there with his daughter Emily (Joey King), who despises him; he hopes to ingratiate himself with a tour. But Emily’s not buying; she keeps her sullen nose stuck to her iPhone and calls her father by his first name.
When the assault comes, Cale is in the right place at the right time to save the president from being taken hostage, and White House Down morphs into a superviolent buddy movie with Tatum playing straight man to the bantering Foxx, while Vanderbilt and Emmerich find other rich veins of hilarity in the guerrillas’ terrorizing hostages in the East Room and the smug preening of a computer hacker named Tyler (a career-killing performance by one Jimmi Simpson).
There’s a story that in 2006, when Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (a better movie than Emmerich could make on his best day) first previewed in New York, patrons shouted “Too soon! Too soon!” Emmerich is guessing it’s been long enough now to turn that day into a rollicking action comedy. Well, therapeutically speaking, maybe he’s right. Still, I’m not looking forward to 2025 and seeing what he does with the Newtown shootings or Boston Marathon bombings.