White House Down is Roland Emmerich’s Hedda Gabler

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

White House Down

12A, Nationwide

Just do it, quoth the Nike advert — and these men just did it. Grass, asphalt, fear, pain, doubt and limitation; all surpassed in the pursuit of human excellence. The racing driver James Hunt and the baseball player Jackie Robinson may have practised different sports, but they were both champions. And, with Rush and 42, they both have fine-looking films dedicated to them this week. Cinemagoers who want to tread the contours of greatness, and understand its peaks and troughs, need look no further. Hollywood has it covered.

But for those of you who just want to see some stuff blow up and some bad guys capped, then how about the movie I actually ended up watching? Roland Emmerich’s White House Down.

White House Down is, of course, the second film on the theme of terrorists-knock-out-the-White-House-before-being-scuppered-by-one-man-with-lots-of-guns this year, after Olympus Has Fallen. But before we charge it with plagiarism, it’s worth remembering that director Emmerich has form in this area. The White House was comprehensively obliterated by alien death rays in his Independence Day (1996), and it must have been damaged beyond easy repair in his ecopocalypse spectacles The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). In fact, by limiting the destruction to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Emmerich is being more restrained than usual. This is his equivalent of an intimate costume drama. This is his Hedda Gabler.

Although Ibsen would surely write sharper dialogue than this. The first, overstretched third of White House Down is a mix of sappy exposition and even sappier politics. There’s Jamie Foxx as President Obama …no, sorry …President Sawyer, who wants to bring about endless peace in the Middle East by withdrawing all western troops and replacing them with a basquillion dollars of aid money. There’s Channing Tatum as John Cale, a struggling war veteran who just needs one chance to prove himself to his young daughter. And there’s James Woods as Martin Walker, a man in charge of both a square haircut and the President’s security detail. Is Walker up to something? Let’s just say that, on the morning of the attack, he removes the American flag pin from his lapel, and puts it down by a photo of his son who died in a botched military mission. Uh-oh.

And so, after reels and reels and reels of film, the bang, bang starts — at which point White House Down becomes a knock-off of Die Hard (1988). Indeed, judging by his efforts to rescue the President, it seems that John Cale is neurotically familiar with the life and works of John McClane. He climbs elevator shafts; he listens into Walker’s motley team of terrorists with a stolen radio; he endures having a loved one captured; and he even strips down to a grubby white vest. Except it was much better when Bruce Willis did it. This film lacks the bare-footed, blue-collared naturalness of Die Hard. It feels like what it is: actors avoiding digital explosions on a film set.

Which isn’t to say that White House Down is terrible. Once it gets going, there’s actually something ludicrously entertaining about watching the President tear around the White House lawn in an armoured limo, a rocket launcher in his arms, while concerned staffers watch it all on the news channels. And that’s before we consider the genuinely good parts of the film, including Jason Clarke’s performance as Disgruntled Former Marine #1. You may remember Clarke from an altogether classier political thriller, Zero Dark Thirty (2012). He’s the one with a pair of sunken eyes set into a face that’s all razor-edged features. It’s a shame when he dies here, with a dozen primed grenades wrapped around his neck.

Oh, I know I shouldn’t spoil the plot like that, but White House Down is so predictable that I don’t think it matters. Also, it turns out that the ‘military-industrial complex’ was behind the whole thing, not James Woods. They feared that President Peacenik would ruin their profits for all time.

And what of Jamie Foxx’s plan for peace in the Middle East? Never fear: he pulls it off. As a presidential helicopter sweeps him and Tatum over Washington and into the end credits, a phone rings. ‘That was the President of Iran,’ says one of the aides. ‘He’s had a chat with the Presidents of France and Pakistan and Australia and Israel and Syria, and they’ve all signed up to your peace plan.’ Or words to that effect, anyway — so it’s fist bumps and high fives all round. Yes we can!

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