When 2013 winds down we'll look back and see that two different kinds of action movies dominated the box office throughout the year. Either we were waiting on another superhero spectacle to soar on-screen or another sci-fi panorama with large monsters and unlikely heroes to try to save the day. That's made the exceptions all that much more notable, be it Fast & Furious 6, or White House Down, the improbable second film featuring the White House going up in flames to come out this year after Olympus Has Fallen.
Despite any similarities in plot between the two, White House Down is another great action film that also takes advantage of the scenario to say entirely different things about the modern state of American politics. If Olympus was about facing down the brutal consequences of American foreign policy, then White House Down is about the way our leaders have to conceal themselves to do the job. For a film that involves refugees from Commando making their way into the villain's assault force, it's very concerned about the way everyone is so easily able to hide personal and professional information from one another.
For director Roland Emmerich, it seems to be a return to form for seeing just how many ways he can blow up iconic structures. But thematically it's very much in-line with his last film, Anonymous. That film concerned itself with public fraud as well, putting forth the theory that Shakespeare was not the author of his plays, but instead a pawn for people who were not in a position to utilize their talent. But, because that movie did not involve a firestorm engulfing the Globe Theater, it was not a great success.
That obsession with fraud plays early into the dialogue and events of White House Down. President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), flying into D.C., insists that they take a detour over the monuments before touching down. The helicopters look very much like early renderings, the kind of CGI models that you might see in early 2000 video games. But the point is that this detour, which makes his staff sigh and roll their eyes, is something he always does. It's the moment of honesty in his daily routine that his staff continues to treat like an exception, all part of the pageantry of being President - just like those fake-looking helicopters.
The inherent falsehoods of that show and how they play into the routine of the powerful is given a different shine for the working folks. John Cale (Channing Tatum) works security detail for House Speaker Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) and is nakedly obvious in his ambition to work for the Secret Service, so he has to lie to his daughter (Joey King) to feel like he has any control in his life. He doesn't get the same spectacle or narrative, and when he finally does apply for the position we get to see, in a shot with many amazing layers, just how much everyone accepts the lie. Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) summons another Agent in as she interviews Cale for the job while she puts on an extra-tough front, while in the background other Agents look in, and further still there are monitors that show the interview and other events in the White House.
Funny that the lies are so blatant and recorded all the time but they're afforded to the people in power and no one else. I love that visual undercurrent throughout the film as there are always layers of surveillance going on in every scene that involves the theater. It's also fitting that one of the villains, a flamboyant hacker (Jimmi Simpson), has as one of his goals the complete destabilization of the surveillance system. The other master plot, and one that's not entirely wrong even if the means are evil, involves destroying the notion that we can force peace in the Middle East. So there's a lot going on before the audience gets their spectacle of explosions and gun-play.
Emmerich's layers of surveillance and briefly exposed truths are in those broad shots like the interview, but also in quieter moments like when the President's head of security Martin Walker (James Woods) takes of his flag lapel in the morning. That's a wonderful detail, barely a second or so long, and shows that no matter what crime he's willing to commit in the name of America he still won't wear the flag. Woods performance as Walker is the best part about the film as he's someone who is almost broken over the America he loves asks so much of him and won't go in the direction he feels it needs to. It's an inspired casting decision by Emmerich as Woods is able to tap into the same energy that made him so spectacular as someone a bit more left-wing in Salvador but to a different purpose.
The other villains are a fun assortment that Emmerich shows interesting restraint and costuming choices in presenting. When they are described we hear "white nationalist" and "grassroots extremist" without hearing the one descriptor we might use - Tea Party. It's another great touch that despite their efforts in fighting for the "Real America" they dress like Arnold Schwarzenegger's nemesis in Commando and given their lingering glances might have been Log Cabin Republicans in another life.
The action is as it always is in an Emmerich film, crisp and stylized without getting us confused in the layers of the White House. But White House Down is another action film this year whose 'splodey bits are the least interesting parts about the film, to say nothing of the incredible chemistry between Foxx and Tatum. Emmerich's Shakespeare detour led him to his finest action film yet, a lesson that other spectacle-obsessed directors should take to heart.
Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Screenplay written by James Vanderbilt.
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, and James Woods.