It is a bright day in Washington — every corner of the the young and excited President James Sawyer’s (Jamie Foxx) White House brims with vitality. Hope is everpresent, enthusiasm pervades throughout the West Wing halls. It’s a good day to be an American. Enter: an American. John Cale — Channing Tatum’s Secret Service wannabee who is vying for a job protecting the Commander-in-Chief. We meet John amidst his undertaking of two big missions: interviewing for this position, and trying to win back the favor of his distant middle school-aged daughter (Joey King) with a trip to 1600 Pennsylvania. Thanks to his less than stellar professional record, the fact that John’s interviewer is an embittered ex-girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the fact that no teenaged girl is ever going to be all that fond of her absentee dad — especially right after he misses her flag-twirling performance in the talent show, for goodness’ sake — none of John’s operations seem to be progressing smoothly. It’s a rocky ride of small-scale, smirk-inducing follies that endear us to the Cale family and ingratiate us into the buzzy world of a sunny District of Columbia. Yes, this is going to be one delightful movie.
And then, the Capitol Building gets blown up.
Here, stomachs turn — not only those of John (over concern for his daughter’s life), the President’s (for his country), and affable tour guide Donnie (for the priceless antiques planted throughout his beloved White House), but those of the audience. At for least some members. For, even though we entered Roland Emmerich’s 2013 venture knowing full well what disaster and cacophony lay before us, it’s difficult to appropriately prepare for visions of national monuments being exploded by domestic terrorists.
But it’s all meant in good fun. The whole movie, even when it veers a little too far into the heat of our present political and international climate, is built on the idea of fun: an enjoyable, exciting summertime romp at the movie house. Just like Emmerich’s career-making Independence Day, the life blood of this movie is the “Oh my God!”s of its action scenes and the elated laughter of its thoroughfare of comedy.
However, there is a key difference between White House Down and Independence Day, and that lies in the opportunity of escapism. In the director’s 1996 science fiction feature, we’re dealing with an alien invasion as the primary conflict — we’re not plagued with real world connotations or any feelings of gravity whatsoever. Sure, there’s a present danger, enough to raise hairs and widen eyes. But nothing to spike our viewings with a sense of dread, one that passes beyond our screen-affixed eyes and into the backs of our minds. So, in all its fantastical glory, Independence Day can be, and is, as much fun as it wants.
But White House Down is anchored down by the cringes the conversation of terrorism still inspires. And it isn’t a question of taste or tact — it’s not as though Emmerich handles a delicate situation insensitively. It’s a question of whether or not this material is capable of eliciting the fun it’s meant to carry here. If we’ll ever be able to embrace the attitude of fantastical escape in a story whose subject matter is so deeply rooted in the most severe and dense reality our society knows.
Throughout the movie, there are instances where we might laugh. Scenes we recognize, cognitively, as well-done or pleasing. But we find it hard to get past that hump, to allow for a lapse of concern in the face of something we’ve carried with us as our definition of the utmost evil.
And perhaps the majority of us will overcome this tribulation, finding the fun that Emmerich works so hard to embed in his new movie. Taking pleasure in the back-and-forth between talented comic players Tatum and Foxx. Perhaps we’ll approach the film with hopes of a modern Independence Day, maintain this attitude even through the grittiest of White House Down‘s scenes and suggestions, and have as good a time as we might a movie about aliens. If ever there was a movie about terrorism that fans might be able to, in the purest sense of the word, enjoy, White House Down would be it.
So we wait to find out: is the theme, when handled with this degree of frivolity and fun, free of its anchor? Or will we always leave a terrorism film with at least a little bit of a turned stomach?