Scale things down from the Capitol Building explosions, the venomous terrorist ploys, and the overarching subtext of international warfare, and you’ve got the real fun of White House Down: its character. Yet another melding of astronomical disaster and human charm from Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, the D.C.-set thriller actually veers the lot of its attention away from collapsing buildings (thankfully) and towards the nuanced moments between its affable stars: Secret Service hopeful Channing Tatum and freshly passionate commander in chief Jamie Foxx.
As an unlikely camaraderie forms between the two stars — who are forced to band together when Washington faces the wrath of American activists — we warm up to not a security guard and a president, but the men who occupy these positions: a lifelong underacheiver trying to get his act together to impress his intellectual middle school-aged daughter (who becomes one of the many hostages taken by the West Wing assailants) and a working class do-gooder who, while still enamored with his new place in the world, shows signs of cynicism about the political system and no shortage of conflict over the choices he’s had to make… not to mention a nasty smoking habit he’s trying to kick (gee, I wonder who he’s supposed to be?).
Setting their differences aside in the interest of their country — Tatum’s John Cale is a veteran and suggested conservative, while Foxx’s President Sawyer ensnares the rage of his old white constituents for his peace-lovin’ ways and lack of military background (seriously, who could he be?) — and of Cale’s daughter Emily, the two develop a “buddy cop” formula that provides as many warm laughs as it does action thrills.
Thanks to the allure and comic chops of Foxx and, yes, Tatum, this motif seldom misses the mark. It’s when the film aims in a different direction, shooting for sincere intensity over action-heavy candy, that some of the luster is lost. Never boring but sometimes hard to watch, thanks to the heavy artillery that is a terrorist ploy so vividly embedded in current events, the film loses its sense of “fun” in a plot that is at times too close to home. With the baddies led by Washington insiders — many of whom are not devoid of humanity but simply corroded by a flawed system and imperfect policies — White House Down sometimes seems to be a movie about our political situation, rather than a movie using our political situation to deliver a fun summer actioner. Unfortunately, the teetering of this line doesn’t inject the film with depth as much as it does to confuse the viewer on what to feel.
Are we meant to ponder the gravity of White House Down‘s international climate? At times, it seems as though Emmerich is inviting us to do so… but then, a federal agent makes a crack about the president using a rocket launcher, or a plucky tour guide goes ape s**t on a terrorist for breaking a West Wing antique. We’re back in the realm of the ridiculous, where we, and the movie, belong.
And when it keeps to this territory, White House Down is as much fun as you might want it to be. Oddly, when we think back on Independence Day, we don’t cite the explosions and sweeping battles, but the laughable quips and exclamations — the “Welcome to Urf!”s and “Nobody’s perfect”s. And that same human charm ebbs and flows throughout White House Down. When it veers from this path, honing in on an imperiled D.C. or a vindictive gang of vigilantes, we just wait for the fun again. But no more than a scene later, it’s back, rocket launched right at us.