A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 4, 2013.
To reveal that “White House Down” makes good on the promise of its title does not spoil anything. The prospect of watching the most hallowed and iconic piece of American architecture come crashing down is part of the movie’s allure.
But when the event itself takes place—when liberty and democracy manifest succumb to multiple explosions, the impact of a failing Black Hawk chopper, an out-of-control SUV, and many many bullets—the result is not as shocking as it should be.
It’s a shame because the movie is rather patriotic in its attempts to make the audience appreciate the building by steeping them in White House trivia, and through sweeping shots of helicopters graciously grazing the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in all its glory as the President of the United States is escorted to his place of business.
Perhaps “White House Down” is so dull because audiences have seen the White House destroyed on-screen many times before, the most memorable instance from the very same director.
Director Roland Emmerich first blew it up in his alien-invasion action flick “Independence Day.” In that movie, losing the White House was provocative and visually resplendent, whereas in this one, it just feels regular.
But a jaded audience should only take partial blame for a movie so unspectacular that the inscrutable aliens in “Independence Day” have more personality than any villain in “White House Down,” in spite of a solid cast featuring that most recognizable, everyman hunk Channing Tatum in the lead role.
Mr. Tatum plays John Cale, a US Capitol Police Officer who hopes to one day become a Secret Service agent to impress his young, precocious daughter, Emily, and to prove his worth to himself. When Cale and Emily are on a tour of the White House, a rogue paramilitary group quickly takes over the building and holds the President (an unconvincing, but fun Jamie Foxx) hostage along with the tour group. What follows is a two-hour job interview for Cale disguised as an action movie in which he—in a tank top—protects his daughter from harm as well as the President by teaching him how to shoot a gun, and eventually a rocket launcher.
“I lost the rocket launcher,” President Sawyer shamelessly admits after a disastrous attempt to escape, to which Cale replies, “How do you lose a rocket launcher!?”
These types of amusing moments save the movie from complete failure. It never takes itself too seriously even though it initially makes claims of authenticity and realism in its depiction of the proper White House-tour procedure.
But when the first of many highly implausible explosions goes off, the movie eschews realism and becomes an American fantasy in which the POTUS can no longer rely on treaties and diplomatic decorum to serve his nation. In “White House Down,” the President quite literally becomes a man of action, forced to aim a gun (but not without first putting on his glasses) at another human being and kill him.
The scene is simultaneously ludicrous, disrespectful, and not very smart, and just about sums up the entire movie.
2.5 stars out of 4