not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
It has been two days since I saw White House Down. I should have more than this. I should have devoted at least a few small subroutines in my brain to looking for interesting details in the shadows of the explosions, idiosyncratic acting choices in the action-movie archetypes on display, unconsidered implications of the movie’s America-Fuck-Yeah epistemology. As it is, I can barely remember how Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx manage to get into the presidential dumbwaiter.
Notice that, as with The Heat, I’m referring to the characters as Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. That is because, as far as both movies are concerned, the characters are indistinguishable from the movie-star personae of their leading actors. Notice too that I am describing White House Down exclusively as a movie, because I can’t claim it’s a film.
That’s not to say it isn’t good. It’s fucking awesome. Terrorists invade the White House, and Channing Tatum takes off his shirt and shoots them, no doubt thanking his lucky stars that he decided to go with the John McClane beater rather than the white T undershirt – and let’s be honest, if you’re going to a job interview with the Secret Service, don’t you prepare for this sort of thing to happen in a thousand meaningless ways that can all be plausibly denied? Wear the slightly roomier dress pants in case you need to sprint down a hallway, that sort of thing? Some people like to write off Tatum’s acting ability, but I’ll say this on his behalf: he was definitely in front of the camera every time his character needed to be in the shot, which is really the level of acting this role requires. Or maybe it’s an ineffable action-star-charisma thing; I generally think actors are pretty good if they get through their lines without accidentally sneezing on the camera lens (though my one attempt to act in a student film may have something to do with that – tale for another day).
Shooting at the bad guys slightly less often, but managing to do so while keeping his suit on, is Jamie Foxx, turning in a good role as President Jamie Foxx. I think that may actually have been the character’s name. Foxx gets all the fun parts of the action-star archetype, managing to be the comic relief, the fish out of water, the insider who knows this place better than anybody, the black guy, and the unexpected badass who comes through in the end. He also wears Air Jordans, and Channing Tatum’s daughter likes him more than she likes Channing Tatum, probably because President Jamie Foxx doesn’t regale the dinner table with stories about his career as a male stripper whenever she has friends over. Oh yeah, Channing Tatum has an adolescent daughter, who like most kids is obsessed with White House trivia and has the super power of owning a smartphone, which she uses to take video of the terrorists, which CNN gets hold of and puts up on its broadcast. CNN, who I assume is aware that the White House has TVs and that terrorists know how to operate them, then puts the girl’s name and picture on the screen next to her footage, because fuck little kids. They TiVo past our ads and don’t understand how everything was better in the 60s, so let’s try to get some terrorists to shoot them in the face, and then capture it with a real camera, not one of those iThigamajigs that don’t work anyway, mine says I need to unlock it but Apple says that will void my warranty.
If I may take a step towards actually discussing the movie here, I was confused by how the press got hold of the girl’s videos in the first place. It shows her uploading them, but doesn’t say where to or how the press found them. I assumed that the girl’s mom saw them and sent them to the press or something, but then it shows her being shocked too, so I guess she uploaded them to her YouTube Channel? But she didn’t have any time to insert a description, so how did CNN find it? So Roland Emmerich either believes that CNN has people constantly monitoring teenage girls’ video blogs (maybe Wolf Blitzer just does that in his free time), or he believes that “The Internet” is a magical hive-mind where everybody knows about everything the second it’s uploaded, which, well, this is the guy who made a movie where alien spaceships are hacked with copies of Windows 95, so it’s the latter, isn’t it? He probably hurls his computer out the window to complete online transactions.
I do have to say that this is the best Emmerich movie I’ve seen since Independence Day, so clearly the White House kicks his directoral instincts into a higher gear. Unlike 90% of action directors working today, Emmerich has his own visual style, and he’s confident enough to use it rather than attempt to poorly rip off Paul Greengrass, so this is a well-shot movie that’s good at establishing the relationship between various locations in the White House, and it has the good sense to rip off Die Hard for its main plot. The CGI is crappy, as is always the case with Emmerich’s movies, but it’s not as overused as it was in 2012 or 10,000 BC. Also unlike those two movies, White House Down was not declared a cancer risk by the Surgeon General, and pregnant women can see it without fear that their unborn children will try to claw their way out of the womb.
Emmerich’s movies seem to suffer from an inherent tension between the sense of scale he would like to create within them, and the diminishing returns of excitement that scale offers once it’s high enough. Compare it to another Channing Tatum movie, Steven Soderberg’s Haywire, an action film that consists almost entirely of hand-to-hand combat. The fights in Haywire are thrilling because the characters seem to be doing actual permanent damage to each other- we wince every time a blow lands. In White House Down, a .50 caliber machine gun opens up on a presidential SUV at close range, and the SUV successfully absorbs hundreds of shots. In empirical terms, it’s a lot more powerful than a series of punches, but it’s also a cartoon. I can’t be scared for the people in that SUV any more than I am for Wile E. Coyote. But cartoons can still be pretty fun to watch, and you’re allowed to laugh at them if that’s easier for you to do than trying to laugh with.