June 25, 2013



WHITE HOUSE DOWN:  Worth A Ticket – Things Go “Boom”; We Go “Yay”

WHITE HOUSE DOWN is wondrously stupid, so merrily, spectacularly idiotic that it washes the taste of Olympus Has Fallen and its grim mediocrity right out of your mouth.  Even though the threat of nuclear annihilation is waved around, and many random people die in the course of its 131 minutes, Roland Emmerich’s movie has some of the jauntiness of an old-time Hollywood musical, far from the angst-ridden action of this summer’s crop of blockbusters (quick quiz:  who’s more miserable, the Superman of Man of Steel, the newest incarnation of Iron Man, or Brad Pitt’s zombie dodger in World War Z?).  More specifically, it has the spirit of the original Die Hard, whose playbook it follows very closely.  And if it’s not quite as deft as that seminal action movie–and it’s not–unlike all the sequels and many, many rip-offs that have followed, White House manages to raise the stakes (we’re not at Nakatomi Plaza this time, kids, we’re–well, check the title) and weave variations into the storyline without losing that sense of goofy, shameless fun.

Our John McClane this time around is named John Cale (Channing Tatum, perfectly cast as an aw-shucks hero), and instead of being a NYPD officer who fears losing his wife, he’s a Washington DC cop who’s estranged from his 11-year old daughter Emily (Joey King).  He’s been an underachiever and a screw-up most of his life, and he tops it off by picking the wrong day to show up at the White House, Emily in tow (she’s a budding political groupie), to interview for a job with the Secret Service.  Before you can say “Hey, who are those suspicious looking maintenance workers?”, the Capitol Dome is exploding and most of the extras are either toast or, in the case of Emily, being held hostage by Emil Stenz–no, really, Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), who appears to be the head of the motley group of terrorists.  In fact, he’s not, and I’m going to reveal a 1st-act SPOILER here, because it’s very clear early on, and because anyone who’s ever read a list of credits will know that when Martin Walker, head of the White House Secret Service detail, is played by James Woods, he’s not there just to smile when he gets  a cake to celebrate his upcoming retirement.  But don’t worry, there are plenty of wonderfully dumb twists to follow, including not just one but two big motives for Walker’s acts.

Before slaughtering most of his own men, Walker makes a point of sending his protege and favorite Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) home, and will it surprise you to hear that (a) she was the agent interviewing Cale just before hell broke loose, and (b) she’s also Cale’s former college girlfriend, who was never able to count on him when the chips were down and it really mattered?  She ends up in the Army control center as Cale’s contact to the outside world, so think of her as the movie’s better looking Reginald VelJohnson.  Other authority figures who have important roles in what’s to come include steely General Caulfield (Lance Reddick, a specialist at steeliness), Vice President Alvin Hammond (Michael Murphy) and Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), on whose protective detail John Cale currently serves.

Of course, there’s one more major player, and that’s President of the United States James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), a supposedly professorial Prez who’s inevitably an action hero by the time the movie wraps up.  Foxx and Tatum make a great buddy-movie team, and Foxx pulls off the not-so-easy feat of conveying gravity while never detracting from the mindlessly enjoyable mayhem around him.

Sure, James Vanderbilt’s script is crammed with nonsense dialogue, cliched characters and twists that are jaw-dropping because they’re so outlandish (try not to wince during the last few minutes).  Yet underneath all that are bones that are a model of well-made Hollywood construction, with seemingly casual asides early on that plant the seeds for major sequences later and a gradual build of tension and stakes.   Even though White House Down is an enormous production, it works on a more confined scale than Emmerich’s Independence Day (to which there’s a self-referential nod here), The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, and Emmerich shows skill with pacing and performance that his more epic adventures haven’t always allowed, while still finding room for a full-fledged car chase entirely on the White House grounds.  The technical credits are mostly first rate (as with many blockbusters, the CG is of variable quality–some of it excellent while other bits were seemingly rushed), with photography by Anna Foerster (she also shot Emmerich’s Anonymous), editing by Adam Wolfe (previously a TV veteran), music by Harold Kloser and Thomas Wander, and a plausible White House design by Kirk M. Petroccelli, that avoid the tackiness of Olympus Has Fallen.

White House Down is no more than a popcorn movie, and any attempt to analyze it or hold it to higher standards will certainly fail.  In an era when even James Bond is morose, though, and on its own blockhead terms, it provides all the light-hearted entertainment it promises.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."