Chandeliers, windows, the lawn, the pool, the U.S. Capitol Building and a Ming vase get smashed in the short-fused White House Down, a work from Roland Emmerich ( Independence Day, 2012 ) that fulfills the summer-movie mandate of achieving maximum devastation with minimum emotional investment.
The movie comes just three months after Antoine Fuqua’s grimmer and leaner but similarly plotted Olympus Has Fallen, with Gerard Butler starring in a retro thriller, set at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In the U.S., White House Down has a milder teen-friendly rating than Olympus Has Fallen, which means even more destruction but less conviction. . Channing Tatum stars as a sweet-natured Washington cop who saves U.S. democracy and President James Sawyer, played by Jamie Foxx as an idealized Barack Obama-like Lincoln aficionado, who brokers a Mideast Peace deal, defies the arms lobby and rocks Jordan high-tops.
Formula action films don’t come much more formulaic that this. In the Die Hard tradition, Tatum plays Afghanistan vet John Cale, a divorced dad and lowly Capitol cop, who ends up in the right place to prove his heroism to his daughter and the world. Early on, Cale goes to the White House to interview for his dream job with the Secret Service. His interviewer, Carol (Maggie Gyllenhaal) turns out to be an old college girlfriend who takes a dim view of John’s history of commitment issues, leaving a glum John, post-interview, to take moody 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), a budding political junkie, on a White House tour.
Shortly after Emily goes to the washroom, a massive bomb rocks the nearby Capitol Building. In the subsequent chaos, father and daughter are separated as a paramilitary squad posing as home-theatre technicians take over the presidential dwelling.
This time, the invaders are a kind of coalition of the disaffected, from neo-Nazis to superpatriots, led by former black-ops agent Jason Clarke (his casting appears to be a broad wink to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, in which Clarke played the chief interrogator). In lieu of the usual condescending European, there’s a fey superhacker named Skip (Jimmi Simpson) who stands in front of banks of computers and mock conducts Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony while seizing control of the White House’s security system.
As the terrorists begin to make their meagre ransom demands ($400-million? please), it becomes apparent they have a larger, crazier agenda. Outside the building, the vice-president (Michael Murphy) and speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) ponder the future of the White House and the government.
Tank-sized plot holes aside, the most jarring thing about White House Down is the confusion in tone from scene to scene in the movie’s attempt at demographic reach. There’s a parade of military hardware, airplane destruction and the threat of nuclear Armageddon for the weapons porn crowd; Tatum stripped down in a soiled muscle shirt for Magic Mike fans; a slapstick car chase on the White House grounds and an officious tour guide, for those who like their comedy broad; violence against children and demonstrations of pint-sized bravery for those who melt for melodrama.
The problem is, when the trivial and the monumental are so interchangeable, nothing actually matters. All that’s left is to gaze at the spectacle in incredulity: O, the inanity!