Any movie that introduces its star in conversation with a squirrel would have to be going for comedy, you’d think. But with Roland Emmerich, it’s hard to be sure. The director has toyed with laughter before — with his global-warming hoot-fest, “The Day After Tomorrow,” his Stone Age lunk-athon, “10,000 BC,” and his straight-faced Mayan apocalypse workout, “2012.” But with his new movie, “White House Down,” Emmerich appears to be tossing all restraint aside in order to stake his claim as a laugh master of the top rank. Either that or he has delivered one of his silliest pictures to date.
Like the Gerard Butler film “Olympus Has Fallen,” which was released just three months ago, “White House Down” tells the story of a veteran who is frustrated in his attempt to join the security detail of the president of the United States, a gang of terrorists who invade the White House with the greatest of ease, a plot to take control of every nuclear missile in the U.S. arsenal, and, for similar good measure, a dastardly American traitor and a cute little kid in peril. This time around, the veteran, a Marine named Cale, is played by Channing Tatum, who, if it need be said, is a more appealing actor than Butler. And the president Cale seeks to safeguard — a Barack Obama duplicate, named Sawyer — is played by Jamie Foxx, who brings real style and energy to the proceedings.
After the opening squirrel interaction, which really is rather odd, we see that Cale is currently employed in guarding the body of the speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). Then we see him picking up his estranged 8-year-old daughter, Emily (Joey King), from his ex-wife (Rachelle Lefevre) and, curiously, taking the girl along to the White House to wait while he makes his latest bid to move up into presidential security. Rebuffed after an interview with Secret Service gatekeeper Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Cale glumly accedes to Emily’s request to join a White House tour group. The girl is frighteningly passionate about all things D.C., and she’s an uncorkable fount of Capitol factoids — historical highlights, structural dimensions — which allows her to unload exposition on us at considerable length. This is a movie in no real rush to get going.
Then a missile or something hits the Capitol (a bad thing, I guess we’re supposed to think), and shortly thereafter, the terrorists burst into the White House. Led by a disaffected special forces lout, named Stenz (Jason Clarke of “Zero Dark Thirty”), they are a band of thuggish mercenaries and white power dimwits, and amazingly — really amazingly — they already have sneaked a sophisticated bomb into the building. How bad are these guys? Well, when Stenz spots a painting of George Washington on a wall, he cracks a sneer and shoots it in the head. Soon he’s stalking little Emily, who has become separated from her dad and is dodging the bad guys with striking facility.
But who’s the brains behind this bloody attack? After leaping into action to snatch President Sawyer out of the bullet storm howling all around and leading him to (temporary) safety, Cale asks that very question. Sawyer leans in confidingly and says, “You ever heard of the military-industrial complex?” (The president presumably has aroused its ire by announcing his plan to pull U.S. troops out of the Middle East. After all, he says, in his most Obamian moment, “we can launch a drone off a carrier in the Gulf and hit any target we want.”)
Emmerich’s skill with computer-generated cataclysm is a byword at the blockbuster box office, and he deploys plenty of it here. But all the strafings and explosions and uproarious whatnot already have been done, a bit bigger and rather better, in several of the director’s own movies and many others besides. The slight staleness of the picture’s ritual mayhem is an unexpected disappointment. (Back on the comedy tip, however, there’s a long bullet-lashed car chase that takes place entirely on the White House lawn.)
The movie was shot in 3-D, which is appropriate for this sort of picture. About 15 minutes in, however, I peered over the top of my 3-D glasses, expecting to see the usual unmediated blur up on the screen but noting very little difference. I tried this a few more times as the film progressed, and at one point, I took the glasses off altogether and watched about 10 minutes of the movie with an equal lack of general effect. Anyone who has the same experience should please get in touch so I know I’m not losing my mind.
There are some entertaining performances here, especially by Jimmi Simpson, who’s very funny as the terrorists’ computer genius, and by James Woods, who does some spirited snarling as the presidential security chief. Tatum is, of course, exactly the kind of guy you’d want to have on your side in times of gunfire, and Foxx manages to deliver some of the film’s clunkiest lines (he bemoans the fate of the republic “the day we stop believing people can come together”) with no damage to his charisma.
But James Vanderbilt’s graceless script does none of these actors any favors, and maybe this was why Emmerich decided to play the whole movie as comedy. Unless — alarming thought — he didn’t.