"White House Down" Hates You, Everyone You Know

“White House Down” is a film so supremely incompetent that I’m not sure its creators didn’t have their sights set on awfulness from the get-go. In this slash and burn effort on logic and reason in which audience misery is the target, “White House Down” is a bullseye. Congratulations, Roland Emmerich and company. You’ve made the worst actioner in recent memory. The film – particularly its second half – is jaw-droppingly inept, making this year’s other White-House-under-siege flick, the clunky “Olympus Has Fallen,” seem resolutely tasteful by comparison.

Where to begin? Actually, with the only watchable portion of the film. The first act serves as a reasonably sleek and engaging set-up, by which we get to know our leads. Channing Tatum stars as Cale, a Capitol police officer and aspiring Secret Service agent, while Jamie Foxx plays President Sawyer, plainly based on President Obama – right down to his not-so-secret smoking habit. The rest of an overcrowded cast is rounded out by James Woods as the head of the Secret Service, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his lead assistant, Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the House, Jason Clarke as a hotheaded domestic terrorist, and Joey King as Cale’s 11 year-old daughter, Emily.

As Cale brings his daughter along to the White House for an ill-fated job interview, both the Capitol and 1600 Penn are attacked from the inside. Tatum springs into John McClane mode, his character quickly becoming the President’s last, best hope for survival. All the while, Cale is unable to locate his daughter, who’s taken a poorly timed trip to the bathroom. Tatum and Foxx are serviceable leads, but here they’re crippled by a remarkably unsteady screenplay.

In between glimpses of humor and self-awareness, the picture is a stone-faced exercise in painfully misguided political proselytizing, accented by unwieldy action sequences. What kind of movie is this? Are we really supposed to laugh at the sight of a black President being overly protective of his Air Jordans while being accosted by a white supremacist who’s unknowingly working for a particularly corrupt arm of the military-industrial complex? I’m incredulous that I just typed those words in that order, but such is the misfortune of those who experience “White House Down.”

Just when Tatum and Foxx seem ready to let loose and carry the film on charisma alone, they’re held back by the imagination of the filmmakers. A snoozeworthy 10-minute vehicular chase on the White House lawn stands out as low point, but none of the action is anything to write home about. Another low point? A heroic White House tour guide with a David Caruso-like penchant for one-liners. Groan. It’s hard to believe that this mess came from James Vanderbilt, the same scribe that wrote 2007’s outstanding true crime drama, “Zodiac.”

One of Vanderbilt’s biggest missteps here is in naively expecting us to buy into Cale’s daughter as a political junkie who knows everything there is to know about the White House (insert eye roll here), and King’s grating performance does nothing to help his case. But to criticize King’s work here is entirely inappropriate for several reasons. Firstly, her character is a clichéd, girl wonder composite that would be out of place in a “Home Alone” film. And, more importantly, “White House Down” sees some veteran actors come across just as foolishly.

The arc of James Woods’ character is telegraphed from his first appearance, which might have given him some room to really go wild in the role, but instead he looks like he’s never acted before. More unfortunate still is Jenkins’ useless turn as the third man in line for the Presidency. Because Jenkins is inherently likable, we gravitate to him whenever he’s on screen, making his character’s trajectory even sillier than it might have been in the hands of a different actor.

“White House Down” comes perilously close to being a total loss, its only redeeming feature being that it occasionally satisfies those hunger pangs for 90s-style summer entertainment. Unlike “Olympus Has Fallen,” it feels suitably large in scale and its use of CGI is both reserved and high in quality. But its numerous, vast shortcomings just as quickly snuff out any feelings of nostalgia we might have brought to the theater. Maybe this is why they don’t make them like they used to.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: June 28, 2013
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)