If you’re watching White House Down and you feel like you’ve seen the movie before it’s because you have - it was called Die Hard. More accurately, White House Down follows the Die Hard playbook. Terrorists take over a building, easily overwhelming any security force present. They take hostages, but miss one man who was present only by chance. It doesn’t seem like a big deal except that this guy is weapons trained - law enforcement, a soldier. He immediately becomes a thorn in their sides, as he tries to save the hostages, one of whom is a family member. The response from law enforcement is inept. There’s even a hacker, a rooftop battle interrupted by a helicopter, and a twist with respect to the terrorists’ goals.
White House Down is a good bad movie. It’s a 2.5 out of 5 on a global scale, but rated on a scale of bad action movies it’s actually a little higher. The acting and character development is bad. Jamie Foxx is exceptionally poor compared to his past work. I don’t think he’s presidential material. His portrayal comes off as somewhere between a scared academic and his character in Any Given Sunday. I actually think I would have liked it better if they had just gone the full Willie Beamen. Richard Jenkins is miscast as the powerful Speaker of the House. Nicolas Wright plays Donnie the tour guide, an ill-conceived attempt at comic relief. Maggie Gyllenhaal is decent as a Secret Service agent. James Woods plays her traitorous boss, Walker. There’s something about Woods in his old age that just doesn’t work for me. It’s almost like I’m still stuck on him as a younger actor. I can never speak ill of Lance Reddick. Jimmi Simpson reprises his role as a hacker (House of Cards) and creepy dude (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Kevin Rankin, of the Nazi gang in Breaking Bad fame, reprises his role as a right-wing nutjob. Stenz (Jason Clarke), the main terrorist, annoyingly oscillates between a skilled professional and a hot head. The key to the movie, in terms of casting, is Channing Tatum as Cale. He’s bad, but I found myself still rooting for him. He is what he is. This movie is probably his ceiling and you can’t hold that against him. I think his performance is a microcosm of my feelings on the movie as a whole: bad, but without any grand delusions about itself.
Acting isn’t what you judge a bad summer action film on though - it’s action. Here White House Down is a mixed bag. The hand to hand combat and gun fight scenes aren’t bad. Tatum is believable as an action star. One of the things I didn’t like about those scenes - especially so in the climactic battle between Stenz and Cale - is the use of “bitch”. I don’t dislike it in the sense that the word is sexist, rather it seems out of place. This was what I was saying earlier about Stenz’s oscillating character. He’s the professional, politically-minded terrorist so I would have liked to see him written that way in the fight scenes. “Bitch” just seems too low brow. Cale suffers from the use of “bitch” too. He’s a dad trying to work his way up the ladder to impress his daughter and serve his country. In fact, his lack of cynicism compared to John McClane is a big differentiating factor between White House Down and Die Hard. Yet both of them succumb to this jockish language when fighting.
The CGI is low quality. Tanks, car chases, explosions, jets, Air Force One, and Delta Force on helicopters all make appearances. The helicopter scenes especially expose the CGI as below industry standard. The scenes themselves aren’t ridiculous. There is a car chase on the front lawn of the White House that wasn’t all that poorly executed except for the fact that the army encamped outside does nothing to stop it. It might be a bit much that Norad is hacked and shoots down the Vice President’s plane. Maybe the worst part in terms of CGI and most ill-conceived in terms of plot is the general destruction of the White House. Visually it doesn’t look good and it seems even more implausible than other pieces of the plot that the American government would let everything that happens inside happen.
Speaking of implausible, the aspect of the movie that ultimately does the most damage to its credibility is the initial takeover of the White House. Walker, the head of the Secret Service, is out for revenge. His son was killed in a military raid on Iran and he blames the President (or so we’re lead to believe). He helps a group of terrorists made up of soldiers burned by the United States gain access to the White House. When they make their move they easily dispatch every guard, Marine, and Secret Service agent in the building. In suits, in uniform, in SWAT gear, on the roof, at desks, in rooms, in the yard, in the halls - they all go down without hitting one terrorist, falling like grass beneath a mower blade. When the Army moves on the White House they are repelled. When Delta Force comes not one of the most highly trained soldiers in the world can infiltrate the building.
However, when Cale, who works on a congressional security detail, makes a move to break away they miss him. He was there for an interview and a tour so he doesn’t even have a handgun. In each successive encounter he and the President are able to kill the highly trained mercenaries that cut down the entire security force of the most secure building in the world. It was as implausible as it was obvious that it was going to happen. Would it have been so bad for some of the terrorists to get cut down by a Secret Service agent? Could some of the response teams get blocked off?
For an action film, White House Down is surprisingly anti-right wing in its politics. Speaker Raphelson ends up being the other mastermind of the plot against the White House. His motivation is to stop a peace deal that would have hurt his backers in the defense industry. There’s even Roger Skinner (Andrew Simms), a bloviating talking head and obvious reference to Rush Limbaugh who ends up blubbering in tears when he’s taken hostage. I wouldn’t read too much into it, I just didn’t expect a pro-peace, anti-war message.