You have to respect Roland Emmerich. Over a long and distinguished career he’s regularly put out exciting, well-made thrillers full of iconic moments. He’s basically Michael Bay with a brain. His movies are crammed with explosions, balls to the wall action, and witty one-liners, but it’s all woven together with care and craftsmanship, a solid filmmaking technique backed up by an eye for crowd-pleasing setpieces. Even when he’s working with material that is stupid (The Day After Tomorrow) or forgettable (2012), he still manages to land on his feet with a level of grace that few others could manage.
White House Down is a bit of an experiment for him: what if the destruction of a famous landmark, instead of being the most heavily promoted shot from the movie, was the whole movie?
The movie is built around a familiar stock structure and evolves exactly as you’d expect. Channing Tatum (what is the world coming to that we now have action stars with names like Channing Tatum?) is being interviewed for a job with the US Secret Service—which apparently likes to save money by skipping the extensive background check and just spending a few minutes with the candidate in a back office like McDonald’s. Just before he leaves, a group of armed men set off a bomb and take over the building. They kill off some of the world’s most highly trained guards like a bunch of chumps and pretty soon Tatum is the only dude left who’s bad enough to save the president. This is complicated by the fact that his eleven-year-old daughter had accompanied him to the White House to take a tour and is being held hostage by the bad guys.
Emmerich is probably the only man alive who could have so much fun with the setting. There is, I shit you not, a high-speed chase scene with presidential limos on the front lawn of the White House, while hundreds of thousands of people and a National Guard tank look on. You can’t make this stuff up. If that were the entire appeal of the movie, it would be enough. But, as others have mentioned, Emmerich gets a bit political. You see, the president is essentially Barack Obama. Not the actual, drony, indistinguishable-from-Bush Barack Obama, but this guy:
Meanwhile, the intruders are a group of white supremacists, defense company shills, mercenaries, and hackers secretly backed by the Republican Speaker of the House. In short, everyone that all the vaguely left-wing folks in the states are mad at. One of them is named after a Tom Clancy character. They invade the White House. The movie’s president embodies all the self-serving social justice myths of the theme park version of American history. It’s glurgy stuff, simplistic and often a protective ideological mask for pernicious ideas. Nobody seriously believes in it except for everybody, and they’re tired of being jerked around.
The president takes these bad guys and he shoots them in the face with a rocket launcher until they go away. Naive? Probably. But goddamn, what a ride!