Burning Down the (White) House

AP Photo/Sony Columbia Pictures, Reiner Bajo

Here’s a confession likely to guarantee you’ll never trust me again: I had a pretty good time at White House Down, the new movie starring Channing Tatum as a wannabe Secret Service agent who ends up as President Jamie Foxx’s only hope of surviving an attack on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That may or may not surprise you, but it sure as buttercups did me. It’s not even July, and I’m already deathly weary of movieland’s bang-kapow-boom blockbuster season. (On Hollywood’s timetable, of course, “summer” now begins before Memorial Day and is effectively over by August.) WHD’s unlovely director, Roland Emmerich, is the German dolt who peaked with Independence Day 17 years ago before going on to make, among other screen supertankers packed with manure, The Patriot and Godzilla, not exactly good reasons to look forward to his latest.

Maybe most to the point, I’d already seen—and loathed—pretty much the identical movie back in March. You remember Olympus Has Fallen, don’t you? It’s not just that the basic audience grabber—see the White House get trashed, everybody!—is the same. Plotwise, the two are twins at a level so freakish Diane Arbus would give her left eye to photograph them together. Wholesale attack by squads of creepily clad paramilitary baddies? Check. A lone hero who’s on the premises by accident and ends up as the last, best hope of mankind once POTUS’s protectors get blown away by the casual dozens just to ensure he’s indispensable? Bingo. An insider who’s a turncoat, some gobbledygook about accessing nuclear codes to start World War Three as the villains’ ultimate goal, a plucky child (the president’s son in Olympus, the hero’s daughter in WHD) in excruciating jeopardy? Yep, yep, yep.

And let’s not forget a happy ending—call that a spoiler and I’ll smack you with my cane—that lets audiences feel all gushily patriotic after two hours of reveling in the destruction of our capital’s most iconic edifices. Not only does the Executive Mansion end up as a charred, corpse-littered hulk in both—the Washington Monument gets it big-time in Olympus and the Capitol collapses in flames in WHD by way of fries on the side.

So why even bother to make distinctions between them? Well, the main difference is that Olympus Has Fallen was so charmlessly thuggish that White House Down looks as sprightly as a Rockettes number. First off, it’s got a much more entertaining cast. Olympus had that lump Gerard Butler in the lead and woefully misused even the good actors on hand (e.g., Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo, both of whom shoulda known better). By comparison, WHD benefits from not only Tatum and Foxx’s appeal, but a whole slew of fun-to-watch performers—Zero Dark Thirty alum Jason Clarke in glittery-eyed psycho mode as one of the attack’s leaders, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Wire’s Lance Reddick, the invaluable Richard Jenkins (as the Speaker of The House), and sight-for-sore eyes Michael Murphy (as the Veep), among others—and gives them honest-to-gosh, often wry character bits between kabooms.

Above all, White House Down has a far superior script. Writer James Vanderbilt—who worked on the latest (and not bad) Spider-Man reboot and also did the screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, not exactly a popcorn flick—includes all the usual action-movie beats and climaxes, something any trained chimpanzee could do by now. But he’s also concocted a coherent plot with entertaining twists and individuated—not complex, just adequate—motivations while making sure that every interaction has a payoff. Efficient story construction used to be something even Hollywood’s worst hacks could manage; that’s why they called them hacks. But in these debased times, it qualifies as a feat.

It’s also true—but hardly what sealed the deal for me—that the two movies’ politics couldn’t be more different. White House Down skews ostentatiously liberal, with Foxx’s President James Sawyer serving as an Obama stand-in so transparent that there’s even a gag about his frustrated nicotine jones. Not only is Sawyerobama’s main enemy the military-industrial complex—defense contractors want to block his visionary (duh), newly announced Middle East peace plan to keep the blood and profits flowing—but the team assaulting the White House is a Christmas stocking of liberal bugaboos: crazed white supremacist, rogue ex-CIA crackpot, and so on. While I was certainly amused by the blatancy of it all, the main reason I didn’t moan instead is that the movie’s smug paranoia—talk about a classic Left Coast oxymoron—is too glib to be worth a moment’s thought.

Rush Limbaugh may be sulphuric anyway. Yet I doubt moviegoers will take WHD’s liberal deck-stacking seriously, which’ll prove they aren’t dumb. They may enjoy the cutesy Obama riffs, but they’re paying for the kabooms, and everyone on-screen seems to know how silly it would be to pretend otherwise. Even though Vanderbilt may think he’s striking a few blows for Our Team—though I hope he’s smarter than that—Emmerich definitely doesn’t care. Anyone who’s seen The Patriot, which I don’t recommend, knows he’s got the political consciousness of an eggplant.

In other words, the biggest fool here would be a liberal heartened that the Great Unwashed are seeing virtuous propaganda for once. What repelled me about Olympus Has Fallen, on the other hand, wasn’t that its politics were merely “conservative,” since I’ve gotten off on many a movie I wouldn’t want to vote for if it were running for office. Uh-uh—they were borderline fascist, depicting elected officials as dithering weaklings and democracy as a waste of time until brute force stepped in, wrapped in the flag, to save the day. Maybe worse—though what could be, I know—I doubt the people responsible believed (or even understood) the movie’s ideological underpinnings; they were just cynically catering to nihilism disguised as patriotic heroics. At least White House Down includes some hints of genuine affection for the system being put at risk. The only line in the dialogue that isn’t as weightless as a feather is one you’d hardly call partisan: “This country’s stronger than one building.”

Nonetheless, that’s a mighty convenient motto for moviemakers trying to squeeze multiplex jollies—that is, lucre—out of turning the building in question into a dumpster. To say the least, White House Down didn’t make me any less fed up with Hollywood’s current destruction-porn vogue. I honestly hated it when the Capitol went kerblooie as a sideshow, and I just tuned out for a lot of the bang-kapow-boom otherwise. But so long as I’ve got to sit through this stuff every summer, even glints of humor and old-fashioned craft in the formula are bound to reduce me to damn near fawning gratitude. Otherwise, the only claim I’d make for White House Down is that, if you only see one schlock movie about the White House under siege this year, this is the one to see. That isn’t really a sentence I ever pictured myself writing back in film class, but never mind.

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