Nonsense at 1600
Slim pickings down the cinema at the mo', if you ask me – so this week I was planning to go and see Ain't Them Bodies Saints at the local Picturehouse. However, I had reckoned without the cinema's surprising entry policy for some of its daytime screenings, namely that you need not only a ticket but also an infant child in order to get in. Being unable to lay my hands on a toddler in time, I was faced with a bit of a quandary: go and see something I really didn't have any particular interest in, or not see a film at all this week – with the corresponding yawning white void in the hallowed pages of the Post? Well, obviously I decided to go after all, and after surveying the film times the best fit for my schedule proved to be White House Down (beating out Diana and R.I.P.D, if you were wondering).
In the past I've gone on about how day-and-date releasing is now standard industry practice. When a major movie doesn't get a simultaneous global release, and especially when a summer movie gets pushed back into the autumn, one is inclined to start smelling something a little funky. White House Down came out in the States nearly three months ago but is only now troubling British cinemas.
Roland Emmerich's film is – well, look, here's the plot, see what you think. Reliable beefy lunkhead Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a vaguely-blue-collary cop with family issues – nothing at all like John McClane, vaguely blue-collary cop with family issues, right? – working in Washington DC. He wants to join the Secret Service and to that end toddles along to the White House with his young daughter, who is a monumental civics nerd and expert on the place, not to mention the American constitution.
However, the President (Jamie Foxx) has just unveiled his secret plan to bring about world peace, much to the dismay of various vested interests, and as a result a plan has been put in motion to... well, revealing the ultimate goal probably counts as a plot spoiler. Suffice to say I'll be interested to see if this film gets an Iranian release. What really counts is that a traitor in the White House has organised a takeover of the place by a gang of mercenary nutters led by Jason Clarke, and Cale finds himself caught up in the middle of it all...
So it is, basically, Die Hard in the White House, which is a fundamentally silly idea for a film. This is not White House Down's biggest problem. You may recall that earlier this very year we were treated to GERARD BUTLER!!! (imagine me shouting that in a Scottish accent) in Olympus Has Fallen, a thriller which was basically Die Hard in the White House. So White House Down isn't just silly, it's silly in a way which doesn't even seem very original.
I get the impression that James Vanderbilt, author of the script, has watched Die Hard itself many, many times, as pretty much every beat and reversal of that film gets revisited here. Okay, I exaggerate, but you're never in any doubt about how the story is going to unfold. The identity of the White House traitor is blazingly telegraphed from his first appearance (it's James Woods, in case you were wondering), Cale is initially given a frosty relationship with his daughter so the moment when she starts hugging him and calling him Daddy has some impact, the white-collar Secret Service types are all snotty about him to begin with so he can be especially smug when he starts saving the day, and so on.
The thriller aspect, though polished, is terribly mechanical and familiar. The political aspect of this film, inasmuch as it has one, is very much in line with the way that the US President has been depicted on screen for the last two decades. If you look at Hollywood movies and TV from the mid to late 90s, it's striking how they come across as thinly-disguised love letters to Bill Clinton: we get the Prez impressing everyone with his wit and humanity (The West Wing), wowing the ladies as romantic lead (The American President), personally punching out terrorists (Air Force One), and even jumping into a fighter jet to lead the resistance to an alien invasion (Emmerich's own Independence Day). Hollywood loved Clinton. The Bush years, on the other hand, transformed the President into a nonentity who died off-screen (Emmerich again, in The Day After Tomorrow) or was cuckolded by the hero (The Sentinel): generally a rather less heroic figure. Now we find ourselves in the Obama era, obviously Hollywood likes the President again, although not as much as they did Clinton: Foxx here is obviously a good guy, but he still has to be looked after by Tatum's character.
One does get a sense of a bit of a tension at the heart of this movie between its desire to be a credible political thriller and its need to tick the popcorn blockbuster boxes. There's some interesting stuff about the constitutional chaos that ensues when the President himself is MIA, and various FBI, army, and Secret Service types squabble about who's actually in charge – but the film can't afford to spend too much time on this sort of thing and soon enough we're back to the galloping, uproarious absurdity of a car chase round the White House garden with the President shooting a rocket launcher out of the window of his own limousine.
So there's two films going on here, one rather more developed than the other. I would happily have watched either the serious, crisis-of-command one, or the preposterous crowd-pleasing President-with-a-bazooka one (although I suspect I'd have preferred the former). The thing is that putting them together, even as competently as Emmerich does, is a bit problematic. This is a film which is about terrorism and touches on genuine issues in world affairs. To do so and then include visual jokes and moments of utter, unbelieveable cheesiness just seems incredibly facile and in very dubious taste. There's a scene where a gun is put to the head of a crying child, which isn't really something I'd expect to see in a proper, inoffensive popcorn blockbuster.
So this is a film which is not without moments of interest and entertainment: Jamie Foxx gets some funny lines as the Commander in Chief, Maggie Gyllenhaal is predictably good as someone stuck on the outside trying to take charge of the situation, and James Woods and Richard Jenkins give the sort of reliable support you would expect from them. But the basic set-up remains very, very familiar, and the film is so all over the place in terms of its tone that's almost impossible just to detach your higher functions and enjoy it as a piece of cheesy fun. Emmerich marshals the proceedings with his usual aplomb, but this is by no means one of his best films.