WHITE HOUSE DOWN is not a film of firsts. Itís not the first film this year to depict an armed takeover of the eponymous building. And itís not the first time that Roland Emmerich has destroyed it. He has, however, made it more fun than the other film, and only slightly more plausible than when he had aliens firebomb the presidentís house in INDEPENDENCE DAY. We do not turn to Emmerich for reality. We turn to him for unselfconsciously overblown action and for the interesting characters interacting with that action. If there are a host of convenient coincidences his action flicks, there is nothing for it but to wince a little and move on to the next big explosion.
There are coincidences aplenty here. There are also the de rigeur beats that an action film requires, and this one hits them firmly and at all the right places. Yet, for all the pyrotechnics, and there is that aplenty, too, itís all just so much window dressing for the real story, which is that of a father trying to reconnect with his 11-year-old daughter. Oh, and save POTUS (Jamie Foxx) from the dastardly terrorists who have taken him hostage along with several administration officials, and a tour group with a feisty guide as worried about the antiques as he is about the continuity of power.
The father is John Cale (Channing Tatum), an ex-military guy currently serving as the Capitol policeman protecting the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). Itís a dull job that involves chasing squirrels and marking time. Johnís dream is becoming a Secret Service agent, as much to be where the action it as to impress his daughter, Emily (Joey King), a fan of all things political. He calls in a favor for an agency interview, only to have an old friend, and possibly old flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal), perform the duty. Sheís fond of John, but the less than sterling file on him makes it plain that only a miracle will get him his dream job.
Fortunately, a miracle in on the way. Or, rather, a well-timed, well-planned takeover of the White House that goes down just as John and Emily are in the middle of the White House tour. Unfortunately, itís when Emily has excused herself to use the facilities, and John spend the rest of the film protecting the president, foiling the terrorists, and looking for his daughter.
The terrorists are of the domestic variety, from a disgruntled and snarling ex-special ops officer (Jason Clarke), to a fey aesthete of a hacker (Jimmi Simpson) with ingenious skills, a penchant for Beethoven, and a store of sweet treats from which to indulge while cracking the presidential codes. The president has his own quirks, from claustrophobia to nicotine-gum, while James Woods, as the head of the Secret Service White House detail, returns to his Haldeman buzz-cut and portentous style that stops just short of hammy. Seriously, when he turns to his wife before leaving for work the morning of the fateful day in question, and tells her with willful intensity that he loves her very much, itís not as though we arenít supposed to figure out whatís up. Gyllenhaal, with the least to do plays it soft and nurturing, while Jenkins, the most reliable character actor working today, infuses dithering and impatience with the gravitas of Shakespearean proportions. And this is why, while never rising above the popcorn flick genre, the film is not just fun, but also engaging. The way Tatum banters with Foxx as they make their way through dangerous territory has the right note of comic relief that does nothing to detract from the quiet resolve the former shows every time he makes another attempt to find his daughter instead of fleeing to safety. Like everyone elseís performance, his is one that is committed enough to evoke an emotional resonance as the cars crash, helicopters whoosh, and bullets fly with wild abandon.
Tatum flies with the same wild abandon, leaping headfirst and in slo-mo over Federal-style sofas, through plate-glass ceilings, and into the face of his daughterís initial sulking over his missing her performance at a school talent show. Charismatic, just a little emotionally vulnerable, and, eventually, showing off his biceps of doom, he has the old-fashioned swashbuckling star quality of Old Hollywood with a modern sense of self-deprecation. Heís the type that can make you believe his character is both flattered and a little surprised to learn that the condition of a favor from a comely acquaintance hinges on a romantic dinner and a promise from him to try getting to second base.
WHITE HOUSE DOWN moves quickly, finds new ways to destroy public monuments, and takes a few metaphorical shots at the military-industrial complex while taking several magazineís worth of actual shots. Itís no more serious than it should be, and no more silly than absolutely necessary to be this much fun.