Film Review: White House Down

Commandos attack the White House, placing the President in peril in this silly but satisfying adventure.

Barely three months after Olympus Has Fallen, terrorists are at it again, once more taking the President hostage while destroying his residence. Lighter in tone and with considerably spiffier special effects, White House Down is an unexpectedly fun—and funny—adventure that should perform well against its superhero competition.

The movie opens slowly, with a lot of screen time devoted to filling out the main characters and introducing potential villains. Not all of the background is crucial. Anyone who's seen an action film in the last ten years knows hero John Cale's (Channing Tatum) bio by rote. Although this lowly Washington, DC, cop has family and authority issues, he will step up when the experts fail, finding a way against the odds to save his daughter Emily (Joey King), President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), and the country, in that order.

To complete his mission, Cale will have to win over Secret Service exec Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who just that day refused him a spot on the President's security detail. She's in an offsite bunker with military leaders and Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), and through the magic of "secure" cell-phones can guide Cale through secret White House corridors.

Rogue agent Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke) and his terrorist cohorts need Sawyer alive so they can access launch codes. But they haven't counted on Cale, who picks them off one by one while keeping Sawyer just out of their reach. Negotiating with the terrorists: security chief Martin Walker (James Woods), about to retire and grieving over his dead son.

The strategy behind White House Down is simple: Dust off the Die Hard playbook. Lone cop with extraordinary survival skills; family member held hostage; computer mastermind deploying a virus program; journalist who leaks a deadly tip—Cale even strips down to a wife-beater t-shirt like his Die Hard counterpart John McClane.

Handled properly, it's still a good formula. When they come, the action scenes in White House Down are loud and kinetic, if not very plausible. Great chemistry between Tatum and Foxx helps push over the movie's weaker moments, although it's a shame screenwriter James Vanderbilt didn't exploit their humor more.

White House Down lets director Roland Emmerich play to his strengths. This is the kind of big-budget, over-the-top narrative rollercoaster he mastered in Independence Day, without the grandiose streaks found in his recent movies. Always a reliably liberal voice, Emmerich drops some timely warnings and observations here. Sawyer has ruffled conservative feathers by pulling troops out of the Middle East. Early on, broadcasters try to pin the attack on Al Qaeda, but the villains turn out to be homegrown (and right-wing).

Politics aside, White House Down relies more on its two lead stars than on its pyrotechnics. Foxx is content to play a supporting role. His President is forceful but not an action hero, a smart approach. Tatum underplays as well. He's not afraid to look scared, making Cale much more appealing than this summer's crop of superheroes.