White House Downby Kavish Chetty / 12.07.2013
America’s choice narcotic is the American Dream, a cocaine-hit of ideological fantasy which runs through the nostrils of their whole cultural industry. It has the effect of always flattening political complexity into stories of individual redemption, allegorising the idea that the intensity of human will and ambition can confront and out-fuck the system in which it gloriously comes into being. White House Down might, at first and second glances, seem like an apocalypse film – Roland Emmerich has previously sought his end-of-days catharsis through incarnating confections like Independence Day, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. It is only organic that he should remove himself from such world-scale disasters to a localised attack on the White House, which at any rate represents the core of America, and in the logic of their exceptionalism, the moral core of planet earth. But all this apocalyptic drama is in fact an allegory, and the true story is a fable about a father-daughter relationship which comes together in spite of a divorce, his perpetual absenteeism; it’s about how one man teaches his daughter to respect him, by slaughtering a clutch of absurd terrorists, preventing the threat of thermonuclear war, and saving the country’s sassiest black president. Such trials, in the manic imagination of this kind of cinema, are only suitable for a father basically seeking to atone for missing his daughter’s talent show.
Channing Tatum, a man with two first names and hardly enough personality to power one of those, plays John Cale, an Afghanistan war veteran and bodyguard, whose career ambition is to get on the private security detail for the American presidency. The president at play is John Sawyer, Jamie Foxx, also known as a Barack Obama three-degrees blacker, with a comic fondness for Air Jordans, and a sassy mouth with which to interrupt moments of tension with a slickly-enunciated “shee-yit!” In the immediate context of the film, Sawyer is planning to sign a treaty that makes no sense to anyone even obliquely acquainted with American foreign policy. He hopes to get several middle-Eastern territories to sign on a compact that will allow him to prosecute arms manufacturers, the “military-industrial complex”, forgetting that without its endless production of wars elsewhere in the world, American would be relinquishing its chief export to the Third World. If you can manage to swallow this depoliticised charity, and the fact that his presidential entourage aren’t terribly bothered by this, perhaps the most radical gesture in human political history, then you won’t have much trouble sucking down the increasing and exponentially lunatic explanations with which the film tries to make sense of all the ensuing drama.
John Cale decides to take his precocious eleven-year old daughter to the White House for his job interview. She’s a politics nerd, crushing hard on the black man in office, and perhaps he sees this as an opportunity to share something she likes with her: their relationship is fraught, he’s estranged from his wife, he misses important dates in her life, and by all signs, his daughter appears to take him for a thick-necked twit, which isn’t an egregious detour from the truth. While touring the White House, however, the Capitol building is exploded in a terrorist attack – don’t worry, it ain’t the Arabs; they’ve avoided that uncomfortable representational territory – and a huge, gory conspiracy takes hold of the Oval Office. John Cale is forced to become John McLane, his heritage lying very obviously in Die Hard, by becoming the wily civilian who tries to save the President and take down a motley crew of thugs. These thugs are working for someone higher up, whom I’ll get to in a moment, but interestingly, they appear to have absolutely no real motive of their own for the first two hours of the film; one magically appears in the last ten minutes, but it’s more preposterous than the methods by which this outfit manages to sneak a bomb, several gatling guns and other artillery into among the most fortressed locations in continental America.
It is not a spoiler to reveal the mastermind behind this plot, as he himself takes the reigns of the coup within the first moments of its appearance. It’s Martin Walker (James Woods), the Head of the Presidential Detail, who’s nursing a grudge against the big man ever since his son was killed in a black ops mission which President Sawyer was behind. That Emmerich (or scriptwriter James Vanderbilt) squandered the chance to come up with an imaginative takeover of the White House on this private revenge mission is symptomatic of the American national consciousness’s refusal to register the real global anger of its world hegemony – we can summon to mind a large number of organisations who would love to see America choke on its illusions, but Emmerich flattens this into the story of private vengeance, one man run amok with pathological intensity, rather than a geopolitical debt coming home in the strongest way possible.
This is the scaffolding, and the film then proceeds to entertain with a bloated series of improbable action sequences, John Cale lurking through the abandoned hallways of the White House with Sawyer, dispatching terrorists and McGuyver-ing his way into spectacle: lawn-chases in 4x4s in which RPGs are used to take out terrorists are one incidence of such a thing. The film fails to imagine its antagonists with any real flourish. Instead of, say, Bond’s rogue gallery of tailored and stylish super-villains, we get a rag-tag group of Eastern European tough guys, white supremacists and geeky hackers. Equally, the terrorists are too precious about their hostages, refusing to maim and murder where this could have ultimately secured their victory.
The film is in fact quite comically aware, thank god, and much of the ease of its passing has to do with the “buddy” male duo of Tatum and Foxx, who quip and kill their way through the turbulence of this hostage situation. Their dynamic recalls the “I’m Going to Channing all over your Tatum” video the two performed for Jimmy Kimmel. Elsewhere, the film demands the most incredible suspension of disbelief you’ve ever performed. It’s loud, enormous, full of fire and stupidity, the both working in tandem to produce a real blockbuster, one which exemplifies, even apotheosises much of the current of mainstream American cinematic thought.