Been there, done this: Gerard Butler saved the White House in Olympus Has Fallen just a couple of months ago. Yes, but this is Channing Tatum – a more charismatic action star – and Roland Emmerich, a much bigger action director who once blew up the White House in Independence Day, working on a more lavish budget ($150 million) than Olympus. The result illustrates the difference between a glorified B-movie and a bona fide blockbuster, highly enjoyable hokum that’s undoubtedly a bit bloated – 131 minutes is a long time to watch Mr. Tatum in a Die Hard rip-off, though admittedly the original Die Hard also ran 131 minutes – but never boring.
And there’s something else too – because the German-born Emmerich is notoriously political for a blockbuster merchant: a thinly-disguised Dick Cheney was lambasted for his ignorance of climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, while the Third World got shafted by G8 countries in the sadly now-outdated 2012. It’s no surprise that someone like Emmerich would’ve been excited by the arrival of Barack Obama – though it’s still a surprise that the African-American President (studiously ignored by Olympus Has Fallen, where the Prez was played by the white Aaron Eckhart) should take a starring role in White House Down, fighting the bad guys alongside Secret Service wannabe Tatum who happens to be in the wrong (or right) place at the wrong time.
Obama (a.k.a. James Sawyer) is played by Jamie Foxx as a professorial type with an Abraham Lincoln fetish – though, as the film goes on, he loses his academic sangfroid and starts talking (how to put this delicately?) like a black man. “I ain’t doin’ that shit!” sez the Prez when Channing leaps across the elevator shaft where they’re both trapped, then later – having swapped his Presidential footwear for something more comfortable – snarls at a thug to “Get your hands off my Jordans!”. Not that there’s any implied racism (the film worships Obama), though there may be a bit of disillusionment, as if the script were written in the first flush of Obama-mania then revised as expectations were scaled down. “You don’t start out a politician,” admits Sawyer with a touch of sadness. “You become one.”
He certainly has good ideas, his grand plan being to withdraw all American troops from the Middle East, a move that’s bound to vex the defence industry (the film’s true villain): “These people give money to both parties,” points out the Speaker of the House, more for our benefit than the President’s – and it’s not long before the White House is overrun by a scarily plausible combination of disgruntled vets, white supremacists and hawkish insiders fed up with Sawyer’s peacenik policies. The invaders have no respect (one of them puts a bullet through a portrait of George Washington) and are totally ruthless. “You just killed the Secretary of Defence!” chides the chief baddie; “Well, he wasn’t doing a very good job,” replies his second-in-command incontrovertibly.
The film is full of zingers, guaranteed to get any audience cheering (“No jail for you, you little bitch!”). There are incidental laughs – the villains include a hacker who was fired by the NSA for redirecting its nuclear arsenal to hit Apple headquarters – frequent glimpses of the military bigwigs trying to defuse the crisis (including Lance Reddick as a gloriously belligerent General) and a ticking-clock climax with an air strike due in eight minutes’ time, though admittedly those are some of the longest eight minutes in screen history. Tatum’s John Cale is a dull beefcake hero (he’s no John McClane), and it does seem like he gets out of tight spots too easily – bullets keep missing him – but the actor’s gift for easy empathy is much in evidence, and he also manages to play scenes alongside the world’s poutiest, most annoying 11-year-old girl (more like 11 going on 16) without smacking her upside the head, which is certainly something.
But it’s surely Obama-as-action-hero that’s the main achievement in White House Down – and perhaps the reason why the film wasn’t such a big hit, having been released four years too late. I suspect it’ll age well, both as rip-roaring (if familiar) action movie and because it’s such a Time-capsule, reflecting America’s (and the world’s) brief infatuation with a US President who seemed more human than his predecessors. Amazingly for a film set in the White House, it even contrives a car chase, with Cale driving ‘Ground Force One’ at top speed and the villains in pursuit – and there’s Obama running interference in the back seat, breaking out the military hardware like the badass Chief Executive that he is. “That’s President Sawyer,” gasps one onlooker to another; “He has a rocket launcher!”. “That’s something you don’t see every day,” replies his friend. You didn’t see it in Olympus Has Fallen, either.
DIRECTED BY Roland Emmerich
STARRING Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods
US 2013 131 mins