Columbia (2013) 131 min. PG-13
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
Cinematography: Anna Foerster; Editing: Adam Wolfe
Production Design: Kirk M. Petruccelli; Set Decoration: Marie-Soleil Dénommé & Paul Hotte
Costumes: Melissa Bruning; Score: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Channing Tatum (John Cale), Jamie Foxx (President James Sawyer), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Carol Finnerty), James Woods (Martin Walker), Richard Jenkins (Eli Raphelson), Jason Clarke (Emil Stenz), Joey King (Emily Cale), Nicholas Wright (Donnie the Tour Guide)
In White House Down, Jamie Foxx has become president of the United States. Understandably outraged at this fact, an organized troop of home-grown terrorists comprised in equal measure of disgruntled War on Terror vets and white supremacists infiltrate the capital building, intent on extorting government funds while simultaneously launching a nuclear missile attack that will obliterate the Middle East. When they take the president hostage, a Capital policeman rejected as unfit for Secret Service played by Channing Tatum, must emancipate him. The fate of the Western world rests on his broad shoulders. Heaven help us all.
Written by James Vaderbilt, director Roland Emmerich’s White House Down is an incredulous, absurdist black comedy packaged in the guise of political action thriller, bank heist caper, bromance. It’s a queasy mix and match of different genres and styles. Emmerich’s Independence Day is mentioned by name, but by intention or happenstance, the movie also invokes other titles, specifically Air Force One and Die Hard. The recent Olympus Has Fallen virtually served as blueprint. The movie doesn’t expect to be taken seriously but it’s been so poorly pieced together that one never knows if it’s being purposefully bad for reasons of parody, or if its colossal ineptitude is entirely unintentional. White House Down has been constructed like a self-detonating booby-trap in a manner intended to forearm itself against criticism. Anything one says against it, anything one touches, might set off high explosives. But simply acknowledging, in self-mocking manner, that you’ve made a bad movie doesn’t help make that movie any more pleasant to sit through. Adam Wolfe’s jagged editing is hyped up, so eager to keep sparking off pyrotechnics we’re always being hurried on to the next setup so we never get a feel for the situation at hand. White House Down is so determined to maintain an out of control forward momentum it bears down on unsuspecting viewers, an unrelenting bombardment to the senses, from which we can find no refuge. The real, full-scale, all-out assault is on the audience itself. Somehow (don’t ask how), Emmerich even manages to work in the requisite car chase right there on the White House lawn. Yet for all that, the action still seems strangely repetitive, not just because we feel we’ve seen it all before, but because far too much time is spent building suspense for situations that lead nowhere, like the seemingly endless shots of the heroes climbing up elevator shafts and down dumb waiters like mice in the wall.
The movie is so destructively chaotic it’s like a willful act of anarchy in itself. Cannily released the weekend before the fourth of July holiday, it intended to cash in on America’s increased patriotic fervor around that time of the year. But for all its phony, flag waving jingoism, White House Down is the most disrespectfully irreverent of films. Having blown up the capitol in celebration of July 4th once before in Independence Day, Emmerich returns to form. Most directors don’t even get to destroy the White House once onscreen, so the director makes sure to stop and savor the opportunity of taking a sledgehammer to it twice in his lifetime. His movie is built like a wrecking ball, even giving audiences the preliminary cook’s tour to better prime us for when the White House goes down.
The nation’s most sacrosanct domicile is turned into a big romper room for its overgrown stars to rough house in. White House Down seems to derive puerile delight from defacing priceless national treasures. While the terrorists are disparaged and vilified for setting such little store by the one of a kind artifacts they destroy, indiscriminately shattering irreplaceable Ming Dynasty vases and defacing a portrait of Washington similar to the one Dolly Madison saved when the British stormed the capital during the War of 1812, the movie and its maker are in convivial kindred spirits with them. The director of Godzilla, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 shares their same crash and boom sensibility, a real taste for apocalyptic annihilation. It’s a wonder Emmerich didn’t choose to take his movie out on a bigger bang by completely demolishing the building all over again, razing it to the ground and ringing down the pillars with rollicking abandon, rather than cheerily dismantling it piece by piece.
The knickknacks of the White House are treated as glorified vaudeville props to be splintered and smashed. The purpose is simply to rile viewers up by showcasing the terrorists’ flagrant disregard for these irreplaceable curios, material embodiment of our American heritage (which fails to take into account that our heroes are shown being just as insensitive toward them). It stokes audiences’ desire for vengeance far more than the myriad bodies that get mowed down. But as far as the fate of the art itself is concerned, we’re simply encouraged to giggle at the pretensions of the tour guide, Donnie, in protesting such sacking and pillaging of the surrounding decor. His concern is made to seem like an effete affection (he proves himself a man by using a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted gold Swiss cuckoo clock to bash open the head of a terrorist, clobbering him senseless before tossing aside the now useless piece of junk). The German director takes such rare delight in trashing America’s treasures and little patience for artsy fartsy types, it’s astonishing to learn he has an art appreciation background and studied painting and sculpture before pursuing a career in film.
White House Down, following on the heels of the more sober-minded Olympus Has Fallen, with its similar premise a few months ago, likewise captures the siege mentality of a country that now sees itself in perpetual peril on its own soil, assailed from all quarters by the threat of terrorist attack. By taking this fear to the extreme, into the very seat of government itself with this penultimate home invasion nightmare, the script kids those fears, while at the same time playing into the jingoistic paranoia that’s become a permanent byproduct of 9/11. Americans have rarely suffered the indignity of invasion as during the War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and so are more incensed when threatened on home turf. White House Down is meant to arouse our territorial instincts, even more so on a holiday intended to celebrate the nation’s birth. A movie is not all in good fun when we see a heat seeking missile bringing down Air Force One and the primary purpose appears to be recalling memories of United 93. When explosives cause the capitol dome to collapse upon itself like a house of pancakes, we’re watching the Twin Towers fall all over again. Vice President Michael Murphy takes the oath of office with a hand heavily bandaged, indicating America’s wounded state.
With their operatives bathed in concealing shadows, it’s ironic that White House Down should implicate that vague conglomerate, the military-industrial complex, considering the way it glorifies all the artillery and hardware they’re in the business of backing. The movie makes its terrorists into right-wing extremists to further color their villainy, but it’s absurd to accept the assertion that this glorified NRA ad, which equates male value with the length of one’s muzzle, is supposed to appeal to left-wing sensibilities. Which makes it all the more amusing that conservatives should have urged a boycott in response to the movie’s perceived liberal, anti-military bias (they needn’t have bothered since the film tanked at the box office anyway). White House Down is so deeply confused, or to be more accurate, so cavalierly indifferent, that it preserves its president so that he can advance his peace plan, all the while working up viewers by giving a firsthand demonstration of how exciting taking up arms can be. What’s worse, Emmerich treats his characters as expendable cannon fodder (mowing down practically the entire White House staff), which is precisely what the uncaring government is being accused of doing to its soldiers.
Having already played G.I. Joe several times onscreen, if Tatum had sported green fatigues and a headband here he’d be the very image of Rambo. As is, in his white tank top he could double for Bruce Willis in one of the Die Hard films. White House Down’s revenge fantasy highlight occurs when Tatum’s John Cale goes toe to toe with the head of the occupying army, a highly trained Special Forces op who’s his match at martial arts and weaponry, played by Australian actor Jason Clarke. Last year, Clarke played the other side of the fence, embodying America’s War on Terror with his officially sanctioned, morally questionable torture sessions in Zero Dark Thirty, and I’m not sure if his gravitation to the opposite extreme here is meant to be riffing on that signature role, or simply an attempt to alter his image. His Emil Stenz is the flip side of the Cale character, his war experiences having soured him on the government, turning him traitor, while our heroic vet has retained all his patriotic fervor. They express their feelings for their country by respectively assaulting and preserving Pennsylvania Avenue. A baby daddy himself now, with the birth of his first daughter, Tatum is attempting something novel by channeling his newfound parental instincts into a screen role. He may have been tasked with saving the U.S. president and the free world, but his Cale makes it clear that family comes first by setting out to rescue his little girl, Emily. Joey King, the actress who plays the part, has an unformed face that suggests a cherubic Rachel Weisz. The script pulls a fast one regarding Cale’s parental concern for her though. When President Sawyer tries to make Emily understand, in what might be the movie’s one honestly felt moment, that the fate of millions of innocent people are worth the sacrifice of her life, it immediately follows a similar setup where Cale would have been forced to make a Sophie’s Choice between turning his president over to the terrorists or sacrificing his daughter. Having Sawyer hand himself in ethically exonerates Cale, but by not forcing the issue, we never learn what he would’ve chosen to do with a gun to his own head, betray his country or his little girl. Like Magic Mike and many of the other characters he’s played since Step Up, Tatum’s Cale is fighting an uphill battle to ‘prove himself’ in the eyes of a world that looks down on him. Specifically, he wants to prove himself worthy of the Secret Service that rejected him as unfit for duty. The entire affair affords an excuse for the character to demonstrate his utter superiority to the caliber of men manning that department. The way the script would have it, with the Secretary of Homeland Security dead and the Secretary of Defense doing such a shoddy job, Cale is the only qualified person capable of performing in a crisis situation, using his guerilla tactics to protect the president and take back the big house, as more qualified officers are bumped off right and left. His being turned down for the job is just one more sign of the Secret Service’s utter incompetency.
Clunkers that shamelessly exploit Tatum’s sex symbol status, affording a pretext for him to expose his well-developed biceps while being wolf whistled at from the anonymity of darkened theaters, are quickly becoming a summer tradition, like fourth of July fireworks, backyard barbeques and franchise blockbusters. Last year Magic Mike let him take it all off, and this year White House Down likewise manages to strip him in progressive stages, losing his tie and overcoat, then his button up, until he’s left in nothing but a torso flattering wet T-shirt, moistened by the sweat of his own physical exertions.
Here, the actor is sliding into the steroid-fueled, testosterone-pumping, multi-million dollar action movie big time Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson inherited from Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Tatum seems so unassumingly earnest, desperate to please and eager to be exploited, one half wishes he could actually act to justify his star standing. But oh well. He can embody a physically impressive plastic action figure convincingly enough but when required to engage in comic patter with a nutty squirrel, wrap his mind around reams of explication or show his tender side to his daughter, he’s less impressive. Then again, not even a skilled actor could bring off the sort of rubbish Vanderbilt writes for him to speak. Tatum delivers most of his dialogue in a breathlessly self-conscious fashion. He throws his lines away as if he wanted to get them out of his mouth before he forgot the words or was shamefacedly mumbling them under his breath, yet no one could blame him for not wanting to speak such drivel out loud. Ever since Jonah Hill turned him out in 21 Jump Street, Tatum has seemed agreeably capable of sparking with just about any co-star and he matches up well with Jamie Foxx here. The two get along like a house on fire and their amusing repartee may be intended to recall the Lethal Weapon movies with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his devastating Ray Charles impersonation, and in recent years he’s been working out a similar spot-on impression of our standing president, which he finally gets to deploy here. But while he holds the screen with more effortless aplomb than his co-star, there’s not enough substance to Foxx’s Obama impression to sustain a featured part and Vanderbilt hasn’t written any sort of character for him to play beyond the national figurehead.
Pointing out that Foxx, even in intellectual specs, seems to lack the dignity and distinction for the part of president is like saying that Tatum seems something less than Shakespearean. Some truths are self-evident. Morgan Freeman made a far more convincing presidential stand-in in Olympus Has Fallen (he has my vote in 2016), but White House Down is the movie that manages to work in the Driving Miss Daisy joke when Sawyer (I trust that name was not intended as a pun!), by force of habit, climbs into the back of Cadillac One during their attempted escape, as if Cale were his chauffeur, pointing up how much things are supposed to have changed.
Long before he played Ray, won an Oscar and began being taken seriously, Foxx started his career as a slapstick comedian, alongside Jim Carey, on the Wayans Bros.’ early 90’s sketch revue In Living Color for Fox. His talent for mimicry coupled with the entertaining array of characters he created helped snag him his own starring series on the WB, The Jamie Foxx Show, in which he played opposite Garcelle Beauvais, who has been cast as First Lady here. After all these years, the actor has retained the rhythmic comic timing he was forced to develop, of necessity, to meet the rigorous production schedule of a weekly television show and it comes in especially handy given Emmerich’s relentless pacing. The only ease of tensions there is comes from Foxx’s performance, which is composed of smooth, self-assured asides. Watching his co-star attempt comedy on the other hand creates another form of suspense entirely, we hold our breath waiting to see if he’s going to topple off his high wire and fall flat on his face by murdering the punchline. A seasoned professional at this sort of thing, Foxx proves more than capable of taking up Channing’s comic slack however, the way Jonah Hill did in 21 Jump Street last year, so that Vanderbilt’s dumb one-liners bounce off in a rat-a-tat fashion that keeps pace with the speed of all the flying bullets. It’s somewhat disconcerting to find that Foxx has apparently reached that stage in his career where he’s required to take a second seat to Channing Tatum as the movie’s primary draw. He’s kept off-screen for uncomfortable stretches of time and his lukewarm milquetoast has been oddly neutered (he suggests using kitchen knives in lieu of guns) so as not to detract from his co-star’s six-cylinder display of machismo (his president is advised that he doesn’t have the balls to see the mission through). He’s required to spend the majority of the movie hiding behind Tatum’s shirttails. His President Sawyer is criticized in the press because he’s seen as weak, a pacifist who wants to end the war in the Middle East and bring America’s troops home without any political resolution to the situation, taking in vain the sacrifices of the soldiers who have already died there.
At least that’s the primary motivation behind the siege led by James Wood’s Martin Walker, a recently retired Secret Services official who has lost his son in a botched military operation ordered by the president. Foxx’s Sawyer says he wants to do something historic befitting his office, on the order of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, something worthy of America’s greatest presidents. According to the movie’s mentality, however, the only way that the president can prove himself a strong, capable leader and assert the feasibility of his foreign policy that the pen is mightier than the sword, is by turning it into a hypodermic needle, to stab the leading baddie in the base of his neck.
There’s something unsavory about movies like White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. You can’t simply laugh off films that derive their most perverse pleasures from depicting the fall of a White House under the jurisdiction of the first sitting black president, as if the country were bound to collapse under his care. The subliminal implication is that it’s not only the terrorists God needs to save America from. The inevitable necessity for a white savior, whether Gerard Butler in Olympus or Channing Tatum here, to step in, set things right and save the day plays into the same old archaic idea of the white man’s burden. The Defiant Ones be damned, this seems like just another situation where a white man has been cast as a black man’s savior. Perhaps heady from Spielberg’s canonization last year, the movie depicts blacks still in worshipful awe of their Great Emancipator. Sawyer’s low-flying helicopter detour to respectfully buzz the Lincoln Memorial each time he’s in the vicinity seems the anachronistic modern movie equivalent of such old scenes as the one in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) where an aged black man removes his hat in reverence before the statue, or where an entire black chorus bowed low before the idol during the pageant “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). When the gunshot intended to bring the president down is stopped by the antique gold watch Mary Todd gave her husband to remind him he only had so much time to do good in his office, Lincoln is even thanked for taking another bullet for a black man.
Blacks may have ascended to the highest office in the land, but as long as concussively inconsequential entertainments like White House Down tap into pervasive racial anxieties by subliminally reiterating the same old clichés, executive power will continue to be taken out of their hands and placed back where the silent majority secretly fears it belongs, just as the 25th amendment is invoked here to remove the missing president from power. If this is the current state of the union, it probably deserves to go down.