Sunday, July 7, 2013

State of the Union: Roland Emmerich's White House Down

When Barack Obama was elected as the first black President of the United States in November 2008, it was a momentous event in American history. And it ignited a fever of idealism not felt since 1960 when John Kennedy first declared the coming of a New Frontier. At that time, JFK's inaugural address provided a promise that the country would begin to live up to its most cherished dreams – the quest for equality that lay in its founding documents. Of course, Kennedy's murder in Dallas in 1963, to be followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, not only seemed to assure that the promise couldn't be kept, but also that the coming of Obama wouldn't be in anyone's rear view mirror. Obama's election victory, arriving after almost four decades of racial segregation, war, assassinations, government corruption and terrorism, was experienced as both euphoric and an impossibly earned reward after years of bitter struggle and loss. Given that climate, it seemed only natural to believe that the movies of the Obama era would be in large supply and perhaps be even richer in content and feeling than those in any other Presidential period before him. But those pictures just didn't materialize. And, in part, it was because Obama, the avatar of another New Frontier, couldn't be found.

If supporters have experienced his presidency since 2008 as cautious, ineffective, and lately, an act of betrayal after the revelations of the government's wire-tapping of its citizens, his enemies continue to exploit that rift by making him seem a non-entity (as Clint Eastwood did at the Republican Convention), a fraud (as Donald Trump implied by demanding his birth certificate), or America's greatest threat (as the Tea Party and people on the conspiracy fringe of the right and left have claimed). In this climate, Obama emerged not as a world leader, but a trapped and inert statesman because, despite what his presidency represented, racism clearly hadn't gone away. The tragic currency of assassinations, embroidered throughout American history, had not really changed either. We're all too keenly aware of what happens to those who become lightning rods for great social change. American idealists seek community, but they also draw out the isolated loner who feels neither a need for community or to be a part of history. He chooses instead to destroy those who offer it to him. Given the danger zone Obama operates in today, he understands fully that if anything were to happen to him due to any bold move he made in public policy, his family would not only lose a father, the country would dissolve in violence and chaos.

In Roland Emmerich's White House Down, about an assault on a black President by a right-wing paramilitary group staging a violent coup, there's no question about the mirror it holds up to the state of the union. The parallels with Obama and his political crucible are unmistakeable. (It could be titled Obama's Revenge.) But its allusions to the current president are all on the surface. With a pulpy plot by James Vanderbilt that borrows from Die Hard, White House Down creates a bogus surrogate for the nation's hopes and fears. In the story, President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is getting plenty of heat over a proposed peace treaty between his allies which would lead to military forces pulling out of the Middle East. In particular, he draws the rage of the retiring Head of Presidential Detail Martin Walker (James Woods) who organizes his own detail to remove the President. Walker seeks revenge for the death of his son who was killed in a black ops mission approved by Sawyer. His conspiracy of mercenaries, also black ops types led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), supposedly speak for the might of the military-industrial complex which sees the treaty as a threat to their control of the region. (How their control is manifested in the Middle East is never explained, or made sense of. And if they were that powerful, why would the President be so bold in blatantly threatening them?)

John Cale (Channing Tatum) is a police officer assigned to the Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), whose son he saved in Afghanistan. On a day that he's escorting Raphelson, Cale offers a White House tour to his daughter Emily (Joey King), who is not only disenchanted with her father due to his painful divorce from her mother, but also because he voted for the wrong presidential candidate. In an effort to make it up to her and win her approval, he tries to get a job with the Secret Service. Yet he gets turned down for the position by agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who just happens to be a former college acquaintance of his. (She feels that his record shows a lack of authority and follow through.) But he gets to prove otherwise when the terrorists bomb the Capitol building and set forth to take the President hostage. While Cale ultimately rescues Sawyer and attempts to get him to safety, Emily ends up in the clutches of Stenz's men. On top of saving the nation, Cale also preserves the family honour by getting to his daughter in time.

Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer
White House Down might appear to some as a left-wing fantasy where Obama finally gets to claim his rightful place in office, but Emmerich, a master of destruction orgies (Independence DayThe Day After Tomorrow and 2012), is the Irwin Allen of the digital age rather than an action director with imagination, skill and intelligence. Like Allen (The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno), Emmerich treats character and plot as mere ploys to get to the thrills. All he really wants to do is jolt us out of our seats. But he also can't resist pandering to the sanctity of conservative-style family values. Unlike a superb action/adventure film like Skyfall, the more recent James Bond picture, which also delivers thrills and excitement but with skill and wit, White House Down is a solemn and campy affair in which violence is done in the service of sanctimony. Where Skyfall is a piece of terrifically directed commercial entertainment that also intelligently and perceptively parses the post-Cold War political terrain, White House Down is no more than a catalogue of tired effects created to exploit our fears of further terrorist attacks. The picture plays with our prurient fascination with destruction just as the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the Seventies did. But while those movies had an inadvertent way of reflecting the mood of a country that was breaking down and falling apart in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, and where authority and heroism were up for question, White House Down just asserts the territorial imperative. President Sawyer is simply another version of the weak intellectual who can only defend his home from thugs when he becomes one himself.

Channing Tatum as John Cale
Jamie Foxx comes across as pretty light on his feet, and he brings an affable touch to President Sawyer, but he isn't terribly affecting because he's hemmed in by the inanities of the script which has him delivering lines while running from explosion to explosion. As his personal savior, Channing Tatum may be swift and able, but he's as colourless as a Joe Palooka Teddy Bear. Tatum has the heavy-lidded, punch-drunk look of Josh Hartnett, but without any of Hartnett's wily soul. He also lacks the humourous self-awareness that Bruce Willis demonstrated going up against Alan Rickman and his Euro-Trash crew in Die Hard, where Willis's self-deprecating smirk gave that movie some verve. Quirky performers like Maggie Gyllenhaal end up looking bland and ordinary here while James Woods can barely rise to the occasion of obvious villainy. Richard Jenkins and Michael Murphy (as the Vice-President) look bored and distracted, as though they're simply concentrating on walking in the predictable footsteps laid out for them in the script. And Joey King plays the kind of precocious child you fear may one day end up heading a hit production of Annie. (When she heroically waves the White House flag to warn off jet fighters from bombing the President's home she's as unbearably self-righteous as Mel Gibson in Emmerich's The Patriot.)

Despite all the talk of this being an Obama era movie, the thrust of White House Down is not how a President redeems his oath of office, but how a father earns and wins the love and trust of his estranged daughter. The state of the country – even the world – is also arbitrary to the thrill of seeing capitol buildings come crashing down while a beleaguered war hero shows a cerebral head of state what it takes to save his Presidency. The Obama of White House Down still ends up a nowhere man with no distinct presence in the country that elected him. The President doesn't get to stand up for his principles and then have them vindicated by those who support him. He becomes the master in his own home only when he can master a machine gun and take out home-grown terrorists while wearing his Air Jordans.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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