Today sees the release of Roland Emmerich's White House Down. And maybe you're rolling your eyes, since it's the second action movie this year about a White House under siege. Or perhaps you haven't forgiven the filmmaker for the mess that was Godzilla. But for me, Emmerich will always be the man who made Independence Day, a disaster movie by which all others must be measured for its sheer outlandishness and still dazzling action sequences. So, I have been looking forward to White House Down since it was announced, just a little over a year ago.
Last fall, I had the insane good fortune to visit the set of the Montreal production, where I met with some the crew, Emmerich and his star Channing Tatum. At the time, I was in awe of the sets that were being meticulously built to recreate the White House inside and out, and was practically salivating for the film's release. When I headed to the press screening earlier this week, I was dizzy with anticipation. And what I saw unfold that night absolutely demanded a GIF review.
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
WARNING: Spoilers below.
There's a nearly tangible excitement in the audience as the opening credits unfurl. Thanks to a lengthy chat with production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, my mind is racing with fun facts about what I'm seeing. For instance, these opening shots of the President flying back to the White House are all CGI. You can't tell, but you might figure considering only the president can fly this particular path.
There's definitely a bit of Barack Obama charm in Jamie Foxx's President Sawyer, but it's no impersonation. His is a president with swagger!
Introduce John Cale (Tatum), a former soldier current capital cop trying to reconnect with his estranged young daughter after years away on tour and a seemingly tricky divorce. Emily Cale (Joey King) idolizes not her dad, but President Sawyer. So, John tries to impress her with a surprise trip to the White House. To get it, he promises a date and some second-base action to the Vice President's Gal Friday (Jackie Geary). She is one smart lady.
Channing Tatum has crazy chemistry with everyone! Surly little girls. Rock star presidents. Even rebellious squirrels he threatens with handguns. That last one sounds like a kid's movie. Somewhere someone is drafting an outline for Nuts and Bolts, starring Channing Tatum as Officer John Bolts.
A tour guide (Nicolas Wright) sets up the geography of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (and plot points) efficiently, and with a sassy attitude that makes me hope he survives what we know is about to go down...
The Capitol's dome explodes and my blood runs cold. I thought in the wake of so much mindless collateral damage in movies of late ( Man of Steel cough cough) I was numb to it. Leave it to Emmerich to revive fear in my heart.
The White House is under attack and John Cale literally leaps into action to save his daughter and the president!
Oh right, Jimmi Simpson (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is in this…and he is beautifully, brilliantly bonkers as an evil hacker! Of course his sociopath loves classical music and lollipops. Of course.
I'll be honest, for most of the action sequences—so like 90 minutes of a 130-minute movie—my scribbled notes are totally unintelligible. But to summarize:
Oh, you think Fast and the Furious 6 exhausted your appetite for crazy car chase scenes. White House Down scoffs at your presumption and raises you one BEAST.
Fun fact: When I was on set visit Tatum told us he wanted to do all his own stunts, even a very dangerous one that would require him to do a twenty-foot fall and land on his back. At the time, Emmerich was trying to talk him out of it and let Tatum's standby-stunt double do it. I watched for this moment to see if I could tell who took the fall, and it's definitely the stunt double. I'd recognize his trademark chin anywhere. He has the squarest jaw I'd seen since Contra.
As awesome as Channing Tatum is, it's exhilarating that his character is not the only hero here. President Sawyer is a peaceful man who can be pushed to war when the need arises. Little Emily Cale is one of the bravest girls action movies have ever seen, and even tour guide Donnie gets a couple of sweet one-liners, "Stop hurting my White House!" Please someone cast Nicolas Wright in many more things. Immediately. Thanks.
Oh shit. Emily is 11 years old and has been dealt some serious real talk from the President. This movie about the seat of power of the United States being in absolute jeopardy just got really dark.
In the dictionary, next to the definition of "overkill" should be a still from the scene where Cale kills the baddie with a Gatling gun at close range. After the definition it should read: "Also see: amazeballs."
I had heard over and over on my set visit that White House Down's race from script to screen was a testament to James Vanderbilt's screenplay, and now I see why. Every setup from the first act has found payoffs, and satisfying ones at that! Even the seemingly throwaway line about Emily's flag-twirling skills has its place. All kidding aside, White House Down may be the best-written action movie of the year. But moreover, it is overwhelmingly entertaining with well-defined and engaging characters, a thrumming chord of emotion throughout, truly spectacular action sequences, and at its core an intriguing message of what the real threat to America is. So, for July 4th, celebrate the land you love by seeing a movie where a critical chunk of it gets blown up!
For an alternate take on White House Down, check out Eric's review.