Film review: White House Down

Barack Obama meets Die Hard in this ludicrously enjoyable thriller

White House Down
    
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cert: 12A
Genre: Action
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, James Woods
Running Time: 2 hrs 11 mins

Remember The Darkness? In another era, the Lowestoft band travelled the worrying limbo between pastiche and sincere bombast. That’s to say they somehow managed to be Spinal Tap and Uriah Heep at the same time.

Approach White House Down in a state of ignorance and you could be forgiven for thinking that Roland Emmerich, the film's unrestrained director, was attempting a cinematic equivalent. It is appallingly funny in a way that few parodies ever manage. But it is undeniably exciting.

No picture by the Wayans family or the Zucker brothers dared to stage a scene in which the president of the United States is chased around the White House lawn by a lunatic with a chain gun. Jamie Foxx, here assuming the highest office, could hardly seem less convincing in the role if he were wearing a red nose and huge comical shoes.

The opening sequence has the surreal, hyper-cosy creepiness of Blue Velvet before Jeffrey finds the disembodied ear: secret service supremo Maggie Gyllenhaal chuckles when President Foxx asks the helicopter pilot to fly past the Lincoln Memorial; speaker Richard Jenkins and White House supervisor James Woods smile crazily while cute kids are led hither and thither on guided tours; anthropomorphic squirrels dance gaily about the Oval Office (not really).


All this nice stuff is funny enough, but the nasty stuff is funnier still. Emmerich just gives Foxx enough time to confirm that he is playing a deified version of Barack Obama – peace loving, academic, jokey – before the usual bunch of cackling terrorists break out the submachine guns and begin carving up the antique stucco. Luckily, Lou Reed is on hand to restore order in his characteristically grumpy manner.

Hang on. I haven’t got that right. It seems that Channing Tatum is actually playing “John Cale”, and he’s a budding bodyguard, not a former member of The Velvet Underground.

What a shame. All that’s missing from this hilariously ludicrous thriller is a grating viola solo. “You’ve heard of the military-industrial complex?” Foxx says to somebody when detailing the mechanics of the plot. If somebody hadn’t actually made all this stuff up you’d say that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

The problem, of course, is that Emmerich means us to take almost all of White House Down seriously. The picture does feature quips and the odd intentional joke. But the implausibly serious director of Independence Day and 2012 is not attempting any clever deconstruction of the boom-and-whoop action genre.

Indeed, White House Down seems to think itself a left-leaning film with serious things to say (or, at least, shout) about the state of the republic. As we have observed, Foxx's character is absurdly closely modelled on the current occupant of the White House. Ironically for a film so in love with destruction, it argues for a unilateral withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East and a commitment to reconciliation.

A few hands are extended across the divide. Jenkins (a less varnished version of Republican John Boehner) is allowed to lay out routes towards compromise. Though initially represented as a snivelling coward, the film's variation on Glenn Beck is eventually given a moment of undiluted bravery.

In truth, the ludicrous attempts to grasp political issues outside the film’s tiny reach only add to the unintentional comedy. And Foxx’s absurd performance offers a satisfactory finishing touch to a sort of accidental masterpiece. It’s hard to say quite why he’s so awful. Jamie is not a fool. But nothing in his fidgety demeanour suggests he could be trusted with the nuclear codes.

Besides, we all know who the real president is. It's Morgan Freeman. Right?

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist