White House Down (2013)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-6; L-2; S-5/N-0. Running time: 2 hours 11 min.


My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me*
with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
Psalm 55:20-21

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
1 Thessalonians 5:15

There might be a spoiler in the last paragraph.

I expected a sense of déjà vu upon sitting down for this film, having watched Olympus Is Down, a similar, entertaining but not very believable thriller about terrorists besieging the White House. Director Roland Emmerich’s take on the same plot is his second go at destroying the White House, his Independence Day having featured the bombing of the Executive Mansion. As in Olympus, the fate of the country and of the world depends upon one man, this time Washington D.C. cop John Cale played by Channing Tatum.

At the beginning of the film he is picking up his daughter at his estranged wife’s home and is trying to win back the affection of his 11 year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), upset because he has again missed one of her school activities. On his way for an interview for a position in the Secret Service, he thaws out Emily by showing her the two White House Tour passes he has secured. A lover of history and a fan of the current resident, President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), the girl is delighted.

Unfortunately the interview with Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) does not go well for John, even though he is a decorated war veteran. Not only are his references critical of his lack of respect for authority, but also Carol remembers him from their time as college classmates, and those memories are not impressive. Emily is waiting outside eager to hear if her father is given what she considers an awesome job, but he misinforms her that they are considering him. They join the tour, and that is how John Cale happens to be in the White House when the terrorists strike, and thus, like Mike Banning in Olympus Has Fallen, is in a position to save the world.

The first strike however is at the nation’s Capitol Building where a terrorist posing as a janitor leaves his hamper and equipment directly under the dome and briskly walks away. Before security officers can stop him or clear away the hamper, his bomb explodes, the fireball shooting up and out of the dome, killing almost everyone inside it. The guards at the White House are distracted by this, so that a band posing as a home theater repair crew in the screening room can whip out their guns and a smaller bomb. In the aftermath of its explosion, they ruthlessly shoot down every officer and Secret Service agent they encounter.

On the tour Emily impresses their guide with her knowledge of history and politics. A nice set-up for what is to come is their looking at a painting of the burning of the White House during the War of 1812. Emily leaves the group to go use the bathroom, and thus father and daughter are separated when the terrorists strike. John escapes during the confusion of the group’s capture, and Emily for a while eludes capture, during which time she shoots video of some of the mayhem on her camera and posts it to her Face Book page, thus alerting the country to what is going on inside. Unbeknownst to her she has become a national heroine.

In this film the culprits are a little more believable in that they all turn out to be members of hate groups and militias that are on the government’s lists. Their leader is the ruthless. Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke) and government insiders you will discover as the somewhat preposterous plot unfolds. Stenz brings in hacker called Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) who is needed for activating the NORAD system to launch the nuclear missiles. President Sawyer had been promoting a peace plan for the Middle East that radical right wing opponents had been railing against. The plan was to force him to reveal his codes and send the missiles to destroy Iranian and other cities of our enemies. But they had not counted on John Cale.

There are lots of developments outside as well, including a swearing in on Air Force One of Vice President Alvin Hammond (Michael Murphy) when it is believed that Pres. Sawyer has been killed. Meanwhile Special Agent Finnerty is with the military brass and Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) trying to understand and cope with the situation. John Cale manages to kill a terrorist and rescue the President, the two hiding in the elevator shaft. The bad guys are searching high and low for them. But what will happen when the terrorists discover that the little girl they have captured is John’s daughter. And what will prevent the military and the new President from launching a strike to destroy the White House and it’s control of the missiles in order to prevent international destruction?

This is one of those films to be enjoyed for the moment for its action and special effects—the latter showing the destruction of the Capitol dome and the step by step destruction of the White House. There are some human moments, the interplay between stars Jamie Fox and Tatum Channing being very good. James Woods is good as Martin Walker, the admired and trusted head of the Secret Service, though his motivation for what he eventually does is not very convincing. Child actress Joey King shines as John’s daughter (despite what some who have attacked the movie say). Filled with one-liners, the filmmakers do not take their work too seriously, nor should the audience. The violence, especially the hand to hand combat is brutal, so this is no film for peacemakers—except for the script’s setting up of “the military-industrial complex” as part of the conspiracy, which might please those critical of the defense industry’s cozy and highly profitable relationship with the Pentagon.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. How does the film compare to Olympus Down, providing you have seen the earlier film? The first has North Koreans as the villains, whereas in this one it is Americans, a radical right wing militia and even “the military-industrial complex.” Which seems more plausible?

2. How is John Cale a typical action movie hero: combat veteran, resistant to authority; etc.?

3. Whom is President Sawyer patterned after?

4. What do you think of the motives of the villain(s) unnamed thus far? Even if they were to be able to get away, could they have spent or disposed of such a huge sum of money?

5. How is this another film showing the importance of social media?

6. The film has a rightwing TV reporter denouncing Pres. Sawyer and his peace plan: yet, how is this reporter shown when he is among the captives? How does this balance out what could have been considered a liberal (unflattering) view of him?

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