Friday, July 5, 2013

White House Down

Alternate Title:  Roland Emmerich vs. Monuments, Round XIV

One sentence synopsis:   A would-be Secret Service agent must save the President of the United States from an army of mercenaries and an evil conspiracy.

Things Havoc liked:  You really have to take Roland Emmerich as you find him. A lot of people don't care for his films, and sometimes I'm among them, but there's something almost cloyingly appealing about his utter disregard for such things as restraint, good taste, and comprehensible plot. There are those who find his work indistinguishable with Michael Bay's, and yet I feel there's more to him than Bay's shocking, borderline-racist furrows dug through the childhood of my generation (of course given Bay's last film, perhaps that's true of both of them). Though he tends to oscillate between "pretty bad" and "mediocre", there are good films on Emmerich's resume, including Stargate, Independence Day, and Universal Soldier (shut up, I liked that one). And overall, his movies have never had that quality of aggressive, contemptuous spite for their audience that Bay's atrocities have had. Indeed, if anything, Emmerich's films tend to have the opposite problem, sugar-infused doses of America-Rocks patriotism, and sunny faith in the power of "real American heroes" sufficient to make Rush Limbaugh pine for Al Jazeera. A strange thing to see, perhaps, from an extremely left wing, openly-gay German transplant, but there we have it.

In White House Down, Emmerich returns to themes that he clearly is enamored of, specifically lots of explosions involving major national landmarks, strategically placed to cover massive, cavernous plot holes with which the script is liberally well supplied. As movies like this require an everyman-cum-badass to work, this one supplies us with Channing Tatum, an Afghanistan veteran who is looking to join the US Secret Service, and whose daughter Emily (Joey King) is distant from him due to his being an unreliable father. If it sounds like you've heard this all before it's because you have, but Tatum, honestly, handles the material better than it deserves. His Bruce Willis impression isn't perfect, and he seems a bit too milquetoast at the beginning for someone who will be slaying numbers of armed men with knives by the climax, but he carries the action weight well enough, and never stoops to doing things that are overtly stupid or playing the material wrong. A better turn is provided by his counterpart in this action-buddy romp, Jamie Foxx, here playing the President of the United States.

Yes, this is a movie wherein the President of the United States teams up with Channing Tatum to defeat evil, and frankly, this is the best idea the film has. Movies like this usually either star the President as his own action hero (ala Air Force One), or use the President as a Macguffin/hostage occasionally called upon to deliver wise speeches and otherwise await rescue (ala XXX 2). This movie makes the President one half of a buddy action movie, an idea that really shouldn't work, and yet kind of does. Foxx, playing President James Sawyer, stops just short of a Barack Obama impression, and handles the notion of being the President thrown into his own action movie surprisingly well. Some of his wise and forethoughted political speeches fall flat (it's not easy to compete with the real Obama's oratory), but his conversations with Tatum and with the evildoers sound by and large like the kinds of conversations that real Presidents might have with real people. The movie wisely allows Tatum to handle most of the action work, letting the President get his own hands dirty only when absolutely necessary, and lets him make the right decisions throughout the crisis, even when that means leaving the Secret Service Agent behind so that he can escape, or refusing to give in to hostage blackmail when there are nuclear missile codes on the line.

But if you think that a buddy action flick starring Channing Tatum and the President is a ludicrous concept, then boy, you are not ready for some of the shit that happens in this film. A sequence midway through that involves the President being chased around the white house lawn in a bulletproof limousine by armored humvees firing miniguns is so absurd and ridiculous that it actually becomes wickedly funny, something I think was intentional, as it soon results in the President of the United States taking a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher to blow up his pursuers while under minigun fire, all while tanks and RPGs duel in the background. There is no way to play material like this straight, and yet the film doesn't dive into the excesses of stupid, offensive, comic relief crap that comprises half of your average Michael Bay film. Instead we have what feels like an intentional throwback to mid-late 90s action movies, complete with one-liners (some of whom are actually pretty good), hyperkinetic action, and the usual tropes that one comes to expect in these sorts of things (bad guys with wildly varying aiming skills, silencers and missiles working in ways other than reality, etc...).

Things Havoc disliked:  WOW is this movie stupid. Stupid beyond all belief. Stupid to the point wherein you start to wonder if major supporting characters are in on the conspiracy based solely on the fact that they seem unwilling to act with any rational thought. Nothing about this movie makes the slightest shred of sense when even the most basic light of common sense and reason. I started listing nitpicks from the very first line in the film, and never stopped, until at length I was risking death from asphyxiation, being unable to take a breath for all the inanities on display. Not only does nothing in this movie (silencers, rocket launchers, tanks, helicopters, missiles, machine guns, computers, hacking) work the way it does in reality, but every single person in this movie who is not either the President or Channing Tatum is a complete idiot, especially the entirety of the United States' military, police forces, and government. Confronted with a hostage situation wherein terrorists who have stormed the White House have not only begun killing hostages on live television, but are threatening to hack into nuclear codes and end the world, and in possession of assurances that the President of the United States is free, but trapped in the White House, the officials in question decide to pull back their thousands of troops and armored vehicles from the White House in favor of a helicopter-raid with fifteen men into the teeth of the surface-to-air missiles they know for a fact to be emplaced on the roof.

I could go on for hours here about the stupidities in this film. Not only are we graced by "movie hacking", (a hacker manages to use the White House situation room to hack both NORAD and nuclear submarines, things I normally would not assume were connected to the internet), but the men crewing those aforementioned facilities are powerless to stop the hacker from firing nuclear weapons at largely anything he wants to. But not only is the movie's plot stupid, but half the characters are utterly useless. Front and center among the useless people is Maggie Gyllenhaal, an actress I have never liked and continue not to. The reason I do not like Gyllenhaal, here as in other films, is that she cannot act, turning every role she plays into that of an overgrown 15-year old girl throwing a tantrum. Here she is intended to be the Deputy Director of the Secret Service, and yet comes across like a a caricature of an out-of-touch hippie, whining to the men trying to prevent a nuclear apocalypse in the middle of an armed terrorist assault that has killed hundreds that the President "didn't believe in violence". Jason Clarke meanwhile, coming off his excellent performance in Zero Dark Thirty, here plays the exact same character, save without the nuance, wit, intelligence, or... well... character. Instead he's simply an unspecified special forces operative who wants "revenge" for some covert thing that happened... you know it doesn't even matter. The villains are all over the map here, some driven by revenge for wrongs done to them, some by racism and right wing radicalism, some by money, and some by shadowy connections to the evil military-industrial complex, a force that is, of course, at the root of everything evil in the world. Indeed, this movie's sense of politics is so shallow that it renders the President's 'wise speeches' concerning his plans for mid-east peace (plans that the evil terrorists want to destroy, of course), sound like the sort of grade-school analysis about peace that Republicans like to claim Democrats secretly believe. Apparently the only enemy of peace in the Middle East is the evil military-industrial complex, and if those people were prevented from forcing war on the world, the denizens of the Middle East, who have no intrinsic grievances whatsoever, will all join hands in peace and friendship. Automatically.

And don't get me started about the film's ending. Emmerich's movies have always been saccharine exercises in uber-patriotic flag waving (The Patriot was his work), but I've not seen anything this blatant in a long time. The entire end of the movie is a non-stop parade of "I believe in America" cliches, culminating in a literal flag-waving sequence narrated by the national media, who praises, in real time, the "courage" of the flag-waver. I'm a proud American with no sympathy for those who denigrate the country, but there is a hard limit to the levels of diabetic "oo-rah"-ness that I can tolerate, and this movie exceeds those limits with gusto.

Final thoughts:    I wanted to like this movie, as I have long wanted to like both Channing Tatum and Roland Emmerich. Particularly in a year wherein I was forced to praise Michael Bay, I was hoping to like this movie, and yet I could not. There is a level of stupid I am prepared to tolerate, particularly when necessary for the plot premise, but I do not go to movies to turn my brain off, and when the world of the film clashes so egregiously with the worlds of reality or common sense, I just can't take it anymore. It was not an awful movie by any means, nor did I experience great pain in watching it, but in terms of mediocre action flicks long on explosions and short on rational thought, this one is a perfect candidate for the dictionary example.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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