Although I knew it would be terrible, I had to see White House Down so that I could complete my collection of lunatics-take-over-the-White-House movies for 2013. I'd already seen Olympus Has Fallen, and having lived in Nordor for so long now, I'm mired in the notion of parity of esteem, so of course having seen the plucky underdog go teeth first into the kerb, I had to go and see the over-resourced top dog throw itself under a bus of its own design.
Wait, did I say own design? Sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. White House Down is - you'll want to sit down and have a soothing beverage to hand - even more ripped from the past than Olympus Has Fallen. The "writer" credit should probably have read "photocopier". Every bit of imagination which went into this movie went into stunt design. And possibly into thinking of ways of talking Richard Jenkins, James Woods and Maggie Gyllenhall into standing in front of the special effects pretending to care. In fairness, they're all seasoned mercenaries - well, maybe not Gyllenhall, but she looks pretty gaunt in this thing and I'm guessing that she's got food bills - with not much of a track record of turning things down, and even a small slice of a reported $150 million dollar budget….
However, it's a first of sorts for Emmerich. Well, a bit. There's a moppet in peril, of course. There's wholesale destruction of iconic US landmarks, including I think Emmerich's fourth destruction of the White House. The hero has split up with his wife and has to reconnect with his family while proving himself as a father and a hero. There are heroic dudes in uniform and snivelling weasel politicians. Every single character is connected to the hero by a chain of implausible coincidences, and the hero is somehow in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to benefit from these coincidences. The media are morons. Put upon minor functionaries get a moment of heroism. There is a moment where someone waves a flag to save the day and rally the world (I am embarrassed to say that even as I was squirming with embarrassment, I was feeling slightly choked up with the pathos of the moment).
So, yeah, it's the single transferable Roland Emmerich one-size-fits-all movie (I really have to make the time to watch Anonymous one of these days and see how Shakespeare blows up the Tower of London), bolted onto the plot of Die Hard, with nuclear launch codes standing in for the Nakatomi Plaza bond hoard. Die Hard stuff poking out of the rubble; hero in a t-shirt? Check. Doomed assault by helicopters? Check? Battle on the roof? Check. Nerd on his own in the computer room cracking vault? Check. And getting schwacked when he tries to make his cunning escape? Yeah, that too.
It's also got that wonderful literal mindedness which always walks along an inch behind Roland. Concentrate on every word you hear and everything which has been expensively put on the screen. No matter how apparently inessential it may sound, Roland will, very shortly, either blow it up, blow something up on it or have one of his characters hit someone very hard with it. At one point, we get a listing of the various leisure facilities in the grounds of the White House; not long after, President Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum take a drive through each and every one of those facilities. In a huge car which has already been painstakingly described to us. And so on. All Chekhov ever said was that if you had a gun on the mantelpiece in Act One, it should have been used by the end of Act Three. He didn't say that everything on stage had to be a lethal weapon.
Other odds and sods. Satellite phones that work from the sub basement. Never gets old. Anti-aircraft missiles which you can put down in the middle of the firefight and when you pick them up again, they remember what they were aimed at, even though it's been moving around the whole time and they couldn't have been tracking the movement. Half a dozen grenades blow out a whole masonry wall three feet away, but Channing Tatum is perfectly safe ten feet away behind a plywood podium. And the gun he picks up from the rubble afterwards works perfectly. Channing Tatum schwacking the big bad with a mini gun from six feet away for, oh twenty seconds or so (or at least 600 bullets), and still being able to recover a small electronic device in working order from the remains, which in real life would have been a thin mist over the wall of the NEXT room.
A thing I actually did like was that the construction of the movie is better than Olympus Has Fallen. There isn't a lot of putzing about creating a flashback; everything happens on the day, and explanations are tossed about in a reasonable way, by Hollywood standards. And the initial seizure of the White House is worryingly matter of fact, making a nice point about how it doesn't matter how much you screen your visitors for guns if everyone else has got guns and is kind of dozy. You could see how it might work in practice, assuming that everyone in the White House has actually had the kind of psychotic break that makes it seem sensible to fill the place with nebulously secured arsenals full of assault rifles.
So what has Roland done for the first time, then? It's subtle, which I admit is a little unexpected. Emmerich has been threatening the American way of life for a couple of decades now, presumably under orders from these guys, but up to now, all the destruction has been from the enemy without. Either it's been space aliens, or freak weather, or the core of the planet melting from cosmic rays or the Hessians (disclaimer, I may not have stayed completely awake all the way through The Patriot, but then neither did Emmerich as far as I could tell). In White House Down, the enemy is within. Yup, the White House is taken over by lunatic US citizens egged on by the military industrial complex to overthrow a principled president and start a fresh lucrative war in the Middle East.
So now you all know. The very idea of a military industrial complex which would foment armageddon to turn a buck is so ridiculous that it belongs only in Roland Emmerich movies. As is the idea, in general, of lunatics taking over the White House. That never happens in real life.