It’s rare that a movie manages to surprise me. I’ve got pretty good “Plot Sense” and can usually tell about how good a movie will be just by watching the trailers. When I saw the trailers for Roland Emerich’s newest film, White House Down (starring Channing Tatam as Secret Service interviewee John Cale and Jamie Foxx as a Captain Ersatz of President Obama named James Sawyer) I immediately assumed I was looking at a big budget take on Die Hard at the White House, with big flashy special effects and hamfisted writing. I went to the advanced screening thinking, “Eh, it’s free,” expecting a non-stop run and gun with cocky hero man snarking at funny sounding foreign types.
I was wrong. I’ll get into spoilers in a bit, but my five second review is “Go see this Movie.” It’s hands down the best written, best directed, best acted action flick I’ve seen all year. Probably in the last three years in fact. I haven’t been this impressed by an action movie since RED. Honestly. I know, I know, I’m a game reviewer, what the hell do I know about movies? I’ve got suitcases of them. I’ve got a list of my top 178 favorite movies of all time, in order… and it just went to 179.
Basic plot outline time. John Cale is a Capital City Police Officer, part of the Speaker of the House’s protective detail. He’s got a history of being a bit of a screwup, but he tries hard and everyone can see he’s got potential. And his daughter, Emily, a huge fan of the President, is less than impressed with her father, who left to go to war when she was three. In a bid to win back some sorely needed dad points, he scores her a pass to the White House the day of his interview with the Secret Service. Agent Finnerty, the Agent in Charge, is an old girlfriend of John’s and pretty much tells him he hasn’t a chance in hell of landing the job.
Meanwhile, President Sawyer, freshly back from a meeting with the President of Iran, has just given a speech in front of the G8 where he’s promised to remove all American troops from the Middle East. When Emily’s tour group bumps into the President (not that unusual an occurrence, from what I understand) she gets him to agree to answer a question for her Youtube channel, then asks him why he’s removing troops. His response is both human and honesty. He says he’s doing it because he still has faith in humanity… a faith that’s about to be sorely tested, as within minutes, mercenary commandoes have exploded a bomb in the Capitol Rotunda (and you better believe I’m pissed that they would destroy those lovely paintings and frescos… seriously) and seized control of the White House, killing the entire security detail.
I can’t go any further without spoilers, so I’ll just say everything works out in the end, of course, then give the old warning. But what really surprised me about the journey was the scripting, which was tight and funny and sad. The bad guys really believe in what they’re doing, as psychotic and misguided as it is. The good guys aren’t superhuman. John Cale is not John McClane. He’s not glib, not snarky, not grizzled and gruff. He’s a father and a patriot torn between protecting his President and saving his daughter and every choice he makes is both agonizing and completely justified. Jamie Foxx is both believable as a poor boy who has, through hard work and dedication, risen to the post of Leader of the Free World and convincing as a man trying not to make history but to make a difference, to make the world a better place.
This film builds slowly, ramping up the action and the drama. It’s not just an action movie, it’s a political thriller as well, and one with heart. It’s incredibly liberal, condemning fanaticism and the military-industrial complex with aprobrium so great if it were any heavier it would be the wrath of god. They, not the misguided fool who planned everything, are the real villains of this piece, and pride in America as guardian of the World’s Freedom is the real hero… although John Cale, Emily Cale, and James Sawyer, not to mention Donnie the Guide in one knockout performance by Nicholas Wright, do demonstrate why faith in humanity isn’t misplaced.
But action and message are only two parts of a winning combo. Emerich is a top notch director, but so often the writing and acting get away from him, swamped by the spectacle. Here he restrains himself, giving us moments of calm to catch our breath even as things rush wildly out of control. And if nothing else, the acting was just top notch. Even Emily was great, and children’s roles are often overly brave or overly moody or just too cutesy. She wasn’t. She was as brave as her father, but still all too human and very relatable… in a nerdy kind of know it all way.
I’m a nitpicker, a serious pain in the ass, “that’s not how that works” kinda movie goer. When I say the only problems I have with this movie are that a) I don’t think Air Force One can actually be targeted by missiles and even if it were the escort fighters are trained to crash their jets into said missiles and b) “who the hell tampered with the bomb in the catacombs?” (you’ll understand once you’ve seen it), you’ll understand why I’m blown away. This was an action extravaganza, but not a stupid one. It shifts back and forth from action to thriller to mock news footage with skill and dramatic flair. I really underestimated it. So there, I was wrong. Now, go see the movie. Well, when it comes out on the 28th of June, 2013, then you should go see it… I’m not suggesting you break into the theaters and force them to give you an advanced screening. That would be insane.
9 out of 10.