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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: White House Down

WHITE HOUSE DOWN (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Roland Emmerich, 2013


I hate to admit this, but I sort of enjoyed White House Down. This doesn‘t mean that I‘m ready to forgive producer director Roland Emmerich and his latest landmark-basher  all their cinematic sins (among them Emmerich’s  last movie raid on Washibgton D. C., and the White House, Independence Day) , or that I think that moviemakers with outlandishly big budgets at their disposal should keep attacking and blowing up the White House on screen until they get it right—which may never happen until they hire Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and James Franco for the job—or that I‘m getting soft in my old age. It’s just that White House Down, defying all my expectations, made me laugh a little.  Intentionally. Well, maybe more than a little. It’s a ridiculous movie—just like a lot of the contemporary smack-you-upside-the-head, shoot-’em-all-up action extravaganzas. But it’s knowingly ridiculous. You can tend to forgive it, if you want.

Emmerich’s movie amused me despite the fact that it proves that, in some cases, bad ideas die hard. White House Down, for the second time this year (after the supremely dopey Olympus Has Fallen)  tries to whip up an explosion-happy, Die Hard-ish destructo-thriller out of  a totally ridiculous premise—the invasion and takeover of the White House by a small band  of terrorists—and the subsequent battle between those bad guys and one lone cop or secret service agent (Gerard Butler in Olympus, Channing Tatum here), battling in the Oval Office and beyond for control of the world—and also for the rescue of both the U.S. President (Aaron Eckhart; Jamie Foxx) and an adorable child. (Finley Jacobson as the prez’s son; Joey King as Tatum‘s daughter Emily here).

The fact that a storyline like that was used to make even one movie, is flabbergasting, But Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (who wrote  Zodiac), seem to have decided to acknowledge their movie’s basic absurdity (as Olympus didn’t) and have as much fun as possible with it. They don’t lack for opportunities; there’s plenty of ludicrous stuff to play around with here.

For one thing, these terrorists (North Koreans in Olympus, but American dissidents here) manage to sneak in and take over one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the world by simply slipping past the defenses thanks to a little inside help, disguised as surly home entertainment repairmen, and the rest of the movie is given over to John Cale’s (Tatum‘s) one-man war against them, while the rest of the world—the loyal Secret Service, the Army, the Air Force, the police—stand helplessly by, either bickering pointlessly or blowing up things and suffering more casualties, demonstrating over and over again the seeming inability of the rest of the world to deal with these preposterous invasions.

There are also a lot of  jokes and riffs in Jamie Foxx‘s performance as a hip black president named James Sawyer, who reminds us irresistibly of Barack Obama,  along with the slightly Joe Biden-ish Vice President Hammond (played by Michael Murphy, of Manhattan). And for good measure, there’s combative Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), who reminds us not as irresistibly of a smarter John Boehner. The other White House or government personnel include James Woods doing his best fire-breathing job as retiring security boss Walker, and Nicholas Wright, who’s funny as Donnie the White House tour guide. On the bad guy side, there’s Jason Clarke (of Zero Dark Thirty, in a ferocious performance as Stenz, the mean bully.

Our hero for the evening is Channing Tatum as cop turned secret service agent John Cale (he helps protects Speaker Raphelson). Cale—no elation, we hope to Lou Reed’s old compatriot in the Velvet Underground—wants to switch jobs and protect President Sawyer, a cooler guy than the Speaker and also the idol of his 11-year-old daughter Emily. But he gets his application refused after an interview conducted by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Special Agent Carol Finnerty, who refuses his transfer request, maybe  because, as it urns out, they once had a bad date in college.

Obviously Cale has to do something special to impress Emily, like save America from a coup d’etat—while, to impress the audience, actor Tatum will strip down to a tank-top. Then he gets down to the serious business of saving the White House, the President and America, in  a show that will include Black Hawk helicopter landings on the White House roof, a presidential limousine pursuit on the White House lawn, assorted sadism by Stenz and his angry dissidents, and  one hair-raising moment involving the President’s watch, an heirloom from Abraham Lincoln. (The president or the Vampire Hunter?) If you can’t get a laugh or two out of all that, you should probably throw in the towel and hire Melissa McCarthy to play the Secretary of State, and Ken Jeong to play the dictator of North Korea.

Channing Tatum’s studliness and Jamie Foxx’s  wit and dash make for a pretty good hero combo, and Foxx’s president character’s resemblance to Obama gave me some enjoyment—though I can imagine some red states where it might not play well. American electoral politics has been such a vicious contact sport for so long, especially presidential politics, that it’s somewhat salutary to see Obama, or an Obama-inspired movie part, coming of like a movie hero, even if that heroism basically amounts to scurrying around the smoking hulk of the White House, following the tank-topped Tatum and picking up an attack rifle.

It’s pretty close to impossible to suspend your disbelief for either of these “Die Hard in the White House movies,” because it’s impossible to really accept the idea of a relatively small band of terrorists taking over like this (even if the model for these nightmares is probably 9/11). But Olympus Has Fallen, a terrible movie that made no sense, still managed to scrape together a fairly big domestic gross. White House Down, a somewhat better, or at least more entertaining. movie that also makes no sense, and had the same dumb main plot, is already a certified box office disappointment, getting outgrossed on the first few days of release not only by its main new release competition, the often hilarious Sandra Bullock-McCarthy show The Heat, but also by last week‘s top movie, Monsters University.

I don’t believe the quality of a movie can be measured by its box-office returns, but White House Down’s chances were probably severely damaged by the recent release of Olympus—not only because they’re ridiculously similar, but, more importantly, because they’re similarly ridiculous. Restaging Die Hard in the President’s House may  have worked—commercially—once, but by now the word has gotten around.. As George W. Bush once told us (sort of ): “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, won’t get fooled again.” Wanna bet?


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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon