It's hard to tell what to make of this summer movie season's most conspicuous trend, which assumes we so badly want to see the leader of the free world in mortal danger that we might pay twice to go see it. A single shot of the Cobra banner-draped White House appears in the GI Joe: Retaliation trailer, and both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have now presented their platforms of redundant mayhem to the American people. I know we all just chose between a white president and a black president back in November, but this time around the one-liners are marginally cooler.
Despite its apparent chic, it's still off-putting to watch terrorists strike at the president in the safest house in the world, especially when played for goofy thrills; if there's anything substantive to be said for White House Down, it's that Roland Emmerich's affable Die Hard cover is the sort of happy-go-lucky popcorn movie that can clear that hurdle and others. Your brain keeps trying to wake up, and White House Down keeps shushing it back to sleep with explosions and Channing Tatum's dimples.
Take WHD's overt political sheen, embodied by President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). If for no reason but maximum box office, there's a sort of a gentlemen's agreement that politically tinged genre larks like White House Down best gloss over the touchy stuff. But James Vanderbilt's script isn't content with the dubious urge to make Sawyer an overt (if deadly boring) Obama surrogate. No, it also sees fit to hinge on Sawyer's fingers-crossed initiative to inspire peace in the Middle East by withdrawing American military presence, a fairy-tale foreign-policy gambit that pits him against the sort of fantastically hawkish types that just might raid the White House in response. (Spoiler alert: They raid the White House.)
The button-pushing continues on and off for most of the movie, from plain-spoken digs at the military industrial complex to scenes where a character literally introduced as a "far right-wing sociopath" fawns over a cowardly cable-news pundit taken hostage in the siege. These choices might come across as bold or even subversive in another mass-market action movie, but in White House Down the execution is so comically thin you begin to wonder if anyone involved realizes the choices were provocative to begin with. Then you stop wondering, because the people onscreen have resumed shooting at each other. It's a nifty feat of misdirection.
But even the film's most decidedly mindless moments are rife with distractions of the worst sort. Despite a $150 million budget, it seems considerable expense has been spared on the CG that overwhelms White House Down's exterior action scenes, cheapening up otherwise spectacular moments with cartoon helicopters and negligible peril. It's cute that Emmerich is still making '90s-style action adventures—WHD's wanton, bloodless PG-13 gunplay seems like a throwback in itself—but the lousy effects make it exceedingly obvious that the digital age has spoiled him.
Still, the overall result is Teflon entertainment, blissfully ignorant of its own flaws, like awkwardly open-ended moments that seed distrust whether or not there's any reason for it, or lines of dialogue that seem to underline themselves in midair if they have anything to do with where the script's going. Emmerich strains credulity as our heroes repeatedly survive certain death by explosion. And though Tatum continues his irresistible-charm offensive as the aspiring Secret Service agent charged with protecting the president, castmates Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, and even Foxx spend the bloated course of the movie doing the same things over and over, to diminishing returns.
But White House Down is so winning in its silliness that all these distractions seem to fall away, especially when it comes to hitting the expected notes of the Die Hard format, super-sized here to allow not only for POTUS but also a video-blogging little girl (Joey King, as Tatum's daughter), a scramble for nuclear launch codes, and even an NSA-taunting hacker (Jimmi Simpson). It's entertaining from front to back, and funny in the gray area just beyond intentional. I was alone in giggling madly through the film's flag-waving climax, but my amusement was the sincerest sort.
White House Down's opening weekend suggests our nation preferred the more straight-faced, hard-edged Olympus Has Fallen, or at least that they were suitably worn out by it. In the absence of an immediate audience, though, we can at least look forward to White House Down's future as an unintentional zeitgeist movie, harnessing the angst of the Obama era in all the most irrelevant ways.