Intentionally or not, Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” is the comedy hit of the summer. No other film equals its comic sophistication. Each nutty scenario is surpassed by the next, ludicrous story lines coalesce with expert orchestration, and absurd details return with perfect timing to build to a crescendo of hilarity. By the time the flag waves on the White House lawn, the audience with whom I watched this had lost it – Emmerich had knocked them dead.
He also knocks them dead on the screen; the body count must be in quadruple digits. But sometimes that’s what it takes for a father to prove himself to his kid, and no doubt this reinforcement of family values was instrumental in getting the film a PG-13 rating, despite the heavy casualties. Divorced dad John Cale (Channing Tatum) has been neglecting his daughter Emily (Joey King), so to impress her he takes her along with him to the White House when he applies for a job in the Secret Service. Despite being a decorated vet, he’s turned down, and to cover up his disappointment he takes Emily on a tour of the place. As the guide fends off know-it-all questions from Emily, Cale notices “maintenance” guys with white supremacist tattoos lumbering about. He shrugs it off, but then the Capitol explodes, and terrorists open fire in the West Wing, wiping out the security forces and taking the president hostage. Worse, they’ve got Cale’s daughter. Already ticked off about not getting the job, now Cale is really mad.
What follows — conspiracies, disgraced hero making good, nuclear launch codes, an endangered child with encyclopedic knowledge of the location — should be familiar to anyone who saw “Olympus Has Fallen” a couple of months ago, let alone “Die Hard” back in 1988. And though Emmerich pushes the premise into the realm of farce, he does take one thing seriously: exploiting the audience’s discontent with the current status quo. Like most films that involve the destruction of iconic landmarks, this one taps into the zeitgeist: Sure, it’s horrible, but there’s a certain satisfaction in the spectacle of the do-nothing Congress going up in smoke. By comparison, in a not-so-subtle self-promotional aside, Emmerich alludes to his film “Independence Day” (1996). Back then it was the White House, not the Capitol building that got the business, reflecting the woes of President Clinton.
This time the film’s allegiances are different. As President James Sawyer, Jamie Foxx pulls off a decent Barack Obama, and even does him one better – he’s on the verge of getting every country in the Middle East to sign a peace treaty, after which he hopes to withdraw all US forces from the region. Who wouldn’t be in favor of that? “Have you heard of the military-industrial complex?,” Sawyer asks Cale in a rare quiet moment. But this is no Oliver Stone film — all partisan differences dissolve amidst the explosions and laughter.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.