White House Down (2013) [DVD]

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Terrorists breach the White House and only one US Capitol police officer remains alive inside to save the President and his own young daughter.

Wait! Wait! Hang on, didn’t we do this one already? You’d be forgiven for a powerful sense of déjà vu at this point, because it’s only four months since we used a near-identical introduction to Olympus Has Fallen. It’s a rare but not unprecedented case of films with virtually the same premise hitting the theatres independently just a few months apart (see also Deep Impact/Armageddon and Dante’s Peak/Volcano for starters) but having already reviewed the first of this double bill back in September it seemed incumbent upon me to see it through and review White House Down now that the other shoe had finally fallen with the release on DVD this week.

Inevitably, watching the films becomes as much a process of ‘compare-and-contrast’ as it is a stand-alone review so let’s start with a little recap. Olympus Has Fallen won the race to be released first, which undoubtedly will have cost White House Down at the box office – how many filmgoers decided not to see the second film after understandably thinking “Nah, I’ve seen that one already.” It’s an easy mistake to make: the two films have the same setting, similar titles, almost identical posters, and at the end of the day are both very much summed up as ‘Die Hard in the White House’, although in practice the two films implement this high concept in slightly different ways.

In the case of Olympus Has Fallen the film pretty much completely purloined the entire plot structure of Bruce Willis’ iconic 1988 action film, hitting almost all the same story beats in quite an amazingly faithful fashion. What it certainly didn’t do however was carry over that film’s sense of humour: once the action kicks off (just five minutes into the movie) Olympus Has Fallen is utterly without any jokes, director Antoine Fuqua instead going for a serious, hard-edged realism and a sobering brutality with no time for any distractions.

By contrast White House Down is clearly where the quips ended up seeking political asylum. Roland Emmerich’s version of the tale is an altogether more light-hearted film, the sort of movie with a quip in every scene in order to keep things fun. While it also doesn’t stint on the action and is by no means soft and fluffy, this is more in the vein of old-fashioned big screen action spectacular than it is an attempt to make you flinch with scenes of torture and cold-blooded executions. Which one you prefer may very likely depend on whether your idea of entertainment is watching people get shot or stabbed in the head in close-up, or seeing relatively bloodless fist fights, gun battles and big pyrotechnic explosions. Both approaches will have their champions and supporters, which may account for the very split polarised reception across the two movies.

For me, White House Down comes out clearly top in the script department at least. It’s a much better thought-out, well-developed and even fitfully intelligent story and by no means just a bald respray of the original Die Hard script like its rival. Of course there are a lot of clear overlaps between White House Down and Die Hard – as John Cale, Channing Tatum is much more the blue-collar fish-out-of-water Joe Average that Willis’ John McClane was, as opposed to Gerard Butler’s sidelined but still part-of-the-system secret service agent Mike Banning had been. Tatum even very quickly ends up dressed down in a dirty white vest during the ensuing events. Add to that we have a classic music-playing computer hacker called Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) who is clearly a spiritual cousin of Die Hard’s Theo, while the part played by Cale’s daughter Emily (Joey King) is very close in script requirement terms to that of MacClane’s wife Holly. We even have an obnoxious TV pundit getting his comeuppance.

Given that Olympus Has Fallen is clearly going for the more realistic approach in its depiction of the action, it’s strange that in fact White House Down has the more believable story. The takeover of the White House, for example, is relatively low key with the assault achieved thanks to one key insider and a simple distraction strike on the US Capitol rather than the impressive tightly-choreographed but frankly absurd 20-minute paramilitary chaos through the streets of Washington DC at the start of Olympus. At the other end of things, both films end up with the threat of nuclear armageddon when the terrorists hack into NORAD, but whereas Olympus relies on a ridiculous fictional McGuffin called Cerebrus to achieve the jeopardy, White House Down uses a much craftier bit of sleight-of-hand about the details of the real Presidential ‘nuclear football’ that also leads on to an effective hitherto unexpected twist at the climax of the film.

In between the script keeps things humming along nicely in a well-paced fashion that never comes close to stalling as Olympus very nearly did at one point. It opens the action out, making better and more creative use of the White House’s various facilities and then going even further afield to allow for scenes at the Pentagon and on Air Force One. It includes some good (and very pertinent) facts about the process of Presidential succession and also addresses the genuine restrictions on the deployment of the military on US ground. A late decision by one character late in the day that appears at best a terrible mistake and at worst an awful piece of plotting turns out to be neither but actually a major clue that sneaks past us all in plain sight.

Most importantly, the script addresses two of the biggest missed opportunities of Olympus Has Fallen. In that film, the young son of the President was initially set up as a major factor only to be smuggled to safety early on having played little part in the proceedings; and his father the President spent most of the film tied to a metal pole fuming ineffectually at the villains. White House Down however makes the young daughter of John Cale a central part of the plot, from her early YouTube postings right through to the climax: indeed, she could even be fairly described as the true hero of the hour. And most of all, White House Down does what any ‘Die Hard in the White House’ film should do: it puts the President in the thick of the action, just like Harrison Ford’s character in Air Force One. At its heart the film becomes a buddy movie between Jamie Foxx’s President Sawyer and Channing Tatum’s John Cale, and surely that is what everyone wants and expects to see from this sort of premise – not the leader of the free world left sitting around as a hostage for an hour and a half?

Of course this approach does have its dangers, because if the character of the President is busy being an action hero then he can very quickly lose that presidential aura and just become an ordinary Joe Schmo. The aforementioned Air Force One kept that at bay by having Harrison Ford in the role, and he brought a sense of gravitas, charisma and screen presence to the part that warded off the danger. Unfortunately Jamie Foxx can’t repeat the trick in White House Down and he very quickly ends up coming across like a rather ordinary, awkward middle-ranking public sector worker. Only when he gets back in the Oval Office and on Marine One does he start to look the part again.

In the meantime he does make for a good double-act with Tatum, with Tatum himself proving very adept with the physical action, fine with the quips, but otherwise rather blank. James Woods delivers as the head of the President’s Secret Service protection detail and Maggie Gyllenhaal manages to bring alive an otherwise unmemorably bland role as one of the Secret Service agents. Michael Murphy gets to play the Vice-President (with House’s Peter Jacobson keen to get his boss elevated into the presidency) and the always-classy Richard Jenkins is the Speaker of the House. Jason Clarke gets to play the leader of the gang of terrorists and Lance Reddick brings welcome authority to the role of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who at one point comes close to triggering a Haig-style constitutional crisis over who is in charge of the situation and the country. There’s also Nicolas Wright as a typical Emmerich comedy element, a White House tour guide who gets to ‘man up’ in the end and who also improvises one of the best lines of the film that references Emmerich’s most famous previous film. In total that’s probably not as starry a cast as Olympus Has Fallen but the characters they play are better served by the script.

So it seems that in the battle of 2013’s Oval Office Die Hard offerings it’s White House Down coming out clearly on top, right? Not quite. There are a few problems we have yet to cover.

The first is the question of the humour. While for the most part this is rather well handled and sensibly contained, there’s always the risk that it will fly over the top – and that certainly happens in a scene involving the presidential stretch limousine, which I won’t describe in detail but which is frankly farcical. By breaking the general level of suspension of disbelief that has been fairly well maintained until this point, it undermines much of what follows.

In any case, the film’s believability is already under assault on a broad front by the visual effects work. I picked fault with Olympus Has Fallen for a few scenes that looked clearly artificial, but that is nothing compared to the problems on display here. Every single external scene looks like it was actually shot inside on a studio soundstage – and the extras reveal that’s precisely the case. They’ve been augmented by some shiny but strikingly unconvincing CGI, but all these sets look too bright and clean to be the real thing, and in every case you can pretty much see the demarcation line where the set ends and the green screen kicks in. That’s understandable on a TV show’s time and budget, but for a big box office release like this it’s pretty unforgivable.

My only thought is that the producers were doing everything they could to close the lead time that Olympus Has Fallen had over them in the race to the box office. Indeed, it probably also explains why the earlier film also had a few scenes in which corners had quite obviously been cut – it’s just that in White House Down the effect permeates the entire film, even the panorama of Washington DC at dawn that runs behind the opening titles is disturbingly fake CGI. Arguably the only FX scene that works at all (on a small screen) is the flight of three military helicopters just inches above street-level, and that’s probably thanks to sheer verve. It’s a real problem, especially when Channing Tatum is going to the trouble of performing virtually all his own stunts for the movie: the problem is that the film around him looks so pointedly fake that we just assume that everything he does is, too. Emmerich’s hopes of doing an entertaining but relatively down-to-earth, believable and intelligent action thriller end up dying on the visual effects studios’ floor as the film made it the theatres looking more like a shiny CGI cartoon, still having also lost the race with its rival to get there first.

So having presented you with the evidence, I ask you: from what you’ve heard, which version of ‘Die Hard in the White House’ does it sound like you prefer? The earnest, hard-edged but underscripted Olympus Has Fallen from Antoine Fuqua, or the better-written but flawed and rather old-style example of Emmerich’s well-established approach to big movie blockbusters? I ended my review of the former with the summary that it was “a thoroughly decent mid-league action film, good at what it does for the most part and well worth a watch for the experience as long as you’re not expecting anything new in the script department” and “a bit of a pleasant surprise.” I think I’ll describe White House Down in not dissimilar fashion, as an enjoyable action film that for the most part is cheerfully entertaining, well worth a watch if you can forgive a few misjudged comedy moments and also overlook some painfully mediocre visuals. And, yes: this one was also a bit of a pleasant surprise given what I’d been expecting given the advance word.

Neither film is a patch on the original Die Hard itself though. But then not even the Die Hard franchise itself can produce a decent film anymore, and I’ll certainly take either or both of these White House offerings over the painfully bad A Good Day to Die Hard.

On the DVD: it’s a top notch video and audio presentation, no worries there. Given the troubling poor quality effects it’s arguably better to see this one on DVD (or streaming) than splashing out on the Blu-ray which will only make the artificiality even more glaring and distracting. Extras-wise the DVD contains four short (five minutes or less) standard EPK puff pieces of entirely missable quality, while the Blu-ray has three times as many more of the same ilk and a short gag reel, but still no sign of anything substantial such as an audio commentary – perhaps once again indicating that after being beaten to the release the air rather went out of the balloon.

White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen are now both out on DVD and Blu-ray.

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