It’s the pinnacle of dumb fun summer blockbuster entertainment.
James Vanderbilt, writer of the infinitely more intelligent Zodiac, has crafted a masterclass in plant and payoff, and, to put it nicely, “pays homage to” Die Hard beat-for-beautiful-beat. There have been loads of Die Hard ripoffs over the years, but it’s been quite a while since they’ve been in vogue (and the relative failure of this film will probably ensure that we don’t see any more in the near future).
The thing is, White House Down is to Die Hard what 10 Things I Hate About You was to Taming of the Shrew. It’s a popular tale, retold and recontextualized for the post-9/11 generation, which makes it sound far smarter than it is. It’s not. But that’s also the point.
This generation, more than any other, has a refined appreciation for camp humor, a love of all things hilariously bad. From hipsters who thrive on ironic enjoyment to fans of cult hit The Room, the so-called “ironic lifestyle” has become the new “ethos of our age”, to mixed results (to further understand what I’m citing, read here: link). While a new style of brilliant humor blooms and a healthy cynicism permeates the electorate, it seems that sincerity has fallen by the wayside, a relic of times when we only assumed the government was spying on us. Modern media and pop culture reflect this sensibility, where antiheroes are the new bee’s knees, from Breaking Bad and Mad Men to Iron Man and Batman.
White House Down both celebrates and mocks that optimistic sensibility, appealing simultaneously to fans of Frank Capra and Fast Five successfully. There’s an earnest quality to the storytelling here, a genuine desire to bring out the inner good guy in all of us, but its some-would-call-it-corniness is well-tempered by its tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach. Each plot cliché, character trope, and tired setpiece is reinvigorated by the filmmakers’ choice to accentuate the normally negative qualities inherent in each one to humorous effect. For example, at one point, a stereotypical hacker (quite a fun character), literally types in “Access NORAD” and the Norad screen immediately pops up. (SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ THIS PARENTHETICAL IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED: Towards the end of the film, the little flag-twirling girl waves the flag on the White House Lawn for obvious metaphorical reasons and to call off an airstrike.) This film knows exactly what it is.
The audience of the screening I attended was cheering and applauding and laughing at all the right times, despite it being a Sunday and the theater only 80% full.
From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s a solidly made action film. On the screenwriting end, every plant is paid off, the one-liners are glorious and the structure is flawless (adhering to the Die Hard outline is never a bad decision in a movie like this). The trailers didn’t reveal the villain or its plot, which, while a bit predictable to well-informed viewers, remains enjoyable to watch and appreciate. While the CGI is occasionally not good enough to maintain believability, and the cinematography is one notch short of atrocious, Roland Emmerich does a fine job of telling the story and maintaining the tone so crucial to the film’s success (and often misinterpreted by critics as unintentional). It’s clear why he was selected to direct this film despite a series of recent misfires from his work in the postmodern fourth of July classic Independence Day, as that film similarly had many issues in the logic department and wondrously ridiculous action.
However, and this is where you can argue my theory goes totally off the rails, this film is almost a postmodernization of Independence Day, thematically, which is odd to say because that film is postmodern in and of itself, which is to say that this film might be a product of the next era of filmmaking (post-postmodernism?). It combines the earnestness of a work of a bygone era, like the original Superman, with the postmodern self-awareness of films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Overthinking it? Probably, but if you make the trek see this film, at the very least you’ll have a great time at the theater.
Holy fuck I just wrote an essay on White House Down. Definitely didn’t start the day thinking that would happen.