White House Down

Don't rushWhat makes a film funny? What makes a film serious? The answer to that question isn’t as self-explanatory as it sounds, and is not determined by a simple matter of intent.

The horror genre is known for movies considered “so bad they’re good” — productions that wanted to be one thing and, having failed, are enjoyed because they achieved the opposite of what they set out to do.

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The truth is that virtually any drama can be a comedy (and vice versa) through a simple change of emphasis. Try speaking in the silliest and most ridiculous sounding voice you can, then say the words “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” You’re doing comedy. However, if that line happens to be delivered gravely at the end of a film about the rejection of once-desired love, it is dramatic. Even tragic.

Things become complicated when signals around the way something is emphasised get scrambled, leading the viewer to question its intent. We may ask, for example, “was that supposed to be funny?”

There is nothing inherently amusing about the premise of disaster porn director Roland Emmerich’s latest movie White House Down. The nerve center of American power, symbolic and otherwise, gets hijacked just as the President begins making meaningful progress towards peace in the Middle East.

The President is played by an utterly unconvincing Jamie Foxx, shepherded around a besieged White House by an utterly unconvincing Channing Tatum, playing a Secret Service hopeful KBed during a job interview early in the movie, who rises to the challenge despite not getting added to the payroll. In other words, this time it’s personal. A group of baddies posing as, erm, home theatre repairmen hatch a nefarious plan involving nuclear missiles and James Woods, so it’s hell in a hand basket for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Emmerich’s dramatic build-ups are gallingly heavy-handed but the plot’s addiction to one-upping itself with ever more fist-thumping spectacle eventually hits a cycle of (presumably unintended) hilarity, which goes some way in alleviating large chunks of drab exposition.

When the Prez jams his shoe into elevator gears to prevent being squished to pulp and selects a pair of high-top Nikes as his replacements, the moment feels kind of funny — but it’s nothing compared to what’s in store. Soon Foxx is hurling grenades and firing a rocket launcher. If this sounds like pure hokum and flights of testosterone-charged fantasy, it is worth pointing out that Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt work hard to establish these events as the result of logical decisions made during extenuating circumstances.

To say the finale of White House Down (which involves last minute reveals, shoot-outs, planes, helicopters, fisticuffs, Tatum flexing his muscles and a smattering of explosions) is silly is missing the point, but only if the point was something other than to be silly.

Who knows? Roland Emmerich is a coke and popcorn artist whose primary impulse is to entertain; neither comedy nor drama are his strong suits. A sound gag involving a ‘Spanish Flea’ ringtone that plays in the middle of a tense encounter is one of few bits in White House Down clearly designed to be a joke, and one of even fewer that actually work.

A badly scripted moment in which our would-be hero gets knocked back for a job due to his reckless past may be funny to some, because it is awkwardly acted and hammily written. But it also needs to be accepted as a moment of serious intent in order for the script’s dramatic transitions to function.

If the story of White House Down sounds familiar, it’s because cinemagoers experienced something very similar earlier this year. Olympus Has Fallen, with Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler as the respective leader of the free world and the John McClane-esque saviour of it, has the same premise. It is faster, sharper and clearer in emphasis and intent. Butler’s one liners are knowingly delivered, as are the sight gags, such as a moment when our bulky hero smashes a bust of Abraham Lincoln on a bad guy’s head.

White House Down is funny or dramatic depending on your interpretation, and that line is often blurry. “That’s the best bad movie of all time,” remarked one out of breath punter when the closing credits appeared. “I liked it but there were so many naff bits,” said another as they filed out of the cinema.

By design or accident, it’s those naff bits that make White House Down memorable. They give Emmerich’s movie life and colour, and make it a quintessentially idiotic experience.

White House Down’s Australian theatrical release date: September 5, 2013. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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