In 1812, the British burnt the White House to the ground – the only time since the Revolutionary War that America’s capital has ever been occupied. That is until 2013, when both Antoine Fuqua and Roland Emmerich duked it out at the box office in an attempted to occupy Washington’s most famous residence. In Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen, the threat to mainland security comes from afar – specifically a group of devious North Koreans disguised as South Koreans. Independence Day director Emmerich, weary of seeing the White House attacked by foreign devils and alien invaders, instead looked to the enemy within.
In White House Down, Emmerich’s antagonists are a ragtag unit of disgruntled soldiers, white power extremists and mercenaries in what feels more like a country shooting itself in the foot than a commentary on a nation’s communal disquiet. They’re all riled by President Sawyer’s (Jamie Foxx) imprudent and publicly unpopular plan to sign a world peace treaty. This posse of turncoats – disguised as cleaners – infiltrate the White House with ease and their violent siege sees the President’s life come under threat. That is until he finds himself under the diligent protection of Cale (Channing Tatum), a soldier-turned-bodyguard for hire caught up in the attack after taking his young daughter on a guided White House tour.
Emmerich’s obsession with destroying the US’s seat of power promised a less patriotic actioner than the unabashed jingoism of Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen – a film where the American flag featured so prominently it arguably deserved top billing over Gerard Butler. Sadly, Emmerich’s passion for American architectural iconoclasm is merely a narrative device to pander to a country’s inherent post-9/11 fear. Imbuing misplaced slapstick comedy with genuine attempts to build emotional resonance, White House Down is a convoluted jumble of dumbed-down politics, visual spectacle and ill-advised sentiment. Rousing music pours off the screen as if emanating from the very hearts and souls of the film’s pre-fabricated ‘true Americans’.
The War on Terror was initially seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks, yet has now revealed itself to be an artificial climate of fear, created to mobilise a country into otherwise contentious actions. White House Down, with its heavy-handed attempts to legitimise national feelings of fear and endorse American virtuosity, is surely the nadir of a recent surge of overt US patriotism in mainstream cinema. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the film’s token female White House employee, is asked what keeps her awake in such a demanding role. “Caffeine and patriotism, sir”, is her response. Similarly, Emmerich throws enough loud noises and fiery explosions up onto the screen to ensure we’re kept awake – whether we like it or not.
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