The President Has a Rocket Launcher My World of Flops Case File#138 /My Year of Flops II #35 White House Down (2013)
I experience a heady rush of intense, contradictory emotions when I see or hear Barack Obama these days. There is, above all, an overwhelming surge of nostalgia for an era that only ended a few years ago but already feels like the distant past.
Can you believe Obama was president just three years ago? It feels like Trump has been President forever. Each day feels like a goddamn eternity. Trump’s presidency represents a never-ending shock to the system, stressing and testing us sadistically and unnecessarily as we are perpetually forced to wrestle with some new hateful idiocy. Usually being President ages someone prematurely due to all of the pressure and stress and exhausting, demanding work. In Trump’s case, the President’s words and behavior and tweets are aging the populace prematurely. I know I’m roughly thirty years older now than I was when Trump took office.
When I see or hear Obama, I feel an ache in my heart for what was so immense and all-consuming that there are moments in Roland Emmerich’s wonderfully ridiculous White House action adventure White House Down that damn near made me cry I missed the old president so much.
White House Down is a goofy, campy Die Hard knockoff but it is, more than anything, an adorably corny, sincere Liberal fantasy of getting to hang out with a president who’s exactly like Barack Obama only cooler, kinder and more heroic and save our nation from duplicitous, right-wing deep state traitors (led by real-life villain James Woods of course) in the process.
Watching James Sawyer, the idealized Obama figure played by Jamie Foxx, hover over the Washington Monument, where I legendarily spoke at the Juggalo March on Washington and some other historical stuff also happened as well, presumably, and various other D.C landmarks in the presidential helicopter, dispensing factoids of trivia with the ingratiatingly dorky zeal of a particularly corny intro to politics professor as part of a ritual of feverish nation-love he calls “The Thing”, I was reminded that there was a time, not so long ago, when I would describe as a patriot.
It’s true! Trump has effectively ruined patriotism by making it synonymous with nationalism in general and white nationalism in particular, in hating and fearing Muslims and seeing Mexico as a seething cesspool of murderous gang members, drug dealers and wild-eyed rapists. Trump has rebranded “loving your country” as “hating everyone else.”
That’s not patriotism to me. That’s hatriotism. The patriotism that I used to feel was the patriotism of Frank Capra, of Irving Berlin, of Barack Hussein Obama, of immigrants and Jews and people who were brought here in chains against their will yet made great, timeless, quintessentially American art that spoke to our highest ideals as a people and a Republic.
Obama’s rise, in my home town no less, fueled the patriotism that used to burn in my soul. I’ll never forget how proud I was to be an American, and a Chicagoan, the night a black man from my city who spoke of hope and change and appealed to the best in people, was elected the first black president of the United States. I wept tears of joy, I was so happy.
The hokey, Eagle Scout wholesomeness of “The Thing” captures the duality at Obama’s core, how he was at once a dashingly charismatic movie star president in the mold of John F. Kennedy and America’s corny, policy wonk dad.
White House Down is similarly corny as hell in its patriotism. That’s one of the things I love about it. It’s so defiantly uncool that it comes all the way around and becomes weirdly hip.
White House Down borders on patriotism porn. It’s clearly the work of flag-fuckers; patriots so overcome with love and arousal at the sight of the American flag that they are moved to make sweet, sweet love to it, the most patriotic act of all.
Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. White House Down stars the charming and delightful Channing Tatum as John Cale, a decorated veteran and single dad hoping to land a Secret Service job that will impress his politics-obsessed daughter Emily (Joey King from The Act), a Youtuber with a video blog who is also a font of presidential trivia bound to figure prominently in the proceedings.
When the precocious future hero tells her dad that the Presidential limousine can withstand a motherfucking MISSILE attack a countdown begins until some crazy motherfucker fires a missile at the Commander in Chief’s super-fortified ride. In this, and in pretty much every other way, White House Down delivers. It has the integrity to follow through on its promise of hot missile-on-presidential limousine because it is American, and Americans follow through on promises involving missiles unsuccessfully trying to blow up automobiles.
Alas, John Cale’s “interview” consists of five minutes of an old college acquaintance played by Maggie Gylenhaal telling John why he’ll never get a job that prestigious, why he’s doomed to fail/lose and finally, how he’ll never single-handedly keep the President of the United States alive during an unprecedented crisis, thereby proving himself worthy of a secret service job in the most dramatic possible way.
The toxic twin forces of James Woods’ personality (terrible) and politics (even worse) have rendered him more or less unemployable as an actor yet there’s a certain dark logic to casting him in a Liberal fantasy as a James Woods-like figure, a bitter, angry right-wing traitor so overcome with rage and deeply personal hatred at a democratically elected black president that he’s ready, even eager to betray his country.
He’s ably abetted by a murderer’s row of murderous henchmen. You can tell you that they’re the bad guys because their sweaty, crazy-eyed vibe silently but powerfully conveys, “We’re about to blow up the White House.” I like Jason Clarke as a serious dramatic actor. I LOVE him as a bug-eyed b-movie lunatic, a modern-day Klaus Kinski. That’s the side of Clarke we saw in recent Case File Serenity. It’s also the side of Clarke we get here as Emil Stenz, an elite ex-Delta Force operative turned depraved mercenary terrorist.
Then there’s the wonderful Jimmi Simpson, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Liam McPoyle and so much more as Skip Tyler, the greatest hacker in the world (White House Down is not one for subtlety nor understatement), a cracked genius and lollipop-sucking solitary soul motivated less by greed or ideology than by the challenge of beating the government and usurping the will of the American people as an epic act of cyber-performance art as well as various hate-crazed right-wing lunatics.
White House Down has a Cannon level of camp. It has a Cannon level of craziness and it has an exquisitely Cannon sense of overkill when it comes to weapons. Let other, less super and EXTREME action movies make do with guns and knives: motherfuckers in White House Down have bazooka launchers. Motherfuckers have MISSILES. Motherfuckers have rocket launchers.
In White House Down mercenaries launch a paramilitary attack on the White House while John Cale and his daughter Emily are touring the White House. Emily is taken hostage by the bad guys but manages to sneak footage onto Youtube all the same, earning her hilariously distracting praise for her heroism but also for her beauty.
Our hero, meanwhile, hooks up with the President, and soon the Commander in Chief and John Cale are exploring the White House’s velvet underground and trying to avoid the white light and heat of the bad guy’s machine guns. They’re not waiting for the man to save them: they’re saving themselves.
In White House Down the President protects and serves our previously great nation (how ironic that we jumped the shark and stopped being great the exact moment we elected a man who ran on a promise to Make America Great Again) with his razor-sharp mind and ever-present humanity but also with his surprisingly, improbably accurate trigger finger.
Foxx plays Sawyer as an Action President who takes out bad guys with machine guns and shanks a villain with a pen and, in the most exquisitely cheesy moment of this transcendently cornball motion pictures, does donuts on the White House lawn while wielding a comically oversized rocket launcher.
White House Down is consequently even more satisfying as a goofball love letter to Obama and everything that he represents than it is as an agreeably over-the-top variation on the tried and true Die Hard formula.
White House Dawn has echoes of populist genres from across the decades. Like Emmerich’s equally patriotic Independent Day, White House Down feels like a deliberate return to the Irwin Allen-fueled disaster boom of the 1970s; it’s easy to imagine it as a disaster movie with a breathlessly hyperbolic title like The Day They Blew Up The President but it also has a whole lot of DNA from Die Hard and its myriad knockoffs and imitators and feels more than a little like Air Force One and other depictions of Presidents as two-fisted badasses who turn into ruthlessly efficient killing machines when the situation calls for it.
Time, nostalgia and the awful reign of Donald Trump, who ran on the promise that he would undo all of Obama’s achievements and accomplishments out of a racist personal grudge against the man have made White House Dawn poignant as well as tremendous fun. It’s an enormously likable relic of an earlier age, a red, white and blue guilty pleasure that plays better now than at the time of its release, when it underperformed commercially and got mediocre reviews.
I was moved to write about White House Down partially out of my affection for Obama and his presidency. I miss that dude. I really do. Every day I miss Obama.I don’t miss him the way I miss a politician I like; I miss him the way I miss a good friend I will never see again or a beloved relative that died. White House Down serves as a joyful reminder of a far-ago era when we, as Americans, could feel good about our leader, that he represented our highest ideals and values and not our inner ugliness, our hatred, our fear and paranoia and bottomless rage.
But I was also inspired to cover Roland Emmerich’s only good movie because this weekend sees the domestic release of Angel is Fallen, the second sequel to 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen, a White House-based thriller that has a reputation for being just like White House Down only absolutely terrible, the fucking worst.
In keeping with our reverse meritocracy, lousy reviews and awful buzz did not keep the seventy million dollar Gerard Butler vehicle from becoming a surprise commercial success. Not only did Olympus Has Fallen succeed where the infinitely superior White House Down failed but it was successful enough to inspire a British-set 2016 sequel called London Has Fallen that’s supposed to be even worse than the cinematic abomination it followed.
Now this crummy White House Down wannabe isn’t just an unfortunate hit; it’s the first entry in a fucking trilogy. A trilogy! Nobody seems to have liked Olympus Has Fallen yet that somehow did not keep them from making two more of those fuckers.
Needless to say, sometimes the wrong people and movies win. Sometimes politicians and would-be blockbusters clearly deserve to triumph over wildly inferior competition yet end up losing bigly with the whole world watching all the same.
I can’t think of any real-life political examples, of course, but it probably has happened, at least once.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
Support independent media and help ensure a robust present and future for the Happy Place by pledging over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace
and/or get in on the Weird Accordion to Al book campaign: https://make-the-weird-accordion-to-al-book-a-ridiculous-r.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders