President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) wants to save the world. Lots of presidential candidates say that, or something like it, but none them as yet has had the means or ingenuity or the firepower to do it once and for all—unless you count Bill Pullman in Independence Day, the awesome exception who proves the rule. Sawyer can’t pilot a fighter jet against aliens in space ships—or at least he’s not called on to do so—but at the start of White House Down, he makes a pronouncement that, on its face, is almost as outrageous. Namely, he’s working out a peace treaty with Iran.
This makes a lot of people mad, mostly inside Washington, DC. But even as Sawyer is so advised by House Speaker Raphelson (Richard Jenkins)—with whom he actually does appear to converse regularly—he decides to go ahead with his plan, calling out the many interests who make up the military-industrial complex to boot. Alas for him and good for the movie, this decision sets in motion a terrorist assault on the White House apparently engineered by a squad of white supremacists feeling especially steamed about the uppity president.
Think about this for a minute. That Sawyer is presented as right and righteous and the terrorists with a commitment to US military supremacy look mean and small-minded is close to a radical point of departure for a big ballsy action movie in 2013, at least one not directed by Quentin Tarantino. And so White House Down offers another, parallel point of departure, too. This one is embodied by a white guy, that is to say, a very standard American action hero named John Cale (Channing Tatum). His first move and vision in the film are smaller than Sawyer’s: currently a hardworking Capitol policeman, Cale is on his way to a job interview with the Secret Service, in hopes that he’ll impress his resentful 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), who happens to be a big fan of White House history, the presidency generally, and Sawyer in particular.
The film sets up both Sawyer’s and Cale’s interests deftly, and also runs them smack into each other in the White House when the president happens to stumble on the tour that includes Cale and Emily as tourists. This encounter actually takes place just after Cale has learned he will not get the Secret Service job, owing to a judgment by Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who knew him in college as a screw-up (when she was, no surprise, an overachiever). Now, despite his impressive military record (three tours in Afghanistan and a Silver Star) and his earnest plea to be given a chance, she declares him unworthy: “I would need to be able to depend on you.” As this is a judgment that echoes the one just made by his ex/Emily’s mom (Rachelle Lefevre), you know that as soon as Cale steps out of her office into the half-hearted embrace of his daughter, it’s only a matter of time before he proves himself prodigiously dependable.
This demonstration is jumpstarted when Cale rescues Sawyer from a gaggle of terrorists: from here these guys spend the bulk of the movie together, while perky Finnerty monitors and frets, and perky Emily annoys the bad guys who capture her. That the villains get inside the White House with stunning ease is par for this course, as is their extensive borrowing from Hans Gruber’s playbook (heavy artillery, a bait-and-switch scheme, interchangeable goons, a flamboyant tech, a hothead with a dead friend/brother, in this instance played by Jason Clarke, lower key than Alexander Godunov).
Because the terrorists are self-proclaimed white supremacists—on their Facebook pages and in government surveillance files—the film underscores a certain race politics. The villains are duly horrified by the black American president’s alliance with the Iranians, and moreover, by his decision to bring home all US troops from the Middle East, but Cale gives him cover, encouraging him to carry a gun and use it when the two of them get in a couple of jams—jams, that is, beyond the basic one that shapes the film. After all, White House Down can’t go so far as to let the black president fight back on his own. (Thought experiment: imagine Sawyer and his wife [Garcelle Beauvais] or maybe General Caulfield [Lance Reddick] take out the terrorists themselves, cheered on by their white colleagues and constituents.)
Still, Sawyer isn’t just Al to John McClaine, urging on his cowboy antics via walkie talkie. Rather, Sawyer is a fast-talking, Nicorette-chewing, bullet-wound-surviving, weapons-wielding, Jordans-wearing full-on hero, able and willing to dash through gunfire, climb into elevator shafts, and dodge grenade. He’s also not above lying in order to win the day, and he’s visibly pleased when he does win.
Sawyer’s alliance with Cale makes them at once familiar and at least a little new. On one hand, they recall the black-white buddies of the ‘80s, say, Danny Glover and Mel Gibson or Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, where their initial differences give way pretty much immediately to a bond they maintain no matter the recommendations of seeming authorities or associates. On the other hand, they share a heartfelt concern for Emily (the president even instructing Cale on proper parenting), as well as a sense of patriotic, underdoggy virtue, asserting their combined and sometimes separated guile against their brash, better-armed enemies.
And on still one more hand, James Sawyer brings along Jamie Foxx, which is to say, a collection of roles mixing menace and wit, brilliance and madness, a little bit of Ricardo Tubbs and Willie Beamen, a little bit of Django, and even a little bit of Alvin Sanders, the wily prawns thief from Bait. It’s not that far a jump from these smart-ass, self-reliant heroes to a president who pilots fighter jets.