I really want to believe that Roland Emmerich is a smart director. In my mind, his films simultaneously give the mainstream audience what they want, whilst including enough layers to appease a populism-skeptic like me. They may all have moments of saccharine family bonding, interspersed with (at first glance) the worst manifestation of American exceptionalism – yet upon closer inspection it is possible to see more nuanced representations of military strength, politics and American civic culture.
White House Down takes place during the morning after President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has announced that all American troops are to be withdrawn from the ‘Middle East region’ and all military contractors removed. This same morning, Martin Walker (James Woods) is retiring as the head of the presidential Secret Service team that John Cale (Channing Tatum), an Afghanistan veteran, is desperately trying to be recruited to. Cale has a tumultuous relationship with his 11-year-old daughter, so after his secret service interview, and due to her obssession with politics, they go on a tour of the White House to try and bond.
During the tour, Emily disappears to use the bathroom at the same time that a group of terrorists set off a bomb and shoot all of the security guards, thereby systematically taking control of the White House and it’s control centre. John uses his expert training to escape from becoming a hostage and goes to try and find his daughter, yet he quickly has to concentrate on protecting the president from the mercenaries.
Like all of his narratives, Emmerich includes so much foreshadowing in the early build-up of his films that it is possible to predict most of the outcome before the final reel. A divorced father, with military training that needs to prove his commitment to a mission…? A secret service character on the last week of his job that lost his son in the war…? An 11-year-old girl with an intimate knowledge of the White House with a YouTube channel…? Anyone who watches movies should be able to predict the outcome for these character plots.
The camera spends much of the time lovingly swooping past the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and of course, the White House. This, alongside clumsy dialogue such as “Did you know that the White House is visited by 1.5 million people a year…?!”, gives a patriotic audience much to be proud of in the first twenty minute set-up. When the terrorists begin to cause destruction, it incites a frustrated rage in the viewer that anyone should dare desecrate such revered institutions – a rage that must be infinitely heightened in an American patriotic viewer.
Yet, there is ideological cognitive dissonance in this film. At a time when Americans have a real problem with the legitimacy and the efficiency of their governments (especially during the recent shutdown), it seems natural that an audience would like to see it destroyed in an act of symbolic, yet nihilistic vandalism.
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For those who have already seen the film, there is an even more nuanced ideological opposition going on. The Hero, President Sawyer, is an obvious pastiche of Obama, a cerebral African-American democrat with ambitions of world peace, and the terrorists are white-power radicals and right wing lunatics – a seeming declaration that Emmerich is a liberal.
Also, Sawyer is being targeted due to his apparent rejection of the military industrial complex that is benefitting financially from the extension of global war, suggesting that Emmerich is making a damning indictment of American foreign policy. Yet, in the film it is the nameless, ordinary soldiers who save the day in the end, averting the airstrike on the White House for ethical reasons as they spot the innocent civilians. So clearly, Emmerich is praising the all-American bravery of the Soldier and attacking instead the leadership and the politicians, who send them to unethical and corrupt wars overseas etc.
This seems to fit with the preferred reading of most action films, where an ordinary citizen courageously rises to the challenge and overcomes a villain without the use of the bureaucratic FBI/NSA/CIA/Police etc. But the villain is usually foreign in this classic ‘model’, and in the few years since the Obama administration the trend seems to have a ‘homegrown’ terrorist instead. So now you have a celebration of ordinary American citizens rising up and defending the country from the threat of other American citizens – without the help of any federal agency.
So hidden within the liberal narrative is an alignment with the ideologies of right-wingers who want to take the country back from the overreaches of the federal government. Even though Sawyer is left in office at the end of the film, the moral authority of the institution of which he represents is left redundant: it is the citizens who have protected the state, not the other way round – a growing post-Obama right-wing belief.
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Another feature that Emmerich has had to update in his disaster films is his relationship with the press. In all of his films, the apocalypse is reported in the media and these broadcasts are used to aid the characters or further the plot. But, now he has to up the game and include citizen journalism clunkily undermining news media. Emily uses her YouTube channel to distribute footage of the terrorists, and earlier Sawyer laments the use of the White House lawn – especially a right wing Fox News parody (who later has the moral highground by confronting a terrorist to protect a child).
Overall, the film is overlong and filled with fight scenes, that depending on the palette of the audience will either excite or alienate in equal measures. The ending, depicting the main characters ‘riding into the sunset’ in a helicopter, is patently ridiculous. But Emmerich has managed to appeal to both Liberals and Conservatives, and by doing that has created a quasi-subversive film that captures the political zeitgeist masterfully.