How I Learned to Stop Gawking and Laugh Along, or: is White House Down the Dr Strangelove of 2013?


Warning: Spoilers.

The White House’s foyer has been obliterated by a team of military insiders-cum-terrorists bitter with their nation’s past, and Tatum, an erstwhile tourist, has Tatum barrel-rolled his Tatum way to Tatum President Jamie Foxx who had to be wrested from a deranged, AK47-wielding James Woods.  After a hallway shootout whose main victim is the Presidential chinaware, the pair’s only escape route is, naturally, to shimmy through the ceiling of the guest elevator and clamber their ways out of the shaft.  If your Die Hard copyright alarm bells are going off, then good.  They should be.

“Make sure you have one hand over before you let go of the other one,” says Tatum as John Cale, a security guard about to become embroiled in the world’s longest unpaid job trial, imparting his pole-climbing sageness.

“Whatever you do, I do,” President Tom Sawyer replies.  Tatum wall-jumps to the other side of the shaft.

“I ain’t doin’ that shit.”

White House Down is, in this rough order, one-fifth Disney telemovie, three-fifths wonderful and unabashed blitheness, one-fifth overlong finale.  Holistically, it’s more enjoyable if preceded by at least a fifth of vodka (not the only trait White House Down shares with Kubrick’s brilliant holocaustal satire Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).  With a running time of 137 minutes, either of the outlying acts could’ve done with some cropping.  And yet the movie teems with a hilarious and self-aware preposterouness that runs most rampant in the middle thirds, and recasts the rest of the film in its wake.

By the time the elevator scene rolls around, the movie hasn’t hit its hallmark of absurdity.  Nonetheless, there’s been foregrounding that director Roland Emmerich might pack it all in and let his film avalanche into satire – like the staid bureaucrat whose raison d’être is to step in amidst a flurry of suits and morbidly submit: “Sir, the stock market is crashing”.  You see, global trade crumbles away in simultaneity with the White House’s domed roof.

This throwaway line, much as the one in the elevator shaft, clues us in: White House Down isn’t typical Emmerich fodder.  Beneath a flimsily self-serious affront is an ulterior film as desperate to not be taken seriously as futile it is to do so.  Maybe after 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 BC (just the tip of the filmographic iceberg), Emmerich had completely emptied his grab bag of disaster porn tropes, so sought instead to level a self-reflexive satire at himself as much as the genre.  I don’t know.  But in short, here, his latest work begs that you join in on a wonderful and hilarious self-aware laugh of itself: preposterous disaster porn, as hyper-inflated with American patriotism as it is risible plot points, all underwritten by a usual sky-scraping budget ($150mil).  Here, Emmerich is poking dumb fun at himself, his genre, and, in deploying the same marketing pulls – the poster features a suited Foxx and progressively de-flowered Tatum traipsing away from some carnage – to draw his mainstay crowd, his audience too.

Take even the the ten minutes following that elevator scene alone.  The erstwhile Die Hard hostage film quickly dissolves into a Tatum/Foxx buddy adventure flick as the man famously labelled the world’s most powerful  arms himself with a pair of Nike Airs and a rifle before disarming an assailant, shouting with stilted enunciation: “Get.  Your.  Hands.  Off.  My.  Jordans.” It’s this tongue-in-cheek readiness to recast the President, who probably bandies the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” about so much that he might as well get it tattoed in cursive, as a  figure of violently-won nationalistic heroism that elevates White House Down into it’s comfortably wry level of jest.  Much as their adventure is a pastichey remix of sub-genres, it’s also shot through with a post-modern wont to cram in as many rote tropes as possible.  There’s a bookcase that gives way to a top-secret lab once the spine of the right book is tipped, and a Presidential escape vehicle blasted with at least two missiles, but whose inhabitants are still in one piece.  It inevitably ends up barrel rolling through the air, so luckily there’s a pool to break its fall.

With a few exceptions, I haven’t seen this kind of toying with American hyper-patriotism since Kubrick’s chemical warfare satire Dr Strangelove.  (Notable exceptions would include 2004’s puppetry blow-out Team America: World Police, but that was, obviously, bereft of White House Down‘s subtlety and perfect set-up).  Of course, I don’t want to argue that White House Down strikes anywhere near the same level of satirical grandeur first laid by Dr Strangelove back in 1964.  It is not among the best releases of the year.  Although much more intertextual than Dr Strangelove, it’s also long, and at times more than necessarily flawed.  But, given its sly subversiveness and context of production, White House Down deserves a lot more due as antidote to the American blockbuster than it’s been getting in critical circles.

For instance, if not crippled by some mandate to delineate the already obvious similarities between this and Another Capitol Hill Takedown movie released earlier in 2013, many critics are blinded no less by a view of White House Down as the stillborn zenith of Emmerichian risibility.  Writing for London’s Financial Times, Nigel Andrews opines “Roland Emmerich (Independence DayThe Day After Tomorrow) can do these films in his sleep; which may be why they sometimes emerge as nightmares of crazed, florid hokum.”  Those in praise of the film’s absurdity tend also to imply that Emmerich doesn’t know the comedy of his latest work.  One Crikey film critic, in an otherwise appreciable review, writes of White House Down‘s “cycle of (presumably unintended) hilarity.”  Even the Village Voice’s chief film editor Alan Scherstuhl, in his almost pitch-perfect review of the film, betrays himself in the latter half of the line “White House Down stands as a singular achievement in parody, its auteur’s intentions be damned”.

And yet the movie is smattered with scenes like the one where the President, armed with the ready-to-use rocket launcher tucked away in the compartment of the Presidential limousine, mistakenly bashes Cale, his chauffeur, across the head with it.  In a sound effect that speaks to the caliber of Tatum’s cranium, the missile makes a buoyant, metallic clang that’s closer to two deadweights colliding that someone being struck with a weapon of mass destruction.  If things get too serious, Emmerich is always on hand to alleviate with over-the-top comedy.  And yet, these pneumatic moments aside, White House Down’s strength is its subtlety.  And while it takes a daft viewer to misinterpret Dr Strangelove‘s intentions as a satire (“You can’t fight in here!  This is the war room!”), White House Down demands a keener observer to spot the dramatic irony.  Nonetheless, I’m going to argue that both films are linked in inextricable ways.

Compare the way that both films show an American defence system so wrought with protocol that bureaucracy proves to be its own undoing.  Dr Strangelove opens as an artillery-heavy air fleet receive a nuclear attack alert, prompting their subsequent re-route to Russia where they’ll dump their 40 mega tonnes of nuclear cargo.  Oh, and cleverly, the alert protocol means the fleet must also boycott all external communications.  That way, when the alarm inevitably turns out to be a dupe, sent out by the crazed and Communist-fearing General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), there’s no way of calling off the attack.  President Merkin Muffley’s (brilliant Peter Sellers) henchmen get to deciperphing the three-letter code that will cancel the the attack and thereby prevent Russia’s retaliation with some doomsday device they’ve been baking in an underground meth oven.  Only, finding the right combination of 17,000 possible permutations will take about two and a half days. Meanwhile, the fleet are en-route to cross the Russian border in 18 minutes.  What it boils down to is a horde of bureaucrats scrambling to divert a process which their own tangle of rules has inflected.

If White House Down is to be believed, on the other hand, then blowing up Capitol Hill’s foyer is as easy as as scrawling the right cleaning room co-ordinate on your wrist, donning the janitor uniform therein and wheeling your cleaning cart to the delivery of domestic cleaner waiting in the carpark.  Unpack the right box and you’ll find a bomb ticking quietly away beneath, which you then place on your cleaning cart, abandon in the foyer, and a few minutes later rejoin your janitor buddies in the presidential theatre.  When an alarm sounds, some of the assailants trap a group of tourists (among whom is Cale’s White House encycoplaediac offspring, Emily [Joey King]), while others shoot their ways through layers upon layers of security with ridiculous ease (another instance where White House Down gladly forgoes narrative credibility to further its ridiculous premise).

President Sawyer is soon assumed dead, and protocol means that another president is enlisted; when he dies, another still. When hacker Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) navigates his way through the sub-White House catacombs that Marilyn Monroe allegedly used to traverse in the JFK-era, he hacks into the military defence system and gains access to umpteen internationally-aimed missiles – even those controlled by computers in whatever holocaustal refuge the surviving heads of American defence forces have scrambled to.  No prizes for guessing the code he uses to pull off “the greatest hack the world has ever seen.”  It’s “as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.”

It’s also markedly easy to trace the lineage between the two films.  Through Dr Strangelove’s conspiracy theory spouting, ultimately destructive Jack D Ripper, Kubrick not only satirised then-rampant American fears of Communist Russia, but made a neat, double-edged quip that those most bent on patriotism might be its own enemy.  Similarly, the cacophony of doomsday devices can’t be seen as anything other than hyperbolic iterations of concurrent nuclear-era fears.  Ripper, of course, believes that Communists are in the midst of a mass American conversion by attacking the precious bodily fluids of Americans through water fluoridation.  His exhortation rings with heavy irony over a PA speaker: “The enemy may come individually or in strength.  He may even come in the uniform of our own troops”.

As if Ripper’s prophecy was beheld, the terrorists in White House Down are none other than a group of white, middle-aged American citizens joined by Head of Secret Services.  As if this weren’t already a sardonic enough jab at post-9/11 American xenophobia, Emmerich creates a hoard of media outlets who assume the perpetrators of the White House attack are Arabic, thereby drawing direct attention to the conservatism he’s satirising. Further to the point, when the deranged James Woods character eventually comes forth about his motives, his prospective attempt at a nuclear attack on Iran was only in the hope of stopping American from losing face internationally in the midst of a peace-loving President.

Dr Strangelove ends in the only way it really can; by having an akubra-waving American militant saddle himself to a strikingly phallic nuclear missile and drive it straight into Russian soil.  The only way a movie so loaded with American iconography as White House Down can end, on the other hand, is to have a patriotic and tear-streaked 11-year-old democrat wave the American flag in slow-motion on the White House’s terrace, a final plee to the incoming military bomb-drop to abort their mission.

In the fifty-odd years bridging Dr Strangelove and White House Down, American national security has (not undeservedly) expanded and sensitised to the extent that the device Woods’ character attempts to use to launch a missile attack on Iran not only exists, but has its own Wikipedia page.  And finally, as I mentioned earlier, White House Down was rolled out in Australian cinemas just months after Olympus Has Fallen, another shambolic deluge of crumbling White House.

The point is that we’re in the midst of a Hollywood so saturated with readiness to capitalise on the same national fears that the same director might not only blow up the White House at least twice in the career, but release their latest Capitol Hill disaster pic within six months of the one before it.  Whether he’s aware of the genius of his comedy or not, and I’m adamant that he is, it’s hard to deny that Emmerich’s change of approach is underpinned with vitality.