The 400-Word Review: White House Down

By Sean Collier

July 2, 2013

Roland Emmerich is not a fan of US monuments.

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Films with similar plotlines overrun the multiplex, and even chronologically close twins — the memorable Armageddon/Deep Impact asteroid double-threat, for one — are not that unusual.

But this year’s cinematic doppelgangers get awfully close to a head-on collision. Both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are over-the-top action flicks set in the White House that see the president cornered in his underground bunker, with only one low-ranking patriot with a dark past standing between a group of terrorists and a national disaster — and be careful, there’s a helpless kid running around!

Oh, and they’re both Die Hard ripoffs.

White House Down is a good bit lighter than Olympus. Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart are traded in for the more charismatic duo of Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, here enjoying the high-paying fruits of their more serious labor in 2012. And where Olympus had plot holes, White House Down actually takes the time to get into governmental procedure and geopolitical strategy, if only briefly.


Roland Emmerich, most famous for blowing up the White House some years ago, returns to Washington and his wheelhouse: popcorn genre fare with big stakes. His reverence for the symbols of democracy is evident on-screen, if not in the credits (this particular all-American spectacular was filmed in Montreal). It’s clear that he’s most comfortable with crumbling mortar and rapid-fire gunplay; he seems energized here, particularly after his bewildering Shakespeare whodunit Anonymous plopped into theaters in 2011.

But while Emmerich has occasionally hit the right balance of action and drama — again, Independence Day — he’s always struggled with tone. Here, the script swings wildly from dire severity to frivolity; in one scene a thug holds a pistol to the temple of a weeping 11-year-old girl, in the next the president boots another henchmen in the face while rattling off a one-liner. The film tends so far into silliness that it’s perhaps better termed an action-comedy, which is fine ... until you’d like your audience to remain invested in the characters. (An ending straight out of the Scooby-Doo playbook doesn’t help, either.)

Still, a reckless actioner with a likable cast — scenery-chewing James Woods among them — is hard to resist. And stupid-but-entertaining wins out over high-minded-but-dull any day, so there’s no reason to avoid White House Down.

Unless, of course, you have an Olympus Has Fallen ticket stub. Why see the same movie twice?

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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