News Column

Tatum, Foxx elevate 'White House Down'

June 28, 2013

YellowBrix

June 28--White House Down

Action thriller. Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Roland Emmerich. (PG-13. 131 minutes.)

There will be greater cinematic achievements this year, but for pure enjoyment, for a good time at the movies, for something that will delight and exhilarate and send audiences out laughing, satisfied and thoroughly worked over, it's hard to imagine anything beating "White House Down."

Directed by Roland Emmerich in his grand-scale action vein ("Independence Day," "2012"), "White House Down" escalates the pressure and stays ahead of the audience without ever degenerating into a series of random jolts. There's a lot of expertise behind this film, such an understanding of genre and of audience response that it makes the whole enterprise of creating big, silly movies seem like a truly dignified calling. Maybe it is: "White House Down" is going to make a lot of people happy for two-plus hours, and that's worth doing.

The movie is a smart balancing act, in every way an exciting and sincere action thriller, and yet one made with an awareness of other action thrillers, so that there is just a hint of parody or self-parody. The movie asks you to take it seriously, but not too seriously. At the same time, there are moments of strong humor throughout that are essential to the experience but that don't for one second make "White House Down" any less tense or gripping. Emmerich has always had a sure command of tone, but aided by James Vanderbilt's script, he has delivered his best movie to date.

Channing Tatum has the main role, but as everyone who sees "White House Down" is going to be talking about Jamie Foxx, let's go there first. There's a movie tradition going back decades that whenever there's a president in a movie, he always looks a little like the sitting president. You might expect that that's what's happening with Foxx playing the president in the Barack Obama era, but no, this goes way beyond that. Foxx may be called "President Sawyer" in this, but he is more or less playing Obama: He has the clipped speech and the cool egghead vibe, not to mention boxes and boxes of Nicorette in his desk drawers.

As the movie starts, he has a peace plan for the Middle East that's being held up in the House by a genial but intractable Republican speaker (Richard Jenkins), who is afraid what peace might do to his buddies in the defense industry. This president wants to make a difference in the world, but all his political opponents care about is keeping him from being re-elected.

Meanwhile, it's just another day off for Capitol policeman John Cale (Channing Tatum), who aspires to become a Secret Service agent. He takes his daughter, Emily (Joey King) -- who is obsessed with the president -- on a White House tour. But as luck would have it, he happens to choose a day when right-wing lunatics invade the White House with automatic weapons and take over the joint. Cale must be the unluckiest man since Bruce Willis in "Die Hard."

In "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004), a disaster movie centered on global warning, Emmerich showed his political slant with thinly disguised portraits of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as a moron and a maniac, respectively. But Emmerich was downright subtle there compared with his approach in "White House Down," which presents Obama as a hero -- a Clark Kent just waiting to be Superman -- and elements of the right as not merely wrong but unhinged. This is an action movie that will please everybody, but for Democrats, there's an extra prize inside the Cracker Jack box.

"White House Down" continues Tatum's rise toward his ultimate goal of becoming our era's handsome yet slightly befuddled lug, the modern-day answer to Clark Gable. He is easy to watch and to care about. James Woods, as the head of the Secret Service, is meticulous and ill-tempered, driven and skewed, and it's his best showcase in years. And Maggie Gyllenhaal provides another fine portrait in her gallery of women cursed with sanity in a world of insane men.

But Foxx's portrayal of the president steals the show. Partly a celebration of Obama, it's also a barely disguised message directed at the sitting president, instructing him to peel off the president suit and unleash the hero within. That makes "White House Down" unusual, not just unusually good -- the 2013 summer blockbuster most likely to still be interesting in 2014.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com

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