President Django. Now that’s more like it.
White House Down has essentially the same plot as Olympus Has Fallen – the White House has fallen to terrorists, and the President’s life is in danger. Only a frustrated white male, dreaming of joining the Presidential Detail, can save the day with lots of guns, violence, and explosions. Olympus Has Fallen stole a march on White House Down and was surprisingly successful at the box office with its conservative tribute to the military, government institutions, and the benevolent American Imperium. White House Down is like another crappy multicultural remake in the vein of 2011’s Conan the Barbarian.
In this one, all the PC i’s have been dotted and t’s have been crossed. To paraphrase Young Jeezy, my President is black, Right wingers want a coup, and I’ll be God-damned if they ain’t white racists too. The message is for the white male to fight against his own kind in order to save his multicultural masters. After all, it’s for his career. If he does a good enough job, he might even get his children back.
Channing Tatum is John Cale, a Capitol Police officer stuck with the boring job of guarding the lame old white Speaker of the House. The Speaker jokes to Cale that voters want someone who is “cool” and needless to say, he is not cool. Cale gamely tries to tell him he is, to which the Speaker blows his nose. What an old white loser.
Needless to say, Cale’s wife has already divorced him and dresses like a nineteen-year-old college hippie, the house littered with various trendy Hindu statues. His daughter Emily refers to him as “John.” Her contempt for her father is matched only by her obsession with the President of the United States and the White House. The young Emily somehow has already mastered the bitter, contemptuous attitude of a women’s studies graduate student aiming for a staff job on the Hill. A father can have nothing worse.
Jamie Foxx is President of these States United with the unintentionally hilarious name of James Sawyer. Foxx consciously channels Barack Obama, even down to his speaking patterns. President Sawyer is what liberals wish President Obama actually was. We first meet him ordering Marine One to “do the thing,” hovering close to the Lincoln Memorial so Sawyer can reverently tell his aides that President Abraham Lincoln wanted to give women the vote when he was in the Illinois Legislature.
Later, we hear President Sawyer telling a childhood story about a friend planning to commit a robbery because he was poor. He was stopped when Sawyer’s mother took in the friend for a meal and told him he could stay with the Sawyer family. The moral, Sawyer intones, is that the main cause of violence is “poverty.” Thus, President Sawyer has a new plan for Middle East peace, which involves pulling all American forces out of the area. The obstacle to this plan is the military-industrial complex, which is willing to do anything to defend their power and position. President Sawyer says that one of the reasons he wants to do this is because once the troops are out, the President of Iran, whom Sawyer “trusts,” will reveal that American defense contractors have been working with radical regimes to deliberately create war.
This version of domestic politics is straight out of Oliver Stone’s JFK, but the movie’s premise of “defending the White House” leads to a strange contradiction at the heart of the film. On the one hand, the main villain is the mysterious “military-industrial complex” and various individuals within the national security structure who are not to be trusted, especially white males. On the other hand, in modern America, the heroic President is defined by his position as Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in world history and guardian of America’s nuclear arsenal.
Marines in full dress, the awed reverence of his aides, the sacred nature of the White House, and President Sawyer’s occasional exercise of naked power are all necessary for us to appreciate the majesty of the President’s person. What is interesting is that while in Olympus Has Fallen the President was the soldierly commander of a larger Imperium, here all of these forces are united in defense of the President himself. After all, the whole point of the movie is that the international deployment of the military is simply a way for evil multinationals to make more money. The film simultaneously insists on the awesome power and importance of the Presidency and the evil of the system that he is a part of.
Cale, as a lowly peon in the system, has aspirations to reach a higher rung on the ladder by working for the Secret Service. Like most Americans, he has to try to revert to bribes for his daughter’s love by getting her a White House pass while he goes in for his job interview. Unfortunately for him, his interviewer is Carol Finnerty (sad turtle Maggie Gyllenhaal), who knew him when he was younger and remembers his distaste for authority and unimpressive academic credentials.
Needless to say, Finnerty is also divorced, and her boss Martin Walker encourages her to get out there and build a life away from her job because “it’s not worth it.” To Finnerty of course, her job protecting the head of the state is everything, and she is contemptuous of anyone who cannot live up to her standards. Finnerty’s interview of Cale, who is a combat veteran and a war hero but lacks the credentials that the managerial elite demands, is a ritualistic humiliation.
After his failure, Cale tries to save face in front of his daughter by lying about his chances. Of course, his emasculation is finalized when President Sawyer pays a surprise visit to the tour and is told by an excited Emily that her father will be on his secret service team. Quickly sensing the lie, the President whispers to Cale to stop lying to children.
As you may have guessed, terrorists attack the power center of this nation of broken families while Cale and his daughter are still there. The Capitol is destroyed by a bomb while the White House is quickly secured by a team of paramilitaries. The leader is Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), whom we last saw as the torturer in Zero Dark Thirty. Stenz even makes sure to put a bullet in the head of a picture of George Washington.
The President himself is captured by Martin Walker (James Woods), the turncoat Head of the Presidential Detail who is actually in league with the terrorists. However, again as you may have guessed, Cale sees an opportunity to save the President and manages to free him, with Sawyer and Cale eventually hiding in an elevator shaft from the bumbling terrorists. The attack itself is rather underwhelming, lacking the epic scale and frankly shocking violence of Olympus Has Fallen. Instead, we’re given an implausible scenario about one small team securing the entire White House, which in turn is all but eliminated by one Capitol Police officer.
The terrorists are all white and we gradually introduced to their backgrounds because Cale’s plucky daughter manages to upload a video of them to Youtube. One, naturally, “runs a white power blog dedicated to criticizing President Sawyer.” “Lovely,” sneers an official. The main white supremacist is of course an utter cartoon, all swagger, tattoos, and handlebar mustache, whose job is to threaten children and civilian hostages.
Besides white supremacists, others are ex-military. Stenz is a former Delta Force soldier who undertook missions in Pakistan. President Sawyer, in his justice and wisdom, disavowed the mission, leading to Stenz serving years in a Pakistani prison. As for Walker, his Marine son Kevin was killed in a raid in Iran. However, we learn later that Walker is not motivated by grief – but rage. He thinks that Sawyer’s raid was the best thing he ever did, but he didn’t have the guts to complete the mission and make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.
Many of the scenes are tedious or just absurd, with former Delta Force soldiers somehow incapable of shooting a single man, even after he is repeatedly taken by surprise. Another scene is an all but exact duplicate of a scene from Olympus Has Fallen, with a helicopter raid foiled by the terrorists’ possession of anti-aircraft missiles, while the protagonist engages in hand to hand combat on the roof. Eventually, we find out the terrorists’ master plan – it’s not money, as originally suggested, but a nuclear attack on the Middle East. Walker believes that the Middle East will be America’s “last war” and he wants to be sure his son is the last one to die for the cause. Sawyer of course is horrified.
As the film lumbers on, it is eventually revealed that neither Stenz nor Walker is the head of the conspiracy. The real leader was the Speaker of the House. The de rigueur super smart terrorist hacker gets into NORAD and shoots down Air Force One while the Vice President (President while Sawyer is incapacitated and thought dead) is aboard with his staff. The film slowly builds to a climax in the Oval Office. Walker enters the nuclear launch codes that the Speaker provided him to take out Iran. Cale bursts into the Oval Office with a chain gun and rips Walker apart (as well as the picture of George Washington behind him, in an unintentional echo of Stenz’s actions). Meanwhile, with the outside world thinking the President is dead and that hostile forces have control of America’s nuclear arsenal, the Speaker orders an airstrike on the White House to destroy all the evidence. Cale is still fighting with Stenz and President Sawyer is unconscious and everyone is about to die.
This is stopped by Emily running out onto the White House lawn waving a flag. Not the American flag of course – that is too racist – but the Presidential standard. The jets refuse to deliver their payloads when they see the girl waving the flag, the media hails Emily as a hero, and the Speaker’s treachery is uncovered because he still uses a pager, which allows Cale to lay a trip to reveal the truth. Once again, being uncool is akin to being evil. Cale gets a job on the Secret Service, which means that he wins his daughter’s love and ex-wife’s respect, President Sawyer gets back to taking joy rides on Marine One, and the American people wave as the choppers fly by.
White House Down is a critically important film because it is an almost perfect encapsulation of the System’s view of us. Looking over the profiles of the terrorists, Finnerty notes that they come from all over the “threat matrix” and were recruited by Walker for that reason. What the film gives us is what the System sees as the real “threat matrix” – white military veterans, white advocates, advocates of military force against the Third World “Others,” and defense contractors associated with conservatives. When the terrorist attack begins, a Fox News-like media outlet reports that the terrorists are most certainly “Muslims or Al-Qaeda” to the knowing laughter of the audience and even the mockery of the terrorists.
A Rush Limbaugh like figure who was in the press gallery is hailed as the “only one who tells the truth” by the cartoonish white supremacist. Of course, he is fat, weak, and blubbering. He redeems himself by putting his body in between Emily a terrorist’s gun, but even this is played for laughs, as he is shot after Stenz says, “Seriously?” A white tour guide whose entire identity is tied up in his job is another figure of fun, cocking a shotgun dramatically (and unnecessarily) when he leads tourists to safety. The “uncool” Speaker is, of course, revealed to be the ultimate villain. Whites are either grim terrorist murders who threaten children, or are weak, effeminate, corrupt, and stupid.
Cale is the obvious exception, but he is a kind of honorary Negro, adopting ghetto slang in the midst of combat. When Cale is first confronted by an enemy, he begins crying and pretends to be simply a tourist. When the terrorist lowers his weapon, Cale shoots him, and then taunts the corpse in the manner straight out of World Star Hip Hop – “You think you’re tough, bitch?” Of course, it was the terrorist’s relative magnanimity that cost him his life. This isn’t the only time Cale deploys “bitch” after a deadly fight. After all, he wins back his family (sort of) and some kind of status by accepting his role as protector to his daughter’s black “hero.”
Cale and Sawyer run around the White House in various tedious situations, dispatching henchmen, with the President occasionally joining in the fun. In White House Down, our action hero President is a “white” acting black man who rediscovers his “real” blackness. The Boondocks satirized (and criticized) this as a “nigga moment.” Here, the transition from “nerd” to “thug” even in the President of the United States is celebrated. After all, whites are being killed, and that’s awesome!
No longer needing to conceal their intentions, the System’s media complex openly encourages violence against whites – either in the streets or as a matter of policy. As Bill Maher put it when he encouraged Barack Obama to use state power against whites, “I want a real black president!” before fantasizing about the President revealing a gun in his pants. Well, White House Down gives us that.
Sawyer slowly transforms from President of the United States into Head Nigga in Charge, gradually adopting more ghetto slang and jokes. He even puts on a pair of Air Jordans at one point, and kicks at a terrorist’s head with the words, “Get yo’ hands off my Jordans!” (Of course Air Jordans have been the cause of more black deaths in this country than any “white supremacists.”) Later, the President tells Walker in a pronouncement that comes with “the full weight and authority of my office – fuck you.” Thus, we get Barack Obama making a slow transition into a denizen of BET when the chips are down. (This transmutation isn’t unusual.)
There is a powerful subliminal message in the film with the destruction of Congress and the salvation of the White House. Congress is, after all, the home of the movie’s main villain, and housing other Congressmen who (it is suggested) are unconscionably opposing President Sawyer. In Olympus Has Fallen, the President is a centurion, first officer of a militaristic empire and another in a long line of the soldier-statesmen of the American Imperium. Here the President is our protector from White Americans, including the military, defense contractors, Right-wing radio hosts, and the more reactionary elements of Congress. Only the enlightened black President can defend the United States from its worst elements – namely those whites who are not interested in being part of the system.
But what of these villains? Their motivations are mixed, and there is a great deal of conflict among the different individuals over the course of the movie. The white power terrorists are of course just portrayed as stupid. Walker and Stein are given slightly more dignity. When one of the terrorists protests that Walker’s nuclear attack on Muslims isn’t “part of the plan” and he’s just here for the money, Walker cries out in outrage, “You think I would put my country through this for money?”
One of the movie’s best moments is when Walker’s wife is brought in to the Pentagon to try to dissuade her husband from carrying out his plan. We’re expecting the usual whines for “non-violence” and “just stopping this” and “can’t we all just get along?” Mrs. Walker does start her plea that way. However, once Walker says he is doing this for her son, Mrs. Walker’s features change. She tells her husband, “Then do it.” An almost hysterical Finnerty tells Walker that she’ll be put in custody forever. The scene gives Walker and his wife more soldierly dignity and stoicism than all the bumbling generals running around the Pentagon put together.
Of course, this is somewhat undone by the revelation that the Speaker is the main villain after all. The true patriots who want to actually win the war against the Muslim enemy are just puppets for the defense contractors. Needless to say, this plan doesn’t make much sense. If “radical regimes” are in league with defense contractors, why is the plan to nuke those radical regimes? Why would defense contractors actually favor a decisive victory in the “War Against Terrorism” by essentially exterminating the Muslim World with nuclear missiles, instead of long drawn out pointless wars that consume weapons and material?
But of course, it doesn’t need to make sense. Whites are privileged, effete, and fat and at the same time, dangerous, poor, and violent. They are both bourgeois conservative scum and dangerous white trash radicals. What matters is that the only good white is a subordinate white, a white who dedicates his existence to the principle of equality and benefiting nonwhites. After all, in the end, Sawyer is struggling to align with the President of Iran against his own country. It should also be noted that in this film, Israel is one of the countries that swiftly aligns with Sawyer’s peace plan to withdraw all American forces. Needless to say, the Jewish role in America’s interventionist foreign policy is ignored, and the Jewish State is also on the side of the angels.
The better comparison for this film may not be to Olympus Has Fallen but Air Force One. In that film, the President of the United States (Harrison Ford) is a former Medal of Honor winner and Vietnam vet who takes back the Presidential plane single-handed. The villain (Gary Oldman, in one of his best roles), is a Russian nationalist who lectures the President on how he has handed over his homeland to “gangsters and prostitutes,” which is essentially what actually happened. When the evil “General Radek” is released, his followers incongruously sing “the Internationale,” as Communism and Fascism have been fused into a demonic anti-liberalism in the minds of most Americans.
Nonetheless, the President, as an old-fashioned action hero and traditional military man, restores “democracy” through superior firepower and old-fashioned American grit. American dominance over the world is reaffirmed. In White House Down, the President doesn’t fight to end terrorism, but to excuse it. The enemy is not foreign nationalists, but American nationalists. And the President achieves victory over his own government and military, rather than being saved by them.
Interestingly, White House Down has bombed despite being more in tune with the Zeitgeist than the more reactionary Olympus Has Fallen. Its failure is so complete that Sony Entertainment may be spun off from the rest of the company. While Olympus Has Fallen consciously cultivated the military and older veterans, White House Down relied on marketing to the more “vibrant,” younger consumers of Generation Obama.
The problem is that even though American culture and government may have been remade into a monstrous conglomeration of Obama, Martin Luther King, and Jay Z, younger Americans (especially non-whites) don’t see it that way. They don’t want to see Jamie Foxx as President of the United States – they want to see him slaughtering conservative whites himself. They don’t want to see a white hero saving the White House – they want to see nonwhite heroes gunning down white boys, like in Django Unchained and Machete. They don’t want to see a younger version of a disingenuous white liberal saving the day – they want to see whitey getting what’s coming to him.
Thus, White House Down isn’t just boring – it’s confused. America simultaneously wants to call upon its past but also condemn it as racist and unequal. It wants to tell us we are all in this together, but condemn the core population as inherently privileged and evil. It wants to be the military superpower but exterminate the Traditionalist reserves of culture, race, and identity that nations can call upon in crisis and war. Both the hero and the villain put a bullet in the head of the Father of Our Country.
The film’s political and racial messages are so contradictory that there’s no constituency left to go see the movie. Of course, that’s also what’s happening to the country. When the nation is actually in trouble, there might not be any real Americans left to defend it.