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 vibe.
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."
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.