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The Surprisingly Left-Wing Politics of 'White House Down'

Courtesy of Sony

White House Down, the enjoyably terrible Roland Emmerich flick released today, sounds like the title of a Clinton-era porn parody. But what it actually resembles is a season of “24” as if re-written and reconceived by Noam Chomsky or Oliver Stone. It was filmed before Edward Snowden and the N.S.A. leaks, but it manages to capture the zeitgeist: the movie is more concerned with civil liberties than foreign threats; the danger is the vaguely Tea Party-esque enemy within our own borders. The film is thus an interesting comment on how the cinema of terror has shifted in the past decade; it is impossible to imagine a $150 million 4th of July blockbuster with these politics being made in the years immediately after September 11.

The plot is as follows: President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-aged first-termer on the cusp of the biggest foreign policy breakthrough since the end of the cold war. He plans to pull all American troops out of the Middle East and sign a comprehensive peace agreement with the Iranian government. With the money he has saved by ending overseas military commitments, he can alleviate poverty—his real passion—here and in the Islamic world, while simultaneously removing the actual reason that the terrorists hate us (our occupation of their countries).

Alas, before the plan has a chance to go into effect, right-wing thugs take over the White House with help from certain rogue members of the Secret Service. These men employ a computer hacker to access nuclear codes and attempt to launch a pre-emptive strike against our dastardly foes in the Middle East. (I won’t spoil the precise plan here.) The villains are backed and financed by “the military industrial complex”—as it’s explicitly named in the movie—which has infected all branches of the government, minus the liberal president. (You’d think the military industrial complex could have saved time by simply fixing the election for a more warmongering president, but never mind.)

Meanwhile, a Capitol Police officer, played by Channing Tatum, happens to be on a White House tour with his daughter on the day of the attack. (The Die Hard echoes extend to Tatum’s wife beater and an action scene with helicopters on the roof of the White House.) After the Secret Service is neutralized, Foxx manages to escape, and he and Tatum join forces. Their goal is to save Tatum’s daughter from the thugs, and humanity from World War III. Meanwhile, the vice president, safely on Air Force One, ponders a response in consultation with the military. The ridiculous set-up is one thing, but the real problem with White House Down is its execution: Left-wing action films can never sustain the courage of their convictions.

American cop or military movies, from Dirty Harry to Rambo, tend to be right-wing: nationalistic, scornful of the rights of criminals, and disdainful of politicians and bureaucracy. But there are outliers. Steven Seagal’s first vehicle, Above the Law (1988), is—on the surface—a left-wing attack on American arrogance. Seagal plays a Chicago police detective who grows disillusioned with the torture, drug-running, and preference for right-wing dictatorship he witnessed in Vietnam. Unfortunately, these problems have followed him home. Seagal eventually dispatches all of the villains and gives a speech about the danger of empire and the virtues of republican government.

The underlying absurdity of Above the Law’s politics lies in the means by which Seagal emerges victorious. He is essentially Dirty Harry, snapping bones, delighting in the abuse of suspects, and generally employing methods not fit for a democracy. Similar ideological confusion occurs in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; in this anti-fascist celebration of a free press, the journalist heroes get most of their information through illegal, N.S.A.-like methods. (A colleague astutely points out that the politics actually fit with the author’s quasi-anarchist streak. But the irony is at the expense of the anarchists if their methods so closely match the N.S.A.’s.)

White House Down suffers from the same problems: A left-wing action flick has limited resources with which to take out the bad guys. You might think, for instance, that the army should simply storm the White House and prevent World War III, but a knee-jerk liberal secret service agent, played gratingly by Maggie Gyllenhall, informs that this would violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which limits the military’s ability to act on domestic soil. Put aside the ridiculous notion that a crisis of this nature would not allow an exception and simply focus on the fact that the movie is deeply invested in this point of view. And of course we are supposed to nod along, as good civil libertarians must. Eventually, the option of bombing the White House is raised, but the film again sides with Gyllenhall and her dovish allies who don’t want to risk the lives of the hostages. The not-so-subtle message is that conflicts can be solved with methods that do not involve overwhelming force.

But, of course this lesson doesn’t hold for Tatum and Foxx—the latter’s character is fond of saying in earlier scenes that the pen is mightier than the sword—who good-naturedly kill all their foes. Massive force—in the form of grenades and guns wielded—eventually wins the day. (Set aside that a more massive force would have prevented the entire catastrophe from spinning out of control in the first place!) At the screening I attended, the audience was rowdiest at the Air Force One–ish moments when the president began killing terrorists.

The rest of the film rotates between heavy-handedness and unintentional comedy resulting from the attempts to be politically "with it." You could be excused for thinking that we have troops stationed in Iran, since the Iran deal has something to do with us pulling our troops out of the Middle East. And you also might wonder how making peace with the largest Shiite country in the region will ensure stability in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim world. (The villains seem to be under the impression that Iranians are Arabs—the film has some fun with their anti-Arab bigotry—but it isn’t clear if the filmmakers are any less confused, since no one is ever corrected). In the funniest scene, Tatum’s eleven-year-old daughter asks the president how peace with Iran will bring peace to the entire Middle East and “stop the violence between Shiites and Sunnis in Southern Pakistan.” Okay, Pakistan is not in the Middle East, but the girl is on to something!

Generally speaking, however, the plot is so ridiculous, the set-ups so preposterous (the White House apparently has rooms with giant flammable gas tanks), and the execution so intentionally over-the-top that the audience at the screening I attended burst into spontaneous, clearly ironic laughter throughout. Sawyer is a happy-go-lucky chief executive, fervently in love with his wife, sentimental about America’s freedoms, and ironic about the pomp and circumstance of the presidency. He chews Nicorette gum, has a pair of basketball shoes handy, and expresses a real fondness for Lincoln, but otherwise he is much more like Jamie Foxx than Barack Obama. I like Jamie Foxx, but the prospect of eight years of him is wearying.

In the strangest line of the entire film, the arch-conservative villain tells Foxx that, as president, he had one moment of glory: ordering a daring Special Forces raid in the Muslim world. Abbottabad will be on the minds of most viewers, but according to the film Foxx’s decision was the hawkish mistake that turned him into a dove. Thankfully, it doesn’t prevent him from grabbing a rocket-launcher and blowing up a carload of disgruntled right-wingers. 

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner