White House Down

The same day I watched Roland Emmerich’s new film, news broke that Barack Obama was preparing to commit American forces in the Syrian civil war as a consequence of the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people. The sobering real-life headline somewhat popped the bubble on Emmerich’s typically frenzied adventure. In fairness to the director, whose film was planned, shot and edited a year ago or more, it was about the only occasion when grim reality intruded on White House Down: a double-denim 80s action romp disguised in the pin-stripe of a high-stakes political thriller.

As with all of Emmerich’s films, the plot synopsis could be described in pictograms on the leaflet that accompanies a piece of flat-pack furniture. The first few minutes are spent showing us which bits slot together and which direction the screws should turn. Happily for the hyper-efficient Emmerich, screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s brutalist approach gets all the dull-but-necessary story business out of the way so there’s more time for running about and blowing things up.

It’s an economical model but one with inherent problems. For instance, we first meet Channing Tatum’s aspiring Secret Service agent as he shares a dialogue scene with a squirrel, seemingly because there is no-one else around to talk to. Cale is about to drive Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) to his office on Capitol Hill, as he explains to the chattering rodent, before making his way to the White House with his eleven-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) to interview with Secret Service agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a big job.

Meanwhile, braying snippets from the television news networks explain how Foxx’s President Sawyer determination to “break the cycle of war in the Middle East” (which he blames on the “military-industrial complex”, as if that were explanation enough) has broken new ground. At a peace convention in Geneva, Sawyer initiates a complete withdrawal of American troops from the region and is photographed shaking hands with the new Iranian leader.

All this peacenik talk doesn’t play well with the folks back home. His long-serving chief of security (James Woods) is on high alert against a terrorist threat. Although still mourning the loss of his son in a war that his boss now calls futile, his job is to protect the President. He’s also just days from retirement which, in the way of these things, doesn’t bode well for his hopes of seeing the end credits. But even as Sawyer confides in his stylish and smart First Lady (Garcelle Beauvais) that his peace plan might result in him becoming “a one-term president”, a motley crew of heavily-armed right-wing mercenaries led by the Aryan-sounding Stenz (Jason Clarke) have secreted themselves in the White House.

White House Down is a far better Die Hard film than John Moore’s franchise effort from earlier this year. If his character’s name is just a few consonants away from being an actionable copyright infringement, Tatum’s divorced, unstable hero John Cale is - through violently unpredictable circumstances - soon reduced to wearing a blood-stained white sleeveless vest and a bandolier of salvaged weapons. Buddied-up with the President, Cale must keep them both alive for long enough to foil the terrorist plan and save his daughter. As events proceed, the plot thins. There’s some back-room political chicanery as the chain of command is tied in knots, a gung-ho response from the military chiefs that turns into a shambles and a series of to-the-death gun battles that result in the wanton destruction of the building’s priceless antiques and furnishings.

There isn’t much that doesn’t result in wanton destruction, actually. White House Down marks the third time Emmerich has laid waste to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on screen, but this is his first time to do so from the inside out. Once behind the walls, he seems to take a certain delight in blowing every iconic room into smouldering rubble and turning detailed reproductions of familiar objects into firewood: the Lincoln bed, the ‘Resolute’ desk and Stuart’s emblematic portrait of Washington are all splintered and set ablaze for our entertainment.

It’s a model of mayhem that has served Emmerich well over the years, his films make a lot of money, but White House Down is the director’s attempt to have his cake and blow it up, too. He gleefully incinerates the apparatus of the American state yet constantly reminds us of its power to effect positive change in the world. He gives us a president modelled after Obama and castigates him for being politically enfeebled at the same time as he has him pick up a machine-gun and turn Commando in Chief.

Never mind the laws of man, given the laws of physics currently at play in the universe; White House Down could not happen. Emmerich knows that. In fact, he revels in it. Part tongue-in-cheek provocation, part thunderous action extravaganza, the director gleefully expands on the lesson from television’s The West Wing: it does no harm to see impossible events played out in the familiar corridors of real-life political power. If nothing else, it serves to distract us from thinking too much about what really goes on there.

The Conjuring

James Wan’s The Conjuring (the title is meaningless, unless you consider the box-office numbers the film has magicked up) is an old fashioned spook-house horror, built on the bedrock of a supposedly true supernatural story and unashamedly derived from the best bits of a long list of genre classics, from The Exorcist to The Shining

1976s blockbuster Amityville Horror is a touchstone, but that’s no surprise given that this purportedly true-to-life account of the strange goings on that affected a family home in Rhode Island in the early 70s comes from the same source, husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).

In real life, the Warrens came to prominence at a time when there was a spike in interest in paranormal matters; the most pronounced revival in spiritualism since the Victorian era, a hangover from the third-eye opening sixties. It was a golden age for woo-hoo: the films already mentioned were all released during the 70s, and have been rejigged, remade and repurposed ever since. As the Warrens were busy mounting investigations and writing up reports in a series of best-selling books, to join hundreds of others on bookshelves around the world, belief in ghosts, demons and little green men was in the ether. Horror films became blockbusters, they were fainting in the aisles at The Exorcist (similarly ‘based on a true story’) while on small screens at home, Arthur C Clarke and Uri Geller were revealing signs and wonders. Context is everything in storytelling and Wan goes to considerable effort to evoke the era, dressing his sets and actors in drab shades of brown and plastic while adding a subtle sepia tint to the cinematography.

After attending one of their lectures at a local college, a desperate young married couple, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) beg the Warrens to visit them at their new home, deep in the New England countryside. As soon as Farminga’s medium Loraine enters the house, she knows something is wrong. An evil spirit has taken hold of the family. It manifests itself through night-time disturbances, slammed doors, bad smells and sudden cold spots. Confined to one room by the nightly disturbances, deep fissures have appeared in the family. 

The kids are terrified and withdrawn. Carolyn, who appears to be the focus of the haunting, wakes every morning covered in bruises. She has strange thoughts. They are being pulled from their beds in the middle of the night and seeing spectres in the shadows (cleverly hidden from our view). The Warrens arrive in a bustle and do a pleasingly analogue survey with flash-bulb cameras and reel-to-reel tape recorders. Their professional diagnosis is that the Perron’s house is haunted by a malign spirit that must be removed.

Wan leads us through the house with a constantly tracking camera, familiarising us with the layout, before injecting sudden moments of twitchy pace by switching from steady, carefully composed shots to jolting, galloping Steadicam. Events that happen off-screen are chased down, the camera arriving a moment too late, blurred and breathless. The big scares, and there are quite a few, are delivered like rib-shaking punches from a skipping welterweight. It’s all terribly effective.

But there’s the distinct impression that the Warren’s aren’t really listening to the voices in their own heads. For one thing, they keep a museum of cursed items – including a creepy porcelain doll possessed by a demon – in their home. That’s the same home they share with their eight year old daughter. One of them underwent a psychic collapse during their last exorcism they performed, yet they’re happy to agree to do another, not too long after, and agree the deal while standing in a car park. These underestimations are carefully delineated in a lengthy prologue that forecasts details that will become important later, but feel every bit the signposts that they are.
The first half unfolds as an escalating series of creepy moments, perfectly timed for maximum effect and convincingly played by the entire cast. The Conjuring is the very model of a haunted house horror. Pre-determination is perhaps inevitable in a story about psychics, but everything seems to lose traction once the Warrens apply their bell, book and candle. Nevertheless, a sequel is already in development.