Nobody is likely to call John Cale an overachiever.
Sure, he's a level-headed guy now. But throughout his 20s, he just got by. He barely earned a passing grade from the military and averaged C's in college. As for his short-lived marriage, well, let's just say his ex-wife wasn't into grading on the curve.
The only thing this security officer for the Speaker of the House got right in that period of his life was his young daughter, Emily. She's as sharp as a tack and definitely going places, and John loves her dearly. Lately he's been working hard to make that relationship a more solid one.
So when John finally finagles an interview with the Secret Service—something he's been dreaming about for a long time—he makes sure to get a White House pass for Em as well. She is, after all, infatuated with all things government-related: Emily has her own current issues video blog, knows the ins and outs of the political scene and can even give the White House tour guide a pointer or two.
Their day together starts out nicely. But then the Secret Service interview goes south. It turns out that so-so performance records don't really cut it in the big leagues. And, unfortunately, that's a reality John can't do anything about.
And then things go from bad to worse—much worse. While John and Emily are taking the White House tour, a heavily armed paramilitary group bombs the rotunda, kills nearly every security officer and guard, locks the place down and starts moving to take the president hostage.
This situation, however, is one that John can do something about. He may never have been an A student, but he's learned some lessons very well: John Cole knows how to protect people and take out lowlifes with submachine guns. From John's perspective it's a simple job of finding the right hiding places and locating the best weapons possible. From there all he has to do is save his daughter, the president and, well, the country.
Now that might make it sound like John's an overachiever after all. But he likes to think of it as … a second job interview.
John selflessly puts his life on the line when no one is asking him to do so. Part of that is due to the fact that, as he puts it, he "can't think of a more important job than to protect the president." But another part of his heroic choice is his inherent instinct to help where he can. In spite of the danger, he can't stop himself from following the bad guys when they're threatening others.
In fact, the only task that takes higher priority in his book is the protection of his daughter. The two of them are separated early on, and John spends a good deal of his time just trying to find her. But she's always on his mind, no matter what other derring-do he may be engaged in.
John and President Sawyer have a couple of conversations about the challenges of raising children these days, but both are determined to be the best fathers they can possibly be. And Sawyer, as a world leader, is painted in a heroic, idealistic light. On the political front, he talks about his desire to "make a difference" and moves to implement a Middle East peace plan that many in his political sphere aren't happy about. He says he believes even people with deep differences can overcome them if they choose to do so. He wants to do something bigger than simply campaign for reelection, to be remembered like Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington as a president who did something important.
The president treats Emily kindly before the invasion, and later acts as a kind of surrogate father, protecting her when John can't do so. He is also ready to step out and surrender when the attackers threaten to kill someone if he doesn't show up.
For her part, Emily repeatedly acts heroically as well, first filming the invaders secretly with her phone and uploading the footage to YouTube (where government agents see it and use it to identify the men), and eventually playing a key role in averting a devastating strike on the White House by incoming Air Force jets.
On a different note, a White House Secret Service manager transitioning into retirement exhorts his replacement that she needs to have a life besides her career. "Don't make this your whole life," he says. "Trust me, it's not worth it."
The right-wing paramilitary attackers' tech-savvy hacker pulls out a small statue of the Hindu god Shiva to place beside his electronic belongings. Two scenes involve presidents being sworn in with hands on Bibles. We hear the phrase, "So help me God." John also earnestly blurts out "Thank God!"
During a security sweep of an area where the president's helicopter is landing, an agent spots a thermal image of a couple having sex in their apartment. John agrees to provide a young female aide "dinner and more than second base" for her help in getting him a Secret Service interview and a White House pass for his daughter. During a White House tour, a woman wants to see the secret tunnels that John F. Kennedy purportedly used to smuggle Marilyn Monroe into the White House for his alleged affair with her. That subject comes up again later in the film as well. We hear that John and his wife welcomed little Emily into the world just six months after they were married.
It seems virtually every big action film lately has to include some sort of mass destruction scene. And White House Down is no exception. A faux janitor wheels a cart into the middle of the White House rotunda and detonates it, collapsing the dome and killing scores of innocents. And from there, the death-dealing and destruction only mounts:
The well-armed attackers systematically kill every guard and soldier—inside, outside and on top of the White House. Some are taken out with silenced pistol shots at point-blank range. The bad guys then set up snipers on the roof, armed with high-caliber weaponry and surface-to-air missiles. The snipers take out gate guards with precise headshots. Rooftop troops also destroy armored RVs, a small tank and a variety of attack helicopters—sending them spiraling earthward in shrapnel-spewing balls of flame. One of those aircraft, a Blackhawk military helicopter, crashes into the side of the White House, demolishing a wall. Residential quarters in the White House are set on fire. An armored limo is riddled with bullets and sent flipping into the White House pool. Air Force One gets blown out of the sky too.
Several buildings on the grounds erupt in flames as well. A man is crushed against a wall by a speeding RV. After an explosion, a large piece of glass pierces the president's side. Another person gets shot in the chest while trying to defend an innocent. Numerous victims are manhandled and pushed around.
One of those victims is young Emily. She's slapped in the face, has a pistol placed menacingly against her head and is used as a pawn to manipulate her father. Indeed, it looks as if the White House interlopers will make good on their threat to execute her at one point. One of the thugs holding her hostage growls, "When they come for us, you're going to die first." They also threaten to kill the girl unless the president gives them important access to nuclear codes. He poignanty tries to tell Emily that he'll have to let her die instead of letting millions of others die if he gives up the codes. "I understand," Emily says tearfully and bravely. If all that weren't enough, Emily repeatedly witnesses security guards being gunned down—all in all a lot of intense violence for a girl of perhaps 10 or 11 to be exposed to.
John and one of the key attackers, Stenz, go at each other in a rough-and-tumble brawl that bloodies both men and sends them tumbling off a roof and through a window. A tour guide kills a man with a heavy antique clock. The president stabs someone in the back with a fountain pen, and then gets shot himself. A man is killed when a belt full of grenades get wrapped around his neck and detonated. Another is perforated by bullets. A third gets obliterated by explosives. After the president is shot, John must remove a bullet from his torso. We see the bloody wound before John goes to work on the wince-inducing task.
Crude or Profane Language
One clear f-word (and perhaps another whispered under someone's breath) accompanies about 20 s-words. Jesus' name is misused nearly 10 times, while God's is abused about 20 times (including a dozen pairings with "d‑‑n"). We hear between five and 10 uses each of "d‑‑n," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "a‑‑hole." "P--- " and "b--tard" are used once or twice each. Someone uses the Yiddish crudity "schmuck," while another person is labled a "pr--k." One other crude reference to the male anatomy is made as well.
Drug and Alcohol Content
President Sawyer has boxes of Nicorette in his bedside table, and he pops a couple of tabs to calm his nerves. A political aid drinks a glass of alcohol aboard Air Force One. Somebody else takes prescription medication.
Other Negative Elements
The movie promotes the opinion that there's a thin line between those on the conservative side of the political aisle and a warmongering defense industry that's determined to keep its profits intact. Two key government insiders end up being traitors.
If you're worried you're going crazy because you thought the White House already went down once in 2013, let me assure you, everything's fine with your mental state.
Just as happened in Olympus Has Fallen, our country's capital has once again come under cinematic assault, with the executive mansion again serving as the attackers' focal point. Instead of North Koreans this time, it's right-wing extremists and white supremacists who are slipping with ridiculous ease past the country's tightest security and taking control of our nation's big bombs with paramilitary precision.
Oh, and all those John McClane comparisons raised by that last actioner? Well, they go triple here. The average-Joe hero this go-round is one John Cale. And his hapless-hero-foils-the-bad-guys behavior feels almost beat for beat like any of the past Die Hard films—minus Willis' patented smirking one-liners and plus a brave little girl exposed repeatedly to brutal violence and mortal threats practically from start to finish.
The most unfortunate part of such déjà vu, of course, is how this film's formulaic fists-'n'-fire action from disaster director extraordinaire Roland Emmerich plays on the big screen. Sure, the PG-13 rating means we don't witness the exact kind of gruesome violence that R-rated Olympus Has Fallen was chock-full of. But don't mistake that comparison for an endorsement. We still get a big dose of harsh language paired with (merely) slightly sanitized blow-everything-to-smithereens violence—violence that ultimately feels like it's just being mindlessly and mercilessly recycled from one "let's blow up the White House" movie to the next.