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Honestly, you wait around forever for a movie about terrorists blowing up the White House, and then two come along at once. Hot on the heels of Olympus Has Fallen is the second of 2013's big screen demolitions in DC, White House Down, directed by the master of worldwide destruction, Roland Emmerich. Actually, White House Down was the first of the two films in pre-production, but Olympus Has Fallen was rushed out first, stealing some of this film's thunder and potentially some of its box office spoils too. The film stars Channing Tatum as John Cale, a US Capitol police office and wannabe Presidential secret service agent, who is forced into action when a paramilitary group storms the White House, attacking the incumbent president James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). The film also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins and James Woods, and is by far the better of the two similar films, containing a better and more plausible plot, an underpinning of prescient political ideology, and some truly spectacular action.
However, the one area where White House Down fails is in its score. 15 years have passed since David Arnold was Roland Emmerich's composer of choice, writing seminal scores for films like Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla, and if the truth be told - and with the sole exception of John Williams and The Patriot - Emmerich's films have never been the same since their parting. For the last several years Emmerich's regular musical collaborators have been the Austrian Harald Kloser and his younger compatriot Thomas Wanker, who re-named himself Thomas Wander once he realized what `wanker' meant in British English. Kloser and Wanker are talented enough, know their way around and orchestra, and write ear-pleasing, workmanlike scores. But, more than anyone else working in mainstream Hollywood today, their music to me is the epitome of blandness. It's inoffensive, unmemorable musical wallpaper, doing its thing, sounding perfectly fine, but remaining almost completely anonymous. I sit here now, trying to recall a single theme from their scores for The Day After Tomorrow or 10,000 BC or 2012, and I genuinely cannot. Their scores are like musical cotton candy: one minute it's there, the next minute it isn't, leaving you with a vague impression of having experienced something pleasant, but with no real evidence of what it was. White House Down is, sadly, much like that.
The two best cues are the first and last - the "Opening Theme" and the "End Theme". Kloser and Wanker introduce a noble, patriotic melody for horns, strings and electronic percussion, which hits all the right emotional buttons and is very nice indeed. The brass rises nobly, the strings swell, cymbals ring, the percussion gives it a sense of energy and urgency, and all is well and good, but there's something intangible and insubstantial about it that I can't quite place, and can't quite describe. There's nothing inherently wrong with the theme at all, but it's all so predictable and conventional. It sounds exactly like you think it will sound - just like all the other noble, patriotic themes you have ever heard in your life - and is gone from the memory almost instantly.
The rest of the score, which runs for around an hour, is equally pleasant and just as equally ordinary. A softer thematic variation of the main theme, with woodwind accents, appears in "Birdfeeder", and is explored a little further in the bouncy, slightly Thomas Newman-esque "Arrival at the White House" and the gently intimate "Give Me a Chance". However, once the action music starts in "Let's Go", things go downhill very quickly, presenting cue after cue after cue of workmanlike, but tremendously uninspired pieces full of choppy strings, sampled electronic percussion hits, and little brass clusters.
This is like action scoring 101, straight from the manual: endlessly looped synthetic rhythmic ideas overlaid with throbbing cellos, shifting string chords and sustains, an occasional blast from the horns to change the timbre, wash, rinse, repeat. As I said before, there's nothing inherently wrong with this at all, and it does exactly what it's supposed to do - but it's just so safe, so ordinary, so much like all the other middle-of-the-road action scores that get written for lower budget films and straight-to-DVD punch `em ups with nothing to make it stand out from the crowd. I realize I'm throwing out the name of one of the greats here, but this is the sort of film that Jerry Goldsmith would have scored in the 1980s or 1990s when he was cranking out music for films like Executive Decision and Air Force One, and he would have written music with more panache and creativity and enthusiasm than Kloser and Wanker have shown in virtually their entire careers, and then stood up and gone out for breakfast.
Once in a while the music does pick up a little bit of steam - the middle section of "Elevator Chase", most of "Fighting Vadim", the middle section of "Which Direction", the rousing "Gonna Shoot Me?" - and you wonder why they don't write this kind of music more often, because it sounds very good indeed. Elsewhere, there are a couple of recapitulations of the main patriotic theme in cues like "Dumbwaiter", which seem to signify moments when Jamie Foxx's Obama-style pacifist president does something heroic, and there are a few reminders of the fact that one of the plot points revolves around the character of Channing Tatum's young daughter, and as such lighter string and woodwind material makes its way into cues such as "Emily is On TV" to represent her more innocent, naïve persona.. The piano theme first heard in "Give Me a Chance" reappears in "Daughters & Finnerty's Plan" to break up the monotony, and the big emotional scene of sorrow and regret finally comes during "Ground Impact Confirmed", where Wanker and Kloser break out their high string sustains, sorrowful solo trumpets and solemn timpani hits to pleasantly predictable results.
Like I keep saying, there is really nothing especially wrong with the score for White House Down at all. It does it's job, it suits the film, it hits all the right marks, and on CD some of it is really quite entertaining. However, I just can't shake the nagging feeling that in the hands of composers who can do more than simply hit the right marks, White House Down could have been a much more engrossing, engaging and dynamic score. I don't want to denigrate Thomas Wanker and Harald Kloser, who I'm sure work very hard, but to me their music is the epitome of playing it easy, not wanting to call too much attention to itself, simply content to exist and go quietly about its business. But film music can be so much more than that - OK, perhaps White House Down is not the ideal film to make this point, but I'm sure you can see where I'm coming from. It's indicative of a spreading disease in Hollywood where the inoffensive and innocuous are lauded, and anything that bucks the trend or shows originality and free thought is too much for the studio heads to comprehend. Kloser and Wanker are part of this disease, and sadly, so far, there seems to be no cure.