Approval ratings are tricky, as anyone in White House Down can tell you, and no one is more attuned to the elusive nature of public favor than Roland Emmerich. A teutonic Irwin Allen who couldn't blow up enough beloved iconography fast enough to satiate the American public's appetite, Emmerich stepped into the public's crosshairs with 1994's Stargate and hasn't moved yet. Since the success of his follow-up, Independence Day in 1996 he's tested the mettle of two-dimensional heroes against kaiju, the apocalypse, prehistoric animals and hilariously proactive global warming and in so doing raked in hundreds of millions world-wide.
Only heavy-hitters like James Cameron and Michael Bay offered him serious competition at the box office. And like Bay and Cameron, he has a host of virulent detractors. His name appears on dozens of worst director lists and his reviews have ranged from politely tolerant to violent. At Rotten Tomatoes his highest score is 62% for The Patriot and his lowest an 8% for 10,000 B.C. which is actually one of his least problematic films.
With the debate around Vulgar Auteurism running wild it's a bit of a shock that no one in the VA crowd has adopted him. After all he's killed the American president twice, he put Dolph Lundren and Jean-Claude Van Damme together on screen for the first time, used an American flag as a weapon and he destroys the world for pleasure every few years. It doesn't get much more vulgar than that. Yet he remains a critical orphan. Is this because critics don't like his movies or see nothing worth writing home about in his operas of sci-fi destruction?
After all, even fans of his early work must have looked at his most recent disaster (movie), 2012, and seen a director spinning his platinum rims. The script's conception of its characters felt 40 years behind the times ("Download my blog" says Woody Harrelson, playing the kind of cardboard hippie Quinn Martin might have written for Roy Thinnes or Buddy Ebsen to help out one week), its ethnic caricatures would be appalling if they had any conviction, and the all-CGI apocalypse felt lazy and inconsequential even for an action film in the Transformers age. Had he lost his touch? Or was he simply delivering what he thought the terrible screenplay deserved?
If 2012 was Emmerich at the end of his creative tether with nothing but the most limply regurgitated themes and performances emerging amidst the lazily rendered destruction, it was also the inevitable end to a period in his filmmaking. He chose Anonymous as a palette cleanser and karma caught up with him. The box office was the worst of his career and the reviews were typically brutal, but largely based on its ideas rather than anything concrete. Many people have historically found the suggestion of Shakespeare having a ghost-writer insulting and so didn't bother getting into the particulars of the director of Godzilla making a movie in which no buildings are torn down and millions aren't killed by a sea of 1s and 0s.
Anonymous signaled a major change for Emmerich in almost every way. Most impressively and importantly, he was among the first filmmakers to use the then-brand new camera the Arri Alexa, specifically in a period piece, so he was also among to discover what a classical filmmaker could do with newly pristine digital imagery. Some pointed out that Emmerich had a very precise, almost overbearing attention to detail in recreating London for his theatrical potboiler. To me this wasn't the work of a director obsessed with production design so much as the seizing of a new opportunity. In conversation about Michael Mann's Public Enemies, another digital opus by a filmmaker who matured on celluloid, Daniel Kasman hypothesized: "...surely Public Enemies was shot digitally so we could see what tommyguns really look, sound, and feel like." Anonymous' chief artistic aim was to apply that kind of newfound scrutiny to Elizabethan England and Shakespearian performance.
Emmerich spared no expense in recreating the dirt and dust on every inch of London. He and ace cinematographer Anna Foerster explored the muddy, diseased streets with a queasy immediacy, its camera in constant crooked motion as if on loan from Terry Gilliam. Though it isn't simply that they're faithful to how the streets and garments might have looked, it's more about finding the reality of the time and then relaying it as if made up of 24 oil paintings a second, the era's idealization of itself brought low. In other words, how someone used to theatre and art of the age would imagine a film of their lives to look.
The Alexa allowed every location to be lit by candle or torch without auxiliary help. If Terrence Malick's The New World showcased 65mm film's power to most beautifully and faithfully recreate the distant past, Anonymous picked up where celluloid left off. If Public Enemies is about conversing with brand new images of American legends on screen, one could watch Anonymous and feel they're seeing Queen Elizabeth or Shakespeare for the first time, even if the film never shows anything more than a few lines of any play at a time.
Emmerich avoids stylizing the performances the way that Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles did, partly because it's beyond his capabilities to do so and he's far too earnest, but also because he was more interested in utilizing rawness (pixels, data, "A popular hero as nothing but flesh in movement." to once more quote Kasman) to present an era: the honest lighting, the thorough production design, the interaction between the actors and the audience, the peculiar beauty and poignant ugliness of its performers. Shakespearian actors like Mark Rylance could perform as if to their favourite play's first audience, nestled in the narrative they believe about their creation. Anonymous takes great delight in bending the line between audience, actor, play and reality. In its own loud way, its investigation of the past using newly available definition shares a bloodline with Public Enemies, Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, Eric Rohmer's The Lady And The Duke and Lech Majewski's The Mill and The Cross.
That's not to say the plotting or editing was as radical or even as interesting as those films. Indeed in structure, editing and blocking, Anonymous is as old fashioned as technicolor. And this is why we need Emmerich, whether we want him or not. Digital was around for almost a decade before major studios bought into it. So while films like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... and Mann's Miami Vice began breaking ground and discovering new means of expression, most directors with studios writing their paychecks had to wait until it was safe to go in the water and thus lost many year's worth of getting comfortable in the form. By the time digital was fit for public consumption, it had evolved several generations and no longer resembled the wonderfully crude first wave. There were few people who truly understood what the newest cameras being designed meant for the state of cinema, and even fewer who could afford and know how to use them.
There are many people at the forefront of the workflow revolution - Boyle, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez - and they've adapted with the times, becoming post-modernists and futurists thanks to what computerized non-linear editing allows them to do. When a director can edit a scene minutes after shooting it, that inevitably effects the way they shoot. The little details vanish, the bare essentials rise. It may seem like a small thing, but so few people ever walk from one room to another in English-language cinema.
As in the films of the Japanese new wave of the 1960, if Soderbergh or Boyle want you to experience something, you are in the thick of that scene. No set-up, no superfluous exposition. Just you and the actors getting to the bottom of it. Emmerich, whatever his failings, hasn't forgotten the rules of classical cinema, the importance of establishing bodies in a space with definitive boundaries. Look at the number of Die Hard knock-offs released this year? How many remembered that 90% of Die Hard takes place in the Nakatomi Plaza? How many have as keen an understanding of the space they occupy as White House Down, Emmerich's return to his expensively upholstered wheelhouse?
As exciting and important as it is to see what artists like Soderbergh, Boyle and Fincher can do with new technology, they're also free to invent their own narrative and editorial rules. Emmerich has to play by old rules because he never learned new ones. So what we see in White House Down is theory and practice coined by Soderbergh, Mann and Fincher applied (often unsuccessfully) to what might be the world's most popular artistic idiom - the big budget action film.
Emmerich can't or won't evolve and so has to reconcile a distinctly 90s skillset and attitude with still-evolving technology, so the shortcomings of both are plainly apparent. White House Down would be an ordinary action film, except that it sits squarely at the artform's crossroads. It wants to be part of a new cinematic mindset but understands the importance of establishing characters in their environs and quietly getting to know them before the explosions begin. It wants to be solid, clear and legible but it's written in ink that hasn't dried yet so the director keeps smudging what he's just written. The problems inherent in White House Down will be solved very soon because they need to be in order to rediscover classicism after the death of celluloid. Emmerich's films have become mine canaries.
Those problems include but aren't limited to: punches don't hit as hard as they used to, though this could simply be a failure of sound design, another issue. The Alexa, perfect for capturing motivated light in Anonymous or, say stylized low-light in something like Drive, overcompensates in ordinary electric lighting on a sunny day, giving everything a too-perfect sheen, highlighting the plasticity of everything in the movie. No longer bound by the substantiality of image, bodies move too quickly for their own good and Emmerich can't quite keep up with them; his actors often seem in danger of accidentally wriggling out of the frame. To combat this he resorts to too much slow-motion, which no longer works thanks to the high resolution and the flattening of planes. Slowing down the action feels like a denial of inevitable impact, a cheat, rather than a prolonging of an adrenaline rush. And, as in Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible, another film obsessed with surveillance that attempts to bend the physical world, the interiors and exteriors don't always play well together; nothing kills momentum like an obvious green-screen.
As a test case for new theory on the old blockbuster model, White House Down has birth defects but Emmerich is too good at this to let a ludicrous screenplay and limitations he's only just discovering get in the way. On top of its showcasing new ground for the medium, it's also easily his most fun American movie since Independence Day.
What may end up making all the difference is that in Channing Tatum, he's finally found a hero that the American public cares about. Tatum has quietly become one of the country's most reliable box office draws in the last five years and until discovering him, Emmerich's major American releases have wanted badly for his kind of charisma. Gawky nebbishes like Jake Gylenhaal, Jeff Goldblum, James Spader, Matthew Broderick and John Cusack have either had to carry their respective films or await rescue from more traditional, less fun heroes. Tatum, meanwhile is someone many directors have availed themselves of to investigate motion in digital photography, like a 21st century Muybridge subject. He's all muscle yet capable of melting into a hip-roll at a moment's notice.
Soderbergh used him ably as a sleepy-eyed killer in Haywire and an angsty stripper in Magic Mike, putting his lithe physicality to work both rhythmically and arrhythmically. In White House Down, he's combined those characters in one body, a modest action star fluidly sashaying up to borders that the filmmakers can't cross. His sense of humour is wry and self-deprecating, lifting the film out of self-seriousness. He keeps his emotions close to his bullet-proof vest yet projects immense vulnerability; in other words doing the job of two Emmerich protagonists. He's one of the few action heroes who can threaten to cry and make you hurt for him in the back row. Few actors are more adept at playing the modern alpha male and Emmerich found him not a moment too soon. Of course there's a chance that even with someone as winning as Tatum in the lead, White House Down isn't going to win Emmerich the prestige he's been denied all his life, but it just might boost his approval rating.