The Women of ‘White House Down’

Written by Robin Hitchcock
Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, and a billion other dudes in White House Down.
I swear there are chicks, though.
Even though I’m running into the risk of painting myself into a month of themed posts about the women in dumb-but-entertaining movies about ‘MERICA, I have to write about the few, the proud, the women characters in White House Down. [Mostly because it is the only movie I’ve seen in the past week.]
White House Down has very few women on screen, and most of those (including the FIRST LADY) have no characterization and hardly any dialogue. Only three remain–and one is a one-scene wonder–but I still lapped up these scant offerings. [Unfortunately, I must admit my standards can get pretty low during summer movie season.]
A quick plot overview just to get you oriented: White House Down features terrorists taking control of Nakatomi Plaza the White House as part of an elaborate plot with a muddled endgame. But the bad guys didn’t count on John McClane John Cale, an under appreciated law-enforcement tough guy who was just there for the Christmas Party just there for a job interview. And this time it’s personal: our hero’s estranged wife tween daughter is one of the hostages. 
Now on to the lady parts:
Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Carol Finnerty is a character that could have gone horribly wrong in less skilled hands than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s. A top-ranking member of the President’s Secret Service detail, she’s one of those movie characters who is good at her job AND good-hearted AND beloved by all who know her (including the president)… and devoid of any depth. But Gyllenhaal plays to every square inch of this limited character and then some. When Finnerty must go head-to-head with military brass while responding to the crisis, tropes about women in power struggles abound: she’s more easily dismissed by the male military authority because she is a woman, but she also flashes a smile and “please help me eyes” at a male mark to get what she needs anyway. This might have annoyed me A LOT more if a less genuine actress were in the role. Gyllenhaal made it clear that flirting was a last-resort method, but one she was nevertheless willing to employ to save the life of the president. 
Muriel Walker (Barbara Williams) 
No images of this character or actress exist so I’m taking the Ms. Pac-Man approach.
You know that scene in these movies where the marginally-sympathetic bad guy’s wife is called in to talk him down from his evil plot? That scene happens in White House Down. But [spoiler alert] when Muriel Walker takes that call, it doesn’t go the way it normally does. This woman, already stunned by the terrorist attack unfolding around her, is told her husband is behind all of it. She’s clearly devastated. But when she gets him on the phone, and he explains he’s doing this to avenge the death of their son (killed in a failed black op authorized by the president), she incredulously asks, “You’re doing this for Kevin?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, sister, it doesn’t make sense to me either.” But then her face sours and she awesomely says, “Then you do whatever it takes. You make them pay for what they did to our boy.” WHAT!? Look, this one line of dialogue does not a good female character make. But it was maybe THE ONLY surprising thing that happened in this entire movie, and I have to give them props for that. Muriel is led away with Finnerty swearing she’ll have her prosecuted to the full extent of the law and is never heard from again in this movie. But I gotta say I’d be addicted to the cable news coverage of THAT trial. 
Emily Cale (Joey King)
Emily Cale (Joey King)
The hero’s aforementioned tween daughter, Emily, starts out as a sullen brat glued to her cell phone. But then she’s told she’s going to the White House so her dad can interview to join the Secret Service, and she starts overflowing with America Joy. And facts! So many facts she annoys her tour guide because she keeps stealing his lines. At this point I have to recuse myself from fairly judging this character. Emily Cale is basically everything I wanted to be as a child. Scratch that, she’s everything I want to be as an adult. And on top of the adorable know-it-all-ness, she’s brave and clever! She surreptitiously records video of the terrorists and uploads it to her YouTube channel, providing the good guys with vital intelligence. Her pint-sized badassery continues [More spoilers! Do you care?] when the main villain tries to get the President to nuke basically the whole planet by holding a gun to her head, and the President is like, “Sorry, kiddo, I like you and everything but not more than billions of innocent people,” and she’s ENTIRELY on board for this heroic sacrifice. She’s pretty much like, “Please don’t feel guilty for watching me get murdered in cold blood in your Oval Office, Mr. President.” And then she saves the president’s life and the White House itself with a flag twirling routine. Seriously. Like I said, I’m well past the point of nuanced feminist analysis here, but… EMILY CALE FOR PRESIDENT! 
In sum, while White House Down isn’t really doing any favors for the sisterhood, I’m happy that its marginalized and one-dimensional female characters are at least one-dimensionally awesome. There are a lot of flaws in White House Down I had to overlook to enjoy the heck out of it, and the women weren’t even close to the top of the list. /faint praise out!

Robin Hitchcock is an American writer living in Cape Town who has never helped save the world with an upload to her YouTube channel … yet.


  • Posted July 13, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    The actress who played Muriel Walker is named Barbara Williams. Is she the same Barbara Williams who played in “Thief of Hearts” and “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling”?

  • Posted November 21, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    “she’s more easily dismissed by the male military authority because she is a woman”

    I’d say she was dismissed because she did a terrible job, made things worse at tmies, and plus it wasn’t her scene to be in control of anymore in the first palce.