A Secret Service Insider’s Take on “White House Down”

By Corey S. Powell | June 30, 2013 10:22 am

Director Roland Emmerich is responsible for some of the most deliriously enjoyable abuses of science on the big screen: Independence Day’s dimwitted aliens, 2012’s physics-defying astrophysical disasters, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s panicked flight from homicidal tendrils of cold air in The Day After Tomorrow, which is one of cinema’s great unintentional comedy scenes.

Channing Tatum takes a leap of physics. (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Assuming it is unintentional, which is not at all clear with Emmerich. He always seems to be having a grand time skewering logic and ignoring the laws of physics, which strongly suggests he is in on the joke. So even though there’s no science-fiction premise to Emmerich’s latest movie, White House Down, I jumped at a chance to get a peek into his thought process.

Mickey Nelson, the recently retired Assistant Director of the Secret Service, offered his insights on the technology and techniques behind White House Down. That raised some additional possibilities. Would the secret service really relinquish on the “secret” part of its name? In the end, I learned a few things about the world of government security—just not quite what I expected.

I figure I would start simple. (My questions are in italics.)

What did you think of the realism in how White House Down portrayed the Secret Service? Nelson: “I thought it was an entertaining movie and I enjoyed it. With Jimmy Fallon—I mean Jamie Foxx—there was a great mix of action and humor. As far as realism, I thought the recreation of the West Wing, East Wing, the Oval Office, even the president’s limo, I thought they did a fantastic job recreating that. Having said that, I did watch it through a different set of eyes—a different set of optics, if you will—so in that respect there could have been some scenes that departed a bit from realism for the sake of entertainment, as most movies do.”

Meaning, your job is security and the moviemaker’s job is entertainment? “Yes, and I wouldn’t be very good at that job.”

What other movies have done a particularly good job at capturing the methodology of the Secret Service? “There’ve been a lot of movies made about the Secret Service throughout the past few years, so as in any profession if a movie was made about what you do, you would be able to look at it through a different set of eyes also. Some of the movies probably did a better job than others. Some of them captured parts and some of them took maybe more license with fantasy. I would hate to call one movie out over another.”

Uh oh. I need to rethink my interrogation strategy, or maybe my approach to information gathering. Where is Julian Assange when I need him?

How have advances in science and technology changed the job of protecting the president? “A lot of the challenges have remained consistent throughout the history of the Secret Service, especially as it pertains to the protective mission–the challenge of balancing the desire of the president to interact with the public, and the Secret Service making certain that wherever he does this it’s in a safe and secure environment. Actually there are very few venues that cannot be adequately secured. The Secret Service deploys a variety of technology to stay proactive, whether that be in the field of armoring vehicles, deploying the latest advances in magnetometers—or metal detectors, as some people refer to them as—or early detection of a chemical threat.”

The Secret Service says “magnetometers” instead of “metal detectors.” I suppose that counts as a new piece of intelligence, though it’s not crucial to the fact-checking the plot of White House Down.

So what do you consider the top emerging security challenges? “Chemical and bioweapons are certainly threats that are out there. Improvised explosive devices are threats that you’ve seen out there. Those are the ones you want to stay a step ahead of.”

Roland Emmerich oversees the tech behind “White House Down” (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

What are the biggest misconceptions about how the Secret Service works? “Often the Secret Service agents, depicted with the dark sunglasses and the dark suits, are almost depicted as robots. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. They are very meticulous in their work, very dedicated smart people who have a very important job to do and are the best in the world at doing it.”

Dedicated, meticulous, flawless. I’m picturing a mix of Tommy Lee Jones and a T-800, which may not be the image Nelson had in mind.

But do they laugh? Did you have lighter moments in your work? “Of course. There were a lot of long days and a lot of long plane rides, so there was a lot of humor along the way. The memorable part was the over 70 countries I had the opportunity to go to and the people I met and the history I witnessed. That’s what I remember now, I don’t remember the long hours, the long plane rides, the time away from home, the missed birthdays.”

I pause to reconsider. I’ve been too dismissive, I’m realizing. Nelson may not be much of a pop culture commentator, but that’s a poignant statement of what it takes to be so devoted to a high-stakes job that requires constant focus. But now I’m more than ready for Channing Tatum–and  for getting back to black holes, alien life, asteroids, neutrinos, and the other good stuff.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • SixSixSix

    Pure fluff. But as a movie, highly enjoyable.

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  • IndependentEddie

    This was a nice action flick but some of the ploy details were badly flawed..
    * They are taking the president to the nuke proof bomb bunker. They go through one set of blast doors with the president’s retinal scan, then another with a pass code then finally through another where James Woods shoots most everybody and tries to take the president captive. Meanwhile the hero steps out of the bathroom looking for his daughter and then down some stairs to the exact same place that the security has taken the president after passing through 3 hardened passages. Huh?

    * The hero is fighting a bad guy, pulls the pin on a grenade and throws it across the room at a villain. The villain looks at and does an “oh-oh” and kicks it back across the room to the hero. The hero also does an “oh-oh” and dives away to safety. I don’t know grenades that have 10+ second fuses.
    * The hero is rushing around trying to rescue the president but the villains take his daughter they had captured to a balcony to show her to the hero to entice him give up. How did the villains know that she was his daughter? Later in the movie the hero drops his entrance to the white house tickets with both his and the kids name and the have another “ah-ha” moment and again use the daughter as bait to get the hero and president to give up.
    I like blow-em-up movies and thought the movie was entertaining but some of the plot details slap you in the face.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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