Though the film is designed for maximum escapism, Foxx nonetheless said that he believes it features a timely message. "There are parallels to what's going on with America," he said, referencing past and potential conflicts in the Middle East. "Our plot is about reaching out to countries that are in turmoil, and we're figuring out to how to make the world a little better."

The throwback quality to the film comes not only with its God-and-country idealism but also in the mechanics of the story. Tatum is a well-meaning underachiever given a chance to finally do something heroic, not necessarily (but most probably) in a blaze of gunfire — a conceit that seems right out of, well, a 1990s-era Roland Emmerich fantasy.

But though the filmmaker helped usher in the modern summer effects movie, he is unhappy with what he has wrought. "I don't really like comic-book movies," he said. "I don't believe them when I'm watching them. I wanted to make this film to show that heroes can be real people, which I think we've forgotten about."

(Lest the filmmaker be accused of destroying a sacred symbol of democracy, the script, from "The Amazing Spider-Man" screenwriter James Vanderbilt, offers a permission slip of sorts with a scene that has Tatum's character gazing at Tom Freeman's famous painting of the White House burning during the War of 1812. This has happened in real life, the movie seems to say. So it's OK to munch on Milk Duds and enjoy it happening again.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

The movie also exempts itself by supplying a group of historical arcana to its audience, a "2012"-like spectacle by way of a seventh-grade class trip. If you didn't know that President Gerald Ford built secret tunnels to the swimming pool to avoid being spotted by reporters in his bathing suit, you will after seeing the film.)

But those involved say the main goal is to tear up the famous landmark. During the shoot, Tatum is wearing a commando outfit with bullets slung across his chest and black makeup smeared on his face. He seems to relish firing a gun over and through some pretty upscale artwork. "I want to buy some of these paintings," he tells a reporter, admiring James Monroe and George Washington with bullet holes ripped through them.

Taking a break, he said, "You can believe my character is trying to do the right thing and also redeem himself with his daughter, who he hasn't always been there for. But you can do it with some old-fashioned excitement."

Producers hope that this, along with the authenticity, will draw busy summer filmgoers. "When do you see anything like this in a big-budget Hollywood film?" asked Harald Kloser, Emmerich's producing partner and composer.

As he walked out of the East Wing past French-speaking crew members, Kloser recalled that one day, he began flinging open the doors to find a bathroom where they were shooting, only to realize that it wasn't an actual bedroom and contained no adjacent facilities. "Until you step outside," he said, "it's hard to remember you're not in the White House."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com