Air Force One (1997)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Director – Wolfgang Petersen; writer – Andrew W. Marlowe; director of photography – Michael Ballhaus; editor – Richard Francis-Bruce; music – Jerry Goldsmith; production designer – William Sandell; producers – Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz, Armyan Bernstein and Jon Shestack. Beacon Pictures and Columbia Pictures. 125 minutes. Rated R. STARRING: Harrison Ford (President James Marshall), Gary Oldman (Ivan Korshunov), Wendy Crewson (Grace Marshall), Jurgen Prochnow (General Radek), Liesel Matthews (Alice Marshall), Dean Stockwell (Secretary of Defense), Xander Berkeley (Agent Gibbs) and Glenn Close (Vice President).

Air Force One‘s  top-billing stars, Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman, might raise your hopes for something truly special.

So it’s a shame that the movie is so ridiculous.

Air Force One is occasionally suspenseful, momentarily exciting, and full of the stuff (explosions, gunfire, hero vs. villain showdowns) that make a movie a Summer Blockbuster.

What’s missing here is originality, good humor, and a new character. Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Fugitive are still interesting and enjoyable even ten years later, but Air Force One only entertains. It’s never very interesting. And its only real surprise comes as you ask yourself, “How did anybody think that this climactic scene was a good idea?”

There are interesting issues at the heart of this story. When a person in authority is put under pressure, where do his responsibilities lie, and in what order of priority? When the President is at the mercy of terrorists, as he is momentarily here, should he endanger his nation in order to save his family? Or should he be willing to sacrifice their safety for the sake of national security? Terrorism is an everpresent threat. The U.S. has a no-negotiation policy, as far as we know. Is it ever appropriate to give ear to a criminal’s demands?

I’d like to see a movie that honestly deals with these questions. They’re present here, but they’re not dealt with. To some extent, I can forgive that, as this is a Big Summer Movie that seeks primarily to entertain. But on the other hand, Big Summer Movies might do well to move toward intelligent storytelling instead of further and further into lunacy like this.

But Harrison Ford has seen better days. Yes, he throws himself into the role of the action-hero President of the United States, with a lot of patriotic temper tantrums and fatherly valor. Yes, he proves he can still do that classic Ford slow-burn, holding in his anger as a Russian terrorist takes control of Air Force One and holds his family hostage. And yes, he can make preposterous action sequences compelling.

He is almost upstaged by his chief co-star… Air Force One itself; the plane is full of surprises, and seems enormous inside, full of nooks and crannies for sneaking past and eluding the terrorists that take control of it. (Executive Decision showed Kurt Russell maneuvering through a plane that seemed much more realistically claustrophobic.)

Other impressive actors are present, and I’ll bet the filmmakers hoped that their cast’s reputations as dramatists would lend credibility to the film. Glenn Close makes a token appearance here, and Gary Oldman is sufficiently brutal as the bad guy who hijacks the President’s plane. But they have little to work with. Good actors need good lines.

Thus, the movie falls as hard as the airplane. Wolfgang Peterson’s plot gets increasingly silly, and the finale is the most far-fetched and laughable yet in a Ford film. It’s almost embarrassing to see He-Who-Was-Once-Han-Solo hanging by a thread in the air behind his own 747. And yet, no image better fits that fragile state of Ford’s cinematic integrity at this point… he’s losing his grip. He needs better scripts, more inventive directors, and characters that aren’t quite so idealized.

If Indiana Jones’ hat were to fall from the sky right about now and into his shaky hands, it might be just the thing.

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