Air Force One is a film that almost exists out of time. It was released in 1997 but seemed to predict a lot of issues the world would face. It was part of the unusual trend of portraying the President of the United States as an infallible hero before George W. earned that (incredibly bloated) reputation after 9/11. In fact, this film and Independence Day seem to acknowledge our nation’s love affair with movie stars more than politicians.
These are not really critiques. If anything, that’s what makes Air Force One such an effective action movie. And Air Force One embraces its premise to a degree that Michael Bay never has.
Harrison Ford plays James Marshall, a popular president who assists Russia in removing General Radek, the dictator of Kazakhstan, from power. Gary Oldman plays the head of a terrorist group loyal to that dictator who hijack Air Force One to get Radek released.
Now, I could be reading that plot synopsis with the deep, gravelly voice that we still hear whenever we think of “movie trailer.” It’s schlock. But director Wolfgang Peterson and the rest of the filmmakers manage to get a lot out of that premise.
For example, one subplot of the film is an enormous Constitutional discussion about the transfer of power when the president is incapable of acting in the best interests of the United States. According to IMDB, these scenes are a reference to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig attempting to assume control of the government after Ronald Reagan was shot. How often do mainstream blockbusters do any sort of “ripped from the headlines” references like that, especially in an era where practically everyone pretends to know what the United States Constitution actually says? But it’s integrated seamlessly into the plot.
But the main reason the film works is because of the performances by the two main leads. Harrison Ford has the appropriate presence of a U.S. president. He is also able to examine the human aspects of such a man, demanding that people on the plane not spoil the outcome of a football game that he is hoping to watch in his office. He also breaks down when he sees his family being threatened. Un-presidential? Maybe so, but the president is still a human being. I’ve always enjoyed films that explore the little hobbies of powerful people. It makes them seem like the rest of us, which means their plight is that much more incredible. I mean, surely President Obama enjoys watching March Madness? For some reason, we never see that in reality. Films have to provide that for us.
Marshall doesn’t even really work as the stereotypical Hollywood action hero – which makes the film better. He’s a very scared individual who doesn’t know how he’s going to resolve the problem. In fact, he’s not the person that saves the hostages. I can’t imagine anyone else taking on this role. Ford is so perfect for the superhero president the film called for. He’s capable of beating the bad guys but at the same time he does so without arrogance and without pride. Marshall acts like he never wanted to be the center of an action film.
But it’s nothing compared to Gary Oldman. He never tries to be human – which is what the movie required. Even when he’s caught in a private moment, it’s all about his love for Mother Russia and the strong men who can lead her. I probably laughed at this in 1997, but today it sounds like a Putin speech. Oldman is completely ruthless – I began to believe he was willing to kill for Mother Russia as I watched the film.
The performances are great, but there are also many great moments in the film. One that stuck out to me was a tribute to the unbroken shot in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Marshall looks around Air Force One to see what sort of damage the terrorist have caused. The scene in which the national security adviser is executed is also great. It’s a very fearful scene, in which Oldman demonstrates his commitment to his cause.
Are there flaws? Well, everything has flaws and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. For one, there was a fourth act in the film that was completely worthless – something about Air Force One crashing after the terrorists had already been defeated. For another, certain characters are worthless. William H Macy plays a major who is on board. He quickly is set up as someone important for reasons I can’t explain. And yes, the film is cloying at times, especially through Glenn Close’s vice president. There are also scenes that make no sense – like when a refueling tanker blows up after a minor malfunction. I would hope the Air Force has a few more safeguards than “leaky fuel = everyone dies.”
But these flaws never outweigh the whole. Air Force One remains a great action movie that pays debt to the past and puts its fingers on a pulse of America that beat very briefly. I wish influenced more filmmakers. You don’t need to insult our intelligence just because someone on screen fires a gun. We can still follow more complex issues about the nation while explosions happen.