Air Force One
President Harrison Ford takes down the terrorist. This year’s “terrorists take over the White House” movies require the President to be saved by brave Special Forces types. Not so back in the ’90s, when Russkies assumed control of Air Force One. Back when Indiana Jones was a ‘Nam vet President and recipient of the Medal of Honour, more than qualified to kick-ass.
Wolfgang Peterson’s Die Hard-on-the-President’s-plane was such a big hit (and not just in its core US market) that I wondered if I had missed something when I came away from seeing it nonplussed. I’m a fairly willing audience for Die Hard-derivative movies, even knowing that most of them turn out to be shitty. But Air Force One, despite a goofy premise only topped by Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, possessed a prestige cast (led by Ford, Glenn Close and Gary Oldman) and a director who had previously scored critically and commercially with a political thriller (In the Line of Fire). It sounded like it might work; why else would it attract such talent?
The only conclusion can be; handsome paydays. Andrew W Marlowe may have partially redeemed himself with the TV series Castle, but Air Force One is contusion of half-baked set pieces and ultra-corny sentiment. Peterson lends it a certain gloss (although the CGI is frequently dreadful), and a couple of the actors nobly attempt to liven the proceedings up (Oldman’s terrorist leader Korshunov chews the scenery, just not quite with the abandon seen when working for Luc Besson, while Dean Stockwell’s Secretary of Defence is winningly unsentimental about the plane’s chances and political realities) but Ford is less than engaging. He’s moved into the earnest bore period in his career, typified by Jack Ryan and Richard Kimble; films that make the right kind of signals to attract an audience but which he can sleepwalk through. It must have given him a false sense of security, until his box office clout dried up at the turn of the millennium.
Ford’s President Marshall has set his mast out as a humanitarian, interventionist leader; he has zero tolerance for terrorism, against the advice of his staff. And he will be neither bucked nor bowed by economic or political pressures. Rather, he is led by a higher moral imperative; to do what is right. He has the prescience and clear judgement to make this sort of call, you see; it isn’t just grandstanding because Harrison Ford is always sincere. Consequently, he’s inclined to deliver nonsensical lines in his addresses that have the appearance of sage truths (“Peace isn’t merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice”). The only thing missing from his mission statement is that God is on his side and that he prays every night.
You see, his Damascus moment results from the US’s delayed involvement in deposing and capturing Jürgen Prochnow’s General Radek. An empathic President Marshall recognises that this slowness to act indirectly resulted in much suffering and death. Radek had set himself up as dictator in Kazakhstan (Who knows anything about Kazakhstan, right? No one will care if they’re the bad guys!) and it takes a joint Russian-American operation to bring him down. This is the classic Hollywood “terrorists as villains” approach; make a nationality the antagonists as long as, at some point, you make it clear that their entire country is not evil. It doesn’t matter if the audience takes away Russians=bad guys, you’ve absolved yourself of any responsibility.
As with Olympus Has Fallen, the villain of the piece is intent on unifying his country (there Korea, here the Soviet Union); the first step towards this is the release of his beloved General Radek. And, as with that film, he gains access to the President’s inner sanctum with astonishing ease (anything else and you wouldn’t have a movie). As usual, there’s a traitor on the inside, and as usual his motivations are at best broad strokes at worst nonsensical. Both films make an idle gesture of balance by suggesting that the President, and America, is guilty of villainy and atrocities (Korshunov brings up Iraq), but of course we don’t really believe this. We’re talking about President Harrison Ford here. He agonises over his every action and endures a constipated expression to prove it.
The supporting cast are underwritten and fail to make much impression accordingly. It’s not as if Ford and Oldman have any great lines (“Get off my plane!” anyone?), and they’re the leads. Prochnow’s is little more than a cameo, William H Macy has a nice noble moment or two and Xander Berkeley does what he does best. Close surely had a patio that needed paving as she called upon merely to adopt her best steely gaze.
Peterson and Marlowe have to jump through hoops to try and make this premise work. The President needs to be on the loose, continually evading capture and engaging in altercations with terrorists, for at least an hour or you don’t have a movie. This is never very convincing, particularly when Korshunov seals him in the lower deck. There’s the occasional ruthless ultimatum, eliciting a John McClane-seque stoical response at first (but, as with Olympus Has Fallen , the President pussies out when his family are threatened; what kind of President does that?)
We know the President did the right thing to stay on board, as a plump aide thanks him personally (her face is later adorned with a hilariously beatific smile as she parachutes earthwards to safety). The odd instance of plotting suggests the writer may have some wit to him (Marshall’s “I’m counting on you, red, white and blue” when he’s hotwiring the fuel tank) but you’re mostly left with the impression of empty-headed “America, the beautiful”. Certainly, this is reinforced by Peterson’s decision to cut back to whooping and cheering in the White House Situation Room every time the President takes out a bad guy or a potential disaster is diffused.
It’s not just the lack of self-consciousness; Marlowe doesn’t have an original idea. The President is even called on to pilot the plane, just as Kurt Russell was during his terrorist encounter in the previous year’s Executive Decision. Apparently, the Department of Defence co-operated in the making of the film; presumably their failure to suggest any remedies for its incoherence of plot was by the bye as long as the whole was resolutely patriotic. They were hardly going to tell Hollywood producers how Air Force One actually functions, were they?
Jerry Goldsmith’s score underpins the film’s air of avowed patriotism in a vomit-inducingly stone-faced manner. Still, rather him than Randy Newman (Peterson rejected Newman’s score, so Goldsmith was a last-minute replacement).
Despite the overall nonsensicality, the President-goes-all-John McClane scenes are reasonably engaging. It’s when Korshunov catches him that Marlowe’s script begins to test the patience. Maybe the problem is that the jingoistic claptrap the film embraces resists irreverence and outrageousness of the kind these types of film need to really work. If you’re going to treat a B-movie premise like this over-earnestly, you’re doomed from start.