Air Force One (1997)

D: Wolfgang Petersen
S: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close

Harrison Ford is not the President of the United States. But, these days anyway, he is an icon of decency, honesty and upright morality. In the hands of director Wolfgang Petersen, that's all he needs to be. It doesn't much matter that no serving President of the United States has ever been involved in a one-on-one confrontation with hordes of heavily armed terrorists, or that even the fittest of them would barely survive an arm-wrestling tournament with the White House Toilet Attendants. It doesn't even matter that the current image of the President of the United States is anything but one of decency, honesty and morality. Air Force One has an irresistible premise: the most important aeroplane in the world is hijacked, and only the leader of the Free World can save the day by beating the baddies to a bloody pulp with his own two hands. It's so outrageous that it is pretty much the best idea for an action film since Speed. It's so ludicrous that it can only be utterly convincing, and so politically obvious that it raises all sorts of interesting questions about the Presidency and about the role of the cinema in its representation.

Wolfgang Petersen has consistently traded in American iconography since coming Stateside following the massive success of Das Boot and The Neverending Story. In Enemy Mine he played a black man (Louis Gossett Jnr.) against a white man (Dennis Quaid) in a futuristic tale of alien vs. human (even though the film was just a variant on John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific.). In Shattered he played handsome actors off against one another in a tale of superficiality and the deceptive nature of appearances. In In the Line of Fire he harnessed everything that was potent about Clint Eastwood's iconic identity and allowed the actor to deliver one of the best performances of his career in one of the most resonant political thrillers in decades. Air Force One continues his metaphysical trip through the American political unconscious; pitting the last dregs of red hysteria which still lurks in the darkness against a President that never was and never could be.

The most surprising thing about it is how well it works. Not that we would have expected less than technical excellence given the size of the budget, the resources and the talent of its director. It boasts good actors in strong roles, and had all the makings of a sure-fire Autumnal smash hit, especially following one of the weakest Summers in recent memory. But the film is so clearly concerned with playing out America's anxieties and fantasies, and is so patently fantastical that it is a wonder the audience doesn't simply burst into hysterics after the first few minutes.

Yet they don't. Though Ford is terribly sombre as the film opens and he addresses the Russian Government with tight-lipped sincerity about America's moral imperative to intervene in trouble spots 'before it's too late', he's quickly in his State car on his way to the doomed aeroplane, where sinister Gary Oldman has already boarded as a very unconvincingly humble Russian journalist (you just know he's up to no good, the dastard!). Petersen keeps things moving swiftly along before you have a chance to get beyond the basic character tags, establishing a more than perfect First Family, and positing only the stuffed-shirt bureaucrats as the ill-winds in democracy.

Then the fireworks begin. The film swiftly charts an exciting takeover of the plane, and even pushes its villains to the point of premature breakdown as they deal with some major obstacles even keeping it in the air. And then, in true Die Hard and Passenger 57 fashion, Ford is the only traveller unaccounted for when the hapless are herded into storage by the armed villains. It doesn't matter at this point that he's President of the United States. He's an icon, not a character, and he's played by the most popular middle-aged action hero around. Strap in and get ready for a trip.

Air Force One doesn't even try to cover up its inanities. It loudly proclaims the President to be a Vietnam veteran (twenty years ago such characters were running amok in public parks in American motion pictures), makes the Vice President an impotent worrier (Glenn Close, in what must rank as one of the most humiliating roles she's ever played, Mars Attacks! aside), has its Russian baddies spouting authentic subtitled dialogue and political rhetoric from the hidden depths of the anti-communist soul, and lays on the action scenes thick and fast in order to keep you distracted from thinking about any of it. It glosses over reams of intricate political complications in order to set things up for a simple iconic, wish-fulfillment fantasy, and, like Independence Day before it, reaps the predictable rewards with its willing co-consiprators in the audience.

On the performance level, Ford is good, and looks less haggard than he did in The Devil's Own. It does make you wonder just how many more of these character he can play however, and having seen him playing the lovable rogue with a mercenary edge in the re-issue of the Star Wars trilogy, makes you wonder why he does it. But he's convincing when in combat and registers enough internal conflict to hold the character in place without letting the iconic shell crack. Gary Oldman is equally enjoyable as a raving psychotic. His hysteria never crosses the line into stupidity and he has some genuinely menacing scenes, though his dialogue reeks of many Cold War thrillers now long consigned to the political scrap heap. Support from a cast of familiar faces including Dean Stockwell and William H. Macy is solid, and though Glenn Close plays the part of the hapless Vice President well, she does not come away with much dignity. Of course, she doesn't fare half as badly as Jurgen Prochnow, who is reunited with Petersen only for two short scenes, one of which he gets shot in.

At the end of the day, it all works so splendidly that it's very easy to get swept away and enjoy the ride. But it does raise some questions. After the recent bashing the White House and the Presidency has received in life and on film (including, in the past few months, in Absolute Power and Murder at 1600 ), it's probably a useful representational counterbalance. But it is equally unbelievable, and, in its own way, devalues it just as much. It's not the transparent PR exercise that Rob Reiner's The American President was, or the opportunistic mythology of PT-109. Nor is it the penetrating study of the machinations of political power of All the President's Men, or the understated and dignified look at the President as a human being under stress in Fail-Safe. The question of how politics and political figures should be represented on screen is probably irresolvable (or merely a matter of personal taste). But it seems to me that in their fascination with the debunking of the Godlike image of their leader (which has fascinated them since open season was declared thirty years ago), the American public is perhaps guilty of a conspiracy of delusion which allows them to fantasise both positively and negatively on a very real and very powerful Office worthy of serious consideration in a real and responsible manner without having to face the real questions this masks.

Of course, faced with such evident pleasures, who is going to really worry about such things? Air Force One is a superbly made and very enjoyable pulp thriller which will entertain and enthral the public through its long build up and multiple climaxes. Just don't expect to feel comforted when it comes to watching the real-life President in action battling such unexciting challenges as diplomacy, corruption, crime, and congress. He doesn't even have an uzi!

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.