Air Force One (1997)
“The fate of a nation rests on the courage of one man.”
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Cast: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close
Synopsis: Hijackers seize the plane carrying the President of the United States and his family, but he – an ex-soldier – works from hiding to defeat them.
WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS!
In a speech given in the movie Air Force One at a Russo/American dinner to celebrate the imprisonment of a terrorist leader, President Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ender’s Game) issues a warning to terrorists that things are going to change. “It’s your turn to be afraid” he tells them, to the standing ovation of all those present — even the staff whose prepared speech he has dismissed in favour of his John Wayne message. Funnily enough, it’s quite an effective little speech, and Dubya can only wish his speechmakers were able to deliver similarly punchy messages when he was spouting justification for his plans to invade Iraq. In fact, Air Force One plays like one long Dubya wet dream — and if that isn’t reason enough to turn you off this lame effort, then read on…
Immediately after the President’s speech, the Presidential plane is hijacked by a gang of communist terrorists posing as a news team. This motley crew is led by Hollywood’s resident nutter, Gary Oldman (Leon, Batman Begins), who sports a sinister goatee and a wonky Russian accent. Oldman actually delivers quite a restrained performance, only rarely kicking into overdrive, and even then for little more than a few moments at a time. It’s almost as if he can’t work up the enthusiasm — that he knows he’s somehow been landed with a clunker, and is distracted by his plans to find a new agent. Similarly, Ford’s expression as he prowls the plane alternates between dazed incomprehension and bad-tempered scowl. I thought at first he was in character, but now I’m not so sure. We can only speculate over the gloomy chats these two respectable actors shared between takes.
Anyway, the terrorists, with the help of a traitor on the President’s staff, quickly take over the plane, although they somehow manage to allow Ford to slip out of their grasp. Big mistake: this president is a Vietnam vet; he can speak Russian; he’s equipped — all he lacks is Bruce’s smirk and a dirty vest. As the Prez roams the narrow confines of the plane, picking off terrorists at will, his staff at the West Wing dither and dally and drink lots of coffee. The black guy with a phone always whips off his glasses to inform vice-president Glenn Close of any developments, and Defence Secretary Dean Stockwell (Married to the Mob, The Rainmaker) resists the urge to fiddle with a gadget and tell everyone how each development has affected Ford’s expected lifespan.
This is gung-ho American patriotism at its most rampant and its most asinine. “Dammit, no one does this to the United States!” declares a high-ranking uniform after slamming a table with his fist, and one can hear the ghostly echoes of those long-ago whoops and hollers of the bottom feeders in the US gene pool, wedged into their multiplex seats as they stuffed popcorn into their faces and marvelled at the greatness of their nation. “I’m counting on you, Red, white and blue,” says Ford, forced, after having lost phone contact with the ground, to choose which two out of five wires he must cross in order to dump the plane’s fuel — or send it hurtling to oblivion. Of course, it’s never in doubt that Red White and Blue will save the day — he’s the President, he represents the country — therefore he’s everyman, the embodiment of the American spirit, which writer Andrew W. Marlowe would have us believe thrives in every true-blue American.
The only glimmer of hope for this film is that perhaps, just perhaps, the adept German director Wolfgang Peterson is having a laugh at America’s expense. That it’s all a big joke, a parody of all those homogeneous flag-waving adventure flicks we’ve been fed over the past two decades. Perhaps he sat one day, with that laughable script on his lap, and wondered ‘how the hell do I make this film without ruining my career?’ It would be wonderful to think that this was the case: that the smiley, happy passengers parachuting from a plane at 15,000 feet; the planes and men throwing themselves in front of the president, sacrificing their lives in order to preserve his; and the stoic, teary salutes that fly around like friendly fire, are just components of a subtle parody, aimed at both that tiny but vocal section of American society who believe that, because their country is the biggest it is also unquestionably the best, and the mercenary movie execs who have identified this perception and exploited it relentlessly.
If that is the case, then Peterson has pulled off a master-stroke, but if Air Force One is just another empty action flick — with so-so effects, no originality, zero characterisation and no hidden agenda – then he has produced one of the worst big-budget movies of the nineties.
(Reviewed 5th January 2007)