Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford brings an unimpeachable sense of integrity to all of his roles, even the President of the United States. As *Air Force One* begins, President Jim Marshall, sobered by the suffering of war refugees, publicly vows that the US will actively crush dictatorships, and will never negotiate with terrorists. "It's your turn to be afraid," he warns the villains of the world.
Apparently, a certain group of die-hard Communists weren't listening, because only hours later, they hijack *Air Force One*, taking hostage the first family and half the cabinet. The President is hustled aboard an escape pod by his Secret Service agents, and presumably parachutes to safety. But this is Harrison Ford here, not Gerald Ford -- rest assured that he would never leave his wife and daughter, his loyal staff and the fate of the free world to a bunch of wild-eyed Soviets. No sir. President Marshall, decorated war veteran, devoted family man, patriot and liberal idealist is no waffler. He doesn't consult the polls first, he isn't crippled by indecision. He springs into action, crawling around in the bowels of the impressively realistic 747, picking off terrorists with his bare hands when he has to. This chief executive can execute.
It's surprisingly fun to watch a world leader beat the tar out of the bad guys. This is something we'll never see in real life, of course, not even when we elect some withered old third rate movie star as president. But wouldn't it be a far better world if our leaders duked it out themselves rather than sending in the troops and killing a bunch of civilians? (I doubt that Clinton would win many fights, what with his bad knee and all, but I bet he could take Newt. Hillary could whup Milosevich. And should the need arise, Chelsea could easily make mince meat of Yeltsin.) Fear of nuclear weapons could be replaced by fear of black eyes and broken noses. Presidents would have to train for summits with punching bags and push-ups, the Marquess of Queensbury rules would replace the tired old rules of diplomacy. George Foreman would eventually be president, Evander Holyfield might be vice president. The major drawback is that Mike Tyson would have the president's ear.
In the mean time, Ford gets my vote. This is an inspired piece of casting, with Ford embodying all the attributes we would like to see in our dream president: brains, ideals, conviction, an inability to knuckle-under, and a mean right hook. So much of the satisfaction of *Air Force One* derives from the perfection of this presidential fantasy, from the pleasure of seeing a president do the right thing, or do anything, for that matter. Although it could easily lapse into rah-rah patriotism (and veers close to it at times), *Air Force One* is effective because it doesn't get red-white-and-blue-faced, because sets very high *personal* stakes for the President as a human being, putting the father-husband-friend at odds with his own role as head of state, where the stakes are only slightly less personal for him, and no less important.
Top terrorist Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) is an ultra-nationalist who dreams of reuniting Russia under the rule of strongman Alexander Radek (played by Jurgen Prochnow with icily effective silence), currently imprisoned in Kazakhstan. Ivan gets all misty-eyed when he speaks of "mother Russia." He gets positively verklempt when he hears "Le Internationale." He gets apoplectic about Kapitalism -- the very word seems to leave a bitter taste in his mouth as he spits it at the Pres. And, although he is a raving lunatic and an arch villain, he makes some valid points about American foreign policy and government sanctioned aggression. But of course, the President isn't negotiating with terrorists today.
*Air Force One* is hardly the first movie to posit a hostage situation on an airplane. But director Wolfgang Petersen, whose *Das Boot* was an early model of the tube thriller, manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense and emotion out of a well-worn plot device. *Air Force One*'s plot is not especially innovative or surprising -- the restricted space of a jetliner imposes limits on action and story -- but the characters are developed well, putting the emphasis here on the psychological aspects of terrorism. Marshall and Ivan are engaged in a hearts and minds battle, a test of wills, where it is always obvious that Marshall has the most to lose. The President may have drawn a political line in the sand, but Ivan has no qualms about stepping over it and dragging real humans along with him -- he is true to his word about killing hostages, and the executions are jolting and dreadful. The President feels their pain, and so, it seems, does Ivan.
Back at the White House, another test of wills develops as loyal, stiff-as-starch VP Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) engages in a Constitutional tussle with an ambitious Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) who quickly and comically declares "I'm in charge here!" It's a dandy subplot, contrasting the ineffectual political maneuvering on the ground with the highly effective, nonpolitical (though highly dogmatic) action in the air.
Even though it mostly develops exactly as expected, *Air Force One* is rich and satisfying, taking an unlikely circumstance to every possible extreme and making it paradoxically convincing and highly entertaining. There are moments of real dread, a sense of genuine personal and national violation in this movie that keep the tension high, while the characters are real enough to make their fates matter. There are lighter moments as well -- apparently even presidents have problems with surly telephone operators and cell phone batteries. One of the most stirring moments, one of the most deeply patriotic moments in *Air Force One* occurs when a very important fax goes through -- the very personal joy of fax and minor technological triumph colliding with collective patriotism in a breathtaking instant that is both moving and hilariously low-key. I've sent faxes too, and doggone it, I'm an American! (I think it was a Sony fax machine.)