Air Force One

Friday July 25, 1997

     No, Harrison Ford isn't the president, not even a candidate for the job, but given the chance, who wouldn't vote for him in a Beltway minute? A hero with a human face, Ford projects both rectitude and concern while playing engaging pragmatists who do the right thing no matter what. Wouldn't that be a switch on Pennsylvania Avenue?
     "Air Force One," directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Ford as President James Marshall, is not going to make anybody think twice about that vote. With the actor confidently in his element as a chief executive coping with the hijacking of "the world's most secure aircraft," this is a display of Ford at his best that holds us in a tight bearhug of tension from beginning to end.
     Like Petersen's 1993 film, the Clint Eastwood-John Malkovich "In the Line of Fire," "Air Force One" is at once vigorous and old-fashioned, a piece of expertly crafted entertainment that gets the job done with skill and panache. The director and his production team exhibit the same kind of crisp professionalism as the U.S. commando unit that opens the picture by kidnapping Gen. Alexander Radek, the rogue leader of Kazakhstan whose evil policies have, yes, put the entire free world at risk.
     In Moscow three weeks later to celebrate that capture with Russian leaders, President Marshall departs from his prepared text to say (what a guy) he doesn't deserve to be congratulated. Having avoided appropriate action in the past, he vows to never again allow political self-interest to deter the U.S. from doing what it should when confronted by terrorists. Aides like his chief of staff (Paul Guilfoyle) later snivel about consulting our allies first, but Marshall shuts them up with a brisk, "It's the right thing to do and you know it."
     Back on the plane home, the president is looking forward to relaxing with wife Grace (Wendy Crewson) and their 12-year-old daughter Alice ("The Little Princess" star Liesel Matthews). The only excitement he's anticipating is watching a tape replay of the latest Notre Dame-Michigan football game. Feeling at ease on an aircraft built to survive the pulse of a nuclear attack is an easy habit to get into.
     Unfortunately, no one said, "Hey, that's Gary Oldman; he's always up to no good," when Russian TV newsman Ivan Korshunov claimed a seat in the equivalent of coach. In an unexpected blitzkreig, Korshunov and his cohorts manage to take over Air Force One. They notify the White House, specifically all-business Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close), that they will execute one of their numerous hostages every half hour until their hero, that nasty Gen. Radek, is released.
     *
     Fortunately for the honor of the profession, Korshunov is not really a TV journalist but a diabolic Russian ultra-nationalist zealot with zero interest in "the infection you call freedom." "Air Force One" pivots (as did "In the Line of Fire") around a battle of wills between its personifications of good and evil, and Oldman is all he should be as a sadistic madman who is not overburdened with respect for human life.
     Though he does indulge in a few of his trademark temper tantrums (they must be in his contract), Oldman is mostly under control and does a convincing job of humanizing a man who says, "I would turn my back on God himself for Mother Russia." He knows everybody's weak spots and is not above responding to verbal attacks from the good guys with a savage: "You murdered 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas."
     Korshunov's opponent in the cat-and-mouse game that develops on the plane is not, of course, some desk-bound, lethargic politician. This president just happens to be a battle-hardened Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor winner, and Ford has all the physicality necessary to make Marshall's ability to handle himself in a brawl completely plausible.
     What keeps Ford well ahead of the pack as an action hero, however, is his ability to convey not only emotional intensity but also moral qualms, even worry. Placed in situations where his beliefs have a good chance of putting innocent people, including his own family, in terrible danger, President Marshall's convincing looks of anguish add more to this film's effectiveness than its inevitably explosive special effects.
     *
     Screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe, whose first produced script this is, does more than come up with sharp lines for Korshunov. Though there is back and forth with the White House, most of "Air Force One" is a kind of locked-room mystery, where everything of interest has to happen in a confined environment, and Marlowe's script has a knack for coming up with surprising twists and multiple sources of tension.
     Getting the most out of that script is the gift of Petersen and his team, including both a world-class cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus) and a crack editor (Richard Francis-Bruce, responsible for "Seven," "The Rock," "Dead Calm" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome").
     Together with Jerry Goldsmith's militaristic score and the across-the-board skill of the film's actors, this gang makes "Air Force One" tenser than it has any right to be. Petersen is a master tactician, adept (witness the remarkable "Das Boot") at moving people around tight spaces and finding the best spot for the camera. His skill makes this film the well-oiled but not intelligence-insulting machine Hollywood escapism used to be and rarely is anymore.
     It was in "Das Boot" and its story of World War II German submariners that Petersen first showed the gift for tying action to psychology that is much in evidence here. Given that, it's nice to see him casting Jurgen Prochnow, exceptional as that film's U-boat captain, in the wordless but critical part of Gen. Radek. As an affectionate tip of the hat to a marvelous shared past, it's especially welcome and appropriate.


Air Force One, 1997. R, for violence. Beacon Pictures presents a Radiant production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Wolfgang Petersen. Producers Armyan Bernstein, Jon Shestack. Executive producers Thomas A. Bliss, Marc Abraham, David Lester. Screenplay Andrew W. Marlowe. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce. Costumes Erica Edell Phillips. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design William Sandell. Art directors Carl Aldana, Carl Stensel. Set decorator Ernie Bishop. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Harrison Ford as President James Marshall. Gary Oldman as Ivan Korshunov. Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett. Wendy Crewson as Grace Marshall. Liesel Matthews as Alice Marshall. Paul Guilfoyle as Chief of Staff Lloyd Shepherd. Xander Berkeley as Agent Gibbs. William H. Macy as Major Caldwell. Dean Stockwell as Defense Secretary Walter Dean.

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