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Air Force One
  [rating: 3 of 4 stars]movie review by Gary Johnson

Last summer, Independence Day gave us an American president who kicked some alien butt by flying a jet into combat against flying saucers. Many of us doubted wimpy Bill Pullman was up to the task, but whatever the case, audiences clearly enjoyed the sight of the U.S. President in a virile, take-charge role.

This summer's newest action blockbuster, Air Force One, takes its cue from Independence Day while giving us the much-more-believable Harrison Ford, a well-proven action hero, as the commander-in-chief, and boy does he ever get to kick some butt. He's certainly not a kinder, gentler president.

Air Force One is a well-made, efficient action thriller that trades mundane "back at the White House" scenes with white-knuckled suspense: after a party of Russian revolutionaries hijacks Air Force One, Harrison Ford as the President does his best Steven Seagal impersonation and attempts to retake the airplane not by negotiating but by throwing some mean punches.

After several decades of enduring impotent presidents who either lacked bite or were doing little more than playing a role designed by a political party, the American public has developed a strong taste for movies that let them vent their frustrations. Indeed it can be satisfying to see the President as more than just a talking shirt. Air Force One gives us a president who served in the military during the Vietnam War. He certainly didn't pull political strings to avoid combat. In fact, President James Marshall was a medal of honor recipient who flew many missions in Vietnam.

Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman in Air Force One.
(©1997 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Air Force One gives us some fantasy-land material, but to its credit the material is much more believable than Independence Day. While Bill Pullman's antics in Independence Day were greeted with smirks by many members of the audience, Harrison Ford delivers a convincing portrait of the president as a butt-kicking action hero. I'll be interested to see how people from other countries react to Air Force One. I can't help but think some audiences outside of the U.S. will find this movie to be absolutely ludicrous. But for American audiences long accustomed to getting pushed around by the little countries of the world, Air Force One will seem like a revelation. (Our readers outside of the U.S.: please let us know what you think of this movie: e-mail.)

For the first hour, Air Force One plays out as a fairly conventional thriller. The filmmakers were burdened with the oh-so-familiar scenes where we get the demands of the hijackers/kidnappers. The biggest surprise the filmmakers can deliver is to give us Glenn Close as the Vice President. Close and Dean Stockwell as the Defense Secretary must slog through hackneyed dialog: "You have to buy us some more time!" Close says. "What are the air scenarios?" says Stockwell. The hijackers threaten to execute one hostage every half hour until their demands are met while Close holds press conferences and discusses everything we already know. These scenes recite the obvious and do little more than let us relax a little while Ford tries to figure out how to retake the airplane.

Harrison Ford and Liesel Matthews in Air Force One.
(©1997 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Meanwhile, Gary Oldman rants as the mastermind behind the hijacking. Oldman seems to love bad guy roles like this one. Just recently he played the head baddie in The Fifth Element. He's risking becoming a parody of himself if he keeps playing bad guy roles much longer. But in Air Force One he backs away from the histrionics that have previously distinguished his performances--and he's all the better for it, actually managing some subtlety in a performance that easily could have become cartoonish.

While the movie's first hour plays out as relatively ordinary stuff, eventually the filmmakers pull a few surprises and give us a president with some witty, resourceful moves. And we even get some comedy, such as a scene where Ford must try to figure out how to use a cellular phone so he can call for help. He holds a rifle in one hand and a cellular phone user's guide in the other. The movie also gives us the interesting situation of Ford as a president who refuses to bow to the demands of terrorists--but now his family is held hostage. What can he do but break his own rules?

Wolfgang Petersen, who directed the amazing Das Boot before moving to Hollywood (where he helmed In the Line of Fire and Outbreak), knows suspense. Air Force One contains several incredible scenes, including a stunning air rescue attempt with soliders zipping back and forth between airplanes by sliding along a wire cable.

Even with the well-handled suspense, Air Force One always feels like a big pre-fabricated movie, the kind of project created by producers sitting around a big dinner table at a fancy Los Angeles restaurant. I'm sure they'll be congratulating themselves all the way to the bank, for this movie delivers the action goods and manages to be patriotic at the same time. But the nicest move of all is the casting of Philip Baker Hall. He doesn't show up until two thirds of the way into this movie, but when he does it feels like they've called in the ghost of Nixon to help remedy the situation. (Hall played Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor.)

If you can get into the spirit of Air Force One's goofy brand of patriotism, you'll have a lot of fun with this movie. You might even feel like taking a bullet for the president (which happens several times in this movie).

Go to the Air Force One Web site

Go to the Columbia Pictures Web site

Beacon Pictures and Columbia Pictures Present

A Radiant Production


President James MarshallHarrison Ford
Ivan KorshunovGary Oldman
Vice President
Kathryn Bennett
Glenn Close
Grace MarshallWendy Crewson
Alice MarshallLiesel Matthews
Chief of Staff Lloyd ShepherdPaul Guilfoyle
Agent GibbsXander Berkeley
Major CaldwellWilliam H. Macy
Defense Secretary
Walter Dean
Dean Stockwell
NSA Advisor Jack DohertyTom Everett
General Alexander RadekJurgen Prochnow
U.S. Attorney General WardPhilip Baker Hall
Directed byWolfgang Petersen
Produced byArmyan Bernstein
Jon Shestack
Wolfgang Petersen
Gail Katz
Screenplay byAndrew W. Marlowe
Director of PhotographyMichael Ballhaus
Production DesignerWilliam Sandell
Edited byRichard Francis-Bruce
Music byJerry Goldsmith
Visual Effects SupervisedRichard Edlund
Costume DesignerErica Edell Phillips
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