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'Air Force One' Earns Its Wings

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 25, 1997


Scene from this movie

Wolfgang Petersen
Harrison Ford;
Gary Oldman;
Glenn Close;
Wendy Crewson;
Liesel Matthews;
Paul Guilfoyle;
Xander Berkeley;
William H. Macy;
Dean Stockwell;
Tom Everett;
Jurgen Prochnow
Running Time:
2 hours, 5 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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Harrison Ford makes such a dynamic president in "Air Force One," you may find yourself favorably weighing his odds in Iowa and New Hampshire. As President James Marshall, heís one part bleeding heart, two parts Sgt. Fury. A Medal of Honor winner, this chief executive flew countless missions in Vietnam, speaks his mind publicly (sending his national security adviser and handlers into a cowardly dither), cares about other nations, loves his wife and daughter and -- most importantly for this kind of movie -- can roughhouse with the best of them.

"To those who use atrocity and terror," declares the Chief Executive in a from-the-heart speech while traveling in Moscow, "your days are over."

This challenge is moments away from being tested. Not long after the President, First Lady (Wendy Crewson), their daughter (12-year-old Liesel Natthews), and the entire Air Force One entourage board the plane, communist radicals, led by a man named Korshunov (Gary Oldman), take command of the aircraft.

While the terrified passengers huddle at gunpoint, and the White House contingent in Washington -- led by Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) -- attempts to negotiate, Korshunov makes his demands known: Release their leader, General Alexander Radek (Juergen Prochnow), from Moscow jail or a hostage will be shot every half hour. Meanwhile, Marshall hides in the hold, playing cat-and-mouse with the terrorists, calling the White House with his daughterís cellular phone and orchestrating a full-scale rescue of his own airborne headquarters.

On the most immediate, visceral level -- which is all that most people ask of their summer movies -- "Air Force One" does exactly what itís supposed to. It thrills you constantly, allows you to vicariously kick commie-terrorist butt and gives you a guided tour through the innermost sanctum of American hegemony. One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, itís one of the few that truly fulfills expectations. With Ford at the helm, these are the makings of a late summer landslide.

The movie, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, is almost an inventory of hijack-thriller cliches. But the maker of "Das Boot" and "In the Line of Fire" is a master of suspense. He stokes you up until youíre ready to explode, whether itís with tensely silent ordeals -- as Korshunov holds a gun to the head of the presidentís daughter -- or screaming dogfights in the air, when F-15s take on enemy MiGs with air-to-air missiles.

At times, the scenario (written by first-timer Andrew W. Marlowe) seems unsure of its balance between real suspense and goofy humor. Thereís an almost childish Al-Haig power trip when the Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) attempts to wrest controls of the White House from Vice President Bennett. And while the world awaits the outcome of this hostage crisis, the president is forced to consult a manual so he can figure out his daughterís phone.

But these moments of silliness are more than balanced by Petersenís extraordinary ability to keep this movie flight-worthy, Fordís almost-executive presence and an outstanding performance from Oldman. Keeping his character from turning into another raving, gun-toting lunatic, he makes Korshunov disturbingly human, with a persuasive Russian accent and a sense of sweaty, controlled conviction. In the end, this powerful opposition to President Marshall -- and the American ideals he stands for -- gives the film greater dimension. It makes victory over the bad guys that much sweeter.

AIR FORCE ONE (R) ó Contains profanity and in-flight executions.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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