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'Air Force One': Pressurized Ride

By Stephen Hunter
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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This is the one into which Clinton should have had himself inserted!

"Air Force One" is a pulse-pounding bull goose of a movie, but more than that, it's a $90 million endorsement of the Great Man theory of history. It's "The Rough Riders" set on a jetliner. It's president as action figure, 6 feet 2 of heroic plastic.

This prez kicks butt. He kills. He knows the operating drill on the Heckler & Koch MP5 machine pistol. He gives forthright speeches -- and this is really brave! -- without clearing them with the staff first! He puts the world on notice that America is back in the saddle again and there's a new sheriff in town.

Harrison Ford, in the role of this righteous galoot, can't really be said to act, because he's not really required to play a character. His President Jim Marshall, lion of the free world, Medal of Honor winner, Big Ten grad, football fan and beer drinker, is so idealized he makes Barbie's Ken look positively Dostoevskian. Ford does two things brilliantly: He never bumps into the furniture and he never lets even a whisper of campy self-awareness crack the 100-foot-high Mount Rushmore of his face. "Air Force One" is set in an irony-free zone. Ford's discipline is at its highest as he cleaves to the movie's fundamental proposition: This is not a joke. (It is, of course.)

Naturally, he's the dullest thing in the movie. But that's not bad, that's good. Who wants a neurotic intellectual or an ironist or a policy wonk at the helm when psychotic Russian nationalists have taken over the president's plane on a flight back from Moscow and are busily executing hostages as a ploy to free a demonic nationalist leader recently filched from his despot's den by a joint Spetznaz-Delta team (the movie's fabulous opening sequence)? Much better this sort of leadership: doubtless, fearless, dynamic, clever, aggressive, anachronistic, impossible and dull. But his dullness clears the way for the movie's showiest special effect: Gary Oldman.

Oldman plays the evil Ivan Korshunov, the terrorist who masterminds the skyjacking of Air Force One and then proceeds to steal not merely the gigantic flying machine itself but another and more important machine: the camera. This actor is never so good as when he is very, very bad, and "Air Force One" provides him with a platform to do a variation on a combination of Boris Godunov and Boris Badenov simultaneously. Throw in some Rasputin and some Alexander Nevsky and even some Ivan Skavinsky Skavar and you've got the whole nine yards. He would eat the furniture if it weren't all plastic and fiberglass.

Director Wolfgang Petersen controls the mayhem with his usual extreme cleverness. Like everybody in the picture, however, he's working miles beneath his head. He once made a great movie about real men in a real war, "Das Boot," but now he's making straw movies about straw men in a straw war. But you sense the intense level of his engagement. As in his last macho confabulation, "In the Line of Fire," so much of the cleverness is in the details.

In "Fire," I loved the way they solved the problem of getting not a ceramic gun but a brass and lead bullet through a metal detector by hiding it in a key chain, which of course would go around the detector in a little plastic tray. In this one, his micro-genius is on display in one sequence where he follows a bad MiG pilot engaging the president's plane and then Air Force F-15s. The actor (Boris Krutonog) has maybe 25 seconds of total screen time, the bottom of his face sealed off in an oxygen mask, the top of his head capped in a plastic helmet. What's left? Eyes. Fabulous, bulging, expressive eyes that radiate the raptor's glee as he looses an air-to-air missile toward the big bird, then utter fear of doom as he watches an F-15's Sidewinder come screaming to erase him in a bright orange blot. Cool movie death!

In fact, one of the pleasant surprises of "Air Force One" is how much of it is an old-fashioned airplane movie. The modern computer morphing does no task better than rendering aircraft in flight. You never for a second tumble to the fact that you are watching electricity concocted by some arrogant kid in a Southern California computer shop: The jets, as they lace through the sky in and around the president's plane, are majestic, and one sequence where a line of F-15s lets fly a phalanx of heat-seekers leaking flame as they streak across the sky has a terrible beauty to it.

But in order to keep the odor of man-sweat, testosterone and flatulence from becoming too terribly oppressive, Petersen, abetted by scriptwriter Andrew W. Marlowe (of Washington, in fact), provides some female presence. Glenn Close is effectively steely as the vice president who manages to deal with a power play by the secretary of defense while coolly managing the war room crisis team. She cries only a little bit.

Equally impressive is Wendy Crewson as the first lady. I love her sense of flintiness, too: She upbraids a staff member for not paying attention during a speech, just like the real thing, and she has a commanding presence that never breaks down, even when the guns are pressed against her head. More idealized but also welcome is Liesel Matthews as the teenage first daughter.

In all, "Air Force One" is of a piece. It takes its absurd premise and keeps itself narrowly focused, pushing its heroic cast through obstacle after obstacle. It lacks perhaps a moment of grief for the many warriors who sacrifice their lives for the chief exec, and some of its gambits -- a parachute "escape" into where, the Urals? -- play well on screen but fray upon application of minimum thoughtfulness. But it's a great ride.

Air Force One is rated R for extreme violence, a high body count and occasional profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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