– Summary –
Director : Wolfgang Petersen
Year Of Release : 1997
Principal Cast : Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Wendy Crewson,
Awards : Nominated: Academy Awards – Best Film Editing & Best Sound.
Approx Running Time : 124 Minutes
Synopsis: When the US President’s plane is hijacked by terrorists, the President himself must fight to save not only the lives of those on board, but also stop an evil military general from being released from prison to commit acts of atrocity.
What we think : Heart pounding action/thriller, possibly Ford’s last successful foray into the action genre as leading man, Air Force One is a great example of the genre. Tense and exciting, the chemistry between Ford and Oldman as they duel verbally is palpable.
There was a time, you may recall, when Harrison Ford was a genuine box-office draw. Before films like Six Days, Seven Nights, K19: The Widowmaker, Hollywood Homicide and Firewall dented his A-list status to the point where he’s now something akin to box-office poison. His career in free-fall, especially in light of the less-than-stellar result for the most recent Indiana Jones film, now might be an opportune time to go back to his last truly great action film, Air Force One. Directed by German born film-maker Wolfgang Petersen, whose resumé included classics like Das Boot, The Neverending Story and.. er, The Perfect Storm, Air Force One is a popcorn thriller of the highest order. It puts its leading man in the middle of the action and never lets up for a second: the ultimate Pres-vs-Terrorism plot that had audiences gasping around the world.
US President James Marshall (Ford) has just embarked upon a radical mission to rid the world of terrorism (this, of course, came well before 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror), and after a bold statement to never again give into terrorists, suddenly find himself held hostage by one. While flying back to the US on Air Force One, Marshall finds the plane taken over by radical terrorists seeking the release of recently captured former Kazakhstan dictator General Radeck. Marshall secrets himself down in the cargo hold, a place he can’t easily be ferreted out by the terrorists, and begins his campaign to rescue all those on board. Leader of the terrorists, Egor Kroshunov (Gary Oldman) is a radical, prone to outbursts of violence and anger, meaning he’s entirely unpredictable. On the ground, Vice President Bennett (Glenn Close) must work against the forces in Government who seek to disable the President’s authority and shoot down the plane. In a nutshell, it’s Die Hard on a plane.
Perhaps in the modern climate of terrorism and anti-racism sentiment, where the minority of race and religion must be tolerated at the expense of freedoms for the majority, Air Force One might be a little too un-PC, with its “shoot first, ask questions during the senate enquiry” mentality; taking away the potential for upsetting some vocal minority who’ll see the portrayal of the “terrorists” as antiquated and inaccurate, Air Force One is a dynamite action film. Director Petersen is known for his ability to direct large scale action, and he’s done a sterling job again here. Ford’s portrayal of US President Marshall remains an audience favourite of all Hollywood Presidents, even ousting Bill Pullman’s ID4 turn as well as Morgan Freeman’s Deep Impact President as the best of them all. Forthright, morally sound and with his blood coloured red, white and blue, Marshall is the President we’d all like to have. Heroic, with a straight up sense of right and wrong (at any cost), Marshall must make the decisions that could see people killed in his name, or for what he stands for. He’s the kind of President that makes you proud to be a citizen of the USA, even if you’re not a citizen of the USA.
As a story, Air Force One taps into the fear and confusion surrounding terrorist attacks, although since 9/11 the saturation coverage of such events has somewhat dulled (perhaps wrongly) our sensibilities in the meantime. At the time the film came out, we’d only ever seen terrorists portrayed as fanatical extremists with an eyepatch and a hard-on for violence, although perhaps that’s only me. After all, I grew up thinking Chuck Norris in Delta Force was the epitome of anti-terrorism forces. Still, intelligent terrorists in film had been, I think, few and far between at that stage. They’d certainly not had the intellect of Gary Oldman, the ferocity and slightly unhinged belligerence he portrayed as Kroshunov gave his character the ability to stand toe-to-toe with Ford’s President. Indeed, of the multiple performances that are worthy of note in this film, it’s perhaps both Ford and Oldman who do the best work, with Oldman again giving us the crazed, wild-eyed stuff he did so well in The Professional. Ford is stoic and square jawed, his patriotic grimace a big ol’ whoop-holler to the back row knuckledusters who think you should always fight back and win the day.
Air Force One is as patriotic a film as you’re ever gonna see, the “Might is Right” argument not only the paramount order of the day, but the slight sense of US superiority being attacked by the right wing scripting – Kroshunov certainly has a point that the US thinks it can simply waltz into wherever they want and do “the right thing”, a black and white assessment of world politics that’s fraught with zealous complications. Often, Kroshunov hits a little too close to home for my mind, his assessment of US politics and international standings isn’t too far from being accurate – it’s an assessment that adds to the “reality” of the film. President Marshall, as well as his loyal staffers who run the risk of being picked off one-by-one, remains defiant even on the brink of defeat, uttering numerous “I’ll die for you” clichés that resound with the deafening clap-trap of lunacy. Still, for the US audiences this film is undeniably aimed at, this kind of flag-waving pomposity most certainly hits the target like a cannonball. The script rattles along like an out of control train, with Ford being pitted against various terrorist lackeys until finally, the confrontation between both him and Oldman takes place, a zoom-cut-close-up aficionado’s paradise. Petersen drags every nuance of fear and heroism out of the performances, his timing and editing exemplary in building tension.
And can I take a moment to mention the ripping score by uber-composer Jerry Goldsmith? If there’s ever been a perfect score for a film’s tonal quality, then this is it. Goldsmith’s brassy, heroic overture, coupled with the tense, dramatic moments throughout the film, perfectly encapsulate what kind of movie you’re watching. The opening credits alone would signify that if there’s a film you’ll see an American flag waving in, it’s Air Force One. Of all the Goldsmith scores I’ve heard, this is by far the loudest.
Air Force One isn’t a political film, however, at least not in the way I’ve described some of the scripting points. It is an out-and-out action thriller, deftly directed by Petersen. Some of the visual effects, especially a key moment late in the film, leave a lot to be desired, even by the standards of film-making at the time; it reminded me of the Scorpion King effects at the end of The Mummy Returns. However, the film doesn’t necessarily live or die by it’s effects; this is only a small component out of what makes Air Force One a great film. No, the real stars here are Ford and Oldman, and the numerous secondary characters, who perform what could have been flat, cardboard characters in a way that heighten this tense, thrilling story. It’s a hard nosed, death defying film filled with moment that make you want to punch the air in delight… if you enjoy punching the air. Air Force One is a ripper.