Harrison Ford for President? It sounds like an idea whose time has come. For the last few years–let’s be honest about it, ever since Clinton got elected–Hollywood has exiled our fearless leader to a kind of movie hell. In The American President he was a shy, lonely widower. In Independence Day his wife went down in a helicopter and he got upstaged by the more manly Will Smith. In Absolute Power he was a real lemon–a lecherous sadist and an accomplice to murder. But at long last, in Air Force One the president gets to be something other than a loser or a scoundrel. He’s James Marshall, a Vietnam War hero and a stand-up guy. Even rarer these days, his wife (played by Wendy Crewson) is actually alive, and he’s still in love with her. The only problem is that he’s come to power at the dawn of a confusing new era, when globalization is blurring national boundaries and the world is more vulnerable than ever before to random, heavily accented terrorist villains.
Thank God our reigning action hero is at the helm–or so you’d think. Actually, Air Force One takes less than five minutes to demonstrate the drawbacks of Harrison Ford as the leader of the free world. It opens in Moscow, where President Marshall delivers a major speech explaining why he authorized American troops to capture Gen. Radek, the tyrannical leader of Kazakhstan. Radek is dangerous and evil, he says, and although he presents no immediate threat to American interests, it’s high time for us to abandon such piddling, hypocritical concerns as the national interest. Out with wimpy measures like economic sanctions–it’s time to become uncompromising moral enforcers. Marshall warns terrorists around the world that from now on, “It’s your turn to be afraid.” This is a depressing, scary, reckless announcement, and as Ford delivers it you think how disturbing it would be to have someone like him as president. For all his popularity, Ford has built his career on an inarticulate, uncomfortable, and somewhat angry persona. What’s saved him from grimness is his status as an outsider, his flippant sense of humor, and his lovable grin. But Han Solo and Indiana Jones were a long time ago, and lately Ford’s been cultivating a look of unrelieved pain.
P laying a powerful public figure, Ford looks as miserable and hunted as he did in The Fugitive, and that’s exactly the point. Following his speech the president boards Air Force One to return home, and for five minutes, in a scene so idyllic it borders on the bizarre, he’s able to let down his guard and relax in the bosom of his family. He kisses his wife. Their daughter, adorable little Alice, announces that she’d like to visit a refugee camp and minister to poor, helpless wounded people. Daddy worries that she’s not old enough, but Mommy laughs tenderly and says, “She couldn’t stay your little girl forever, Jim.” This dialogue has the eerie earnestness of a testimonial in an aspirin commercial, along with a dig at Clinton: James Marshall isn’t a good president because he feels our pain. He’s a good president because he feels his pain–the pain of steering the world through this chaotic period of realignment, when all he really wants to do is help his daughter with her homework and smooch with his wife.
It’s Global Village meets Family Values, and once this slick high concept is established, the action can begin. Gary Oldman leads five dastardly followers of Radek in posing as a Russian film crew, and a flirtatious moron of a White House aide lets them on the plane. There, assisted by a turncoat American official, they quickly take control of the aircraft. Oldman, barking out the hysterical howls that serve as lingua franca for all cinema terrorists, calls the White House and tells Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) that he’ll kill one hostage every half hour until Radek is released. Meanwhile the president has gone missing. Everyone assumes he’s left the plane in an “escape pod” and is floating safely to earth; only the audience knows that he’s stuck around–first and foremost to rescue his wife and daughter, and then, if it’s convenient, to save the world.
What follows is one of the more joyless joy rides in recent memory. The director, Wolfgang Petersen, made his mark with Das Boot, a masterfully absorbing thriller set on board a claustrophobic German U-boat. You’d think Petersen would have fun staging an airborne showdown, but there’s not a scene in Air Force One that wasn’t done 10 times better in the underrated Kurt Russell hijacked-airplane thriller, Executive Decision. That movie had the good sense to leave its absurd politics (first Chechen, then Middle Eastern) on the margins, and to focus instead on the scary ordeal of being stuck on a plane piloted by crazies. With geeky charm, it patiently explored the plane’s engineering; it literally walked you down into the underbelly, a beautiful abstract maze of crisscrossing steel.
Air Force One rips off half the adventures from Executive Decision–there’s a blatantly similar scene involving the cutting of wires–but the suspense never builds. A number of scenes actually revolve around the astoundingly dull theme of cellular communication. Here are two typical “action” sequences: 1) The president needs to get word to Washington that he’s still alive and hiding on board the plane. He desperately rummages through some luggage. He finds someone’s cell phone and calls the White House. 2) The president hatches a plan to help the hostages escape, but he needs to alert the Air Force to his scheme. This time it’s harder, because he’s lost the cell phone and the terrorists have shut down the regular phones, but a presidential aide reminds him that faxes go out on an auxiliary line. Solemnly, she leads him over to the fax station, where he scribbles out a message and dials. Will the fax go through? Tension mounts. After a few moments, we hear the telltale squeak of a successful transmission, accompanied by triumphal music.
Such scenes do not a nail-biter make. Harrison Ford tries to help by looking anguished as he hits, kicks, and shoots his way to the final duel with Oldman. But again, the relentless search for with-it political relevance slows the film down. Oldman is supposed to represent reactionary Russians enraged by the new economic reforms. “I’m doink it for Muzzer Russia,” he drawls, and “I veel not rest unteel zee capitalists are dragged through the streets und shot.” The rhetoric may be modern, but the character is a cartoon anachronism, right down to his corny, drawn-out delivery, which clocks in at about five words per minute. And his cause seems so pathetically weak compared to the raging progress of capitalism around the world that watching him strut is like watching someone shoot a gun you know is filled with blanks.
There’s not a single thing about Air Force One to recommend, except perhaps the controlled performance of Glenn Close, who does remarkably well as the recipient of several phone calls from the sky. But there is something strangely comforting about how bad this movie is. For a while there, all those stories about weak-willed presidents were worrisome. It was hard not to see them as tapping in to a deep-seated nationwide gloom. After Air Force One, though, we should be able to breathe easier. It is just too boring to reflect our actual fantasy life, and so brazenly concerned with exploiting the Zeitgeist that it makes you wonder if it isn’t Hollywood that’s shrouded in gloom, while the rest of us are getting along fine.
“He will not negotiate.” First Lady (Wendy Crewson) confronts Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) (44 seconds):
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