Published on March 31st, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Air Force One 
Summary: Arguably the most patriotic American action film of the pre-9/11 era. Harrison Ford plays a no-nonsense POTUS who has to kick some ass when a group of Soviet loyalists hijack Air Force One. It’s completely over the top in every way but unfortunately has no sense of humor.
R | 124 min.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay: Andrew W. Marlowe
Distribution: Columbia Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $172,956,409 (#5 of 1997)
Leave it to a German to direct maybe the most patriotic American blockbuster ever made.
Straight up, Air Force One makes all the songs Toby Keith cut after 9/11 sound like jingles for the Taliban. This movie drips with star-spangled sentiment and features arguably the most ass-kicking president ever put on film.
And audiences loved it — to the tune of $172 million at the U.S. box office. Maybe the most surprising stat about Air Force One’s earnings in 1997? Another $142 million came from overseas audiences.
Sixteen years after directing Das Boot — a thrilling masterpiece that found its way into our prestigious 5-Star Club — Wolfgang Petersen returned to close-quarters action but with a few big differences. Where Das Boot took place 700 feet below sea level inside a sweaty German submarine during World War II, Air Force One is set 30,000 feet above land and follows contemporary Americans. The line between good and evil is much more clear in this film and the actors are much more well known but the primary setting is equally as claustrophobic.
When I sat down to watch Air Force One, the first thing I noticed was the familiar lime green screen that shows what a film is rated. This one stuck out because it’s rated R for only one reason: violence. That’s not something we see often in American cinema; sex and cursing will take you into R territory but not normally violence alone. After watching it, I certainly wouldn’t call the violence in this film any worse than most action flicks of the day but Petersen and his crew do give the gunshot wounds bloody results, especially in one scene where we don’t see the actual shooting but are left with an image of the gory aftermath.
If you’re a fan of the Jack Ryan films starring Harrison Ford (1992’s Patriot Games and its superior follow-up Clear and Present Danger), you’ll dig Air Force One. In many ways, this feels like an unofficial sequel to those movies in just about every way. It features a storyline driven by international politics — albeit a dumbed down version here compared to those two Tom Clancy-based films — and Ford as a take-charge type who is able to foil the bad guys almost single-handedly.
The script was penned by Andrew Marlowe (End of Days, Hollow Man), a writer not exactly known for earth-shattering material. It follows President James Marshall (Ford), onboard Air Force One with his wife, daughter and closest advisors. The plane is hijacked by a gang of militant Russians who plan to hold the president hostage until he agrees to release a captured Soviet dictator from prison.
There is absolutely no ambiguity in terms of whom Petersen and Marlowe want the audience to root for as the movie unfolds. Ford’s President Marshall is the ultimate embodiment of the so-called “President Action” character archetype; he gets shit done himself and doesn’t wait for help. Marshall also has a bit of “President Personable” mixed into his persona, because he’s shown as an everyman who handles himself with a lot of honor and dignity.
All the work of watching Air Force One unfold is done for the audience with no guesswork required, but it’s watchability is redeemed by the straight-faced confidence brought by its two lead actors. Ford is his usual, dependable self and is easy to buy as the charismatic leader of the free world but unfortunately he’s only afforded one chance to use his gift for expertly timing a great line of dialogue — but he makes it count.
It’s Gary Oldman as the villainous Ivan Korshunov who gives the film its edge and makes Air Force One an intense watch at times. In my humble opinion, Oldman is the best screen actor of his generation and deserves to be in the conversation of the all-time greats; his performance in this film is further evidence. It’s impressive whenever an actor is able to rise and turn in a great performance on already stellar material but there’s something to be said for an actor who can do memorable work on generic material.
Ivan is the typical militant Soviet bad guy that you’d have seen in a Cold War-era action flick but Oldman brings such a calm severity to the role that he begins to legitimately scare you at points. One of the best scenes in the film comes as Ivan talks face-to-face with Marshall’s 12-year-old daughter Alice, played by Liesel Simmons. Using a measured speaking tone, he lays out his beliefs to the girl, comparing his lethal actions to those of her father, saying he’s no different just “because he does it in a tuxedo with a telephone call and a smart bomb?” This question is as hard-hitting as Air Force One gets but of course, Alice hits back with a dignified reply that assures the audience the Americans are the good guys.
The action in Air Force One is big and loud. Once the hijacking starts, about 20 minutes in, the late Jerry Goldsmith’s forgettable score is cranked up to full volume and bullets start flying from every direction. I found the action distracting when the hijacking first starts because a smoke bomb clouds the frame and so many people are firing so many guns, it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is shooting whom.
Later, Petersen switches styles dramatically from close-quarters gun combat to an all-out CGI special-effects extravaganza as Air Force One and several United States Air Force pilots gets locked into a battle with fighter jets in enemy territory. The effects don’t always hold up well today, especially during one particular crash sequence where a jumbo jet does an awkward cartwheel after hitting water.
Absolutely nothing about Air Force One is subtle, but you’d probably expect that going in. You realize just how true this is when a big clunky piece of exposition is dropped in the middle of a conversation among cabinet members in the Situation Room back in Washington. Unprovoked, someone walks over to the vice president (played stoically by Glenn Close) and says, “Let’s not forget, this president is a Medal of Honor recipient … He knows how to fight.”
They honestly should have just named Ford’s character Jack Ryan and called it a day.
The scenes inside the Situation Room are so stupidly dramatic that they are some of the best in the film. It’s just flooring how much of a hard-on this movie has for the U.S.-of-A. It’s downright impressive, actually. In the most blatant scene of overt patriotism, President Marshall is attempting to dump fuel from Air Force One. His options are five wires — green, yellow, red, white and blue — and he must cut only two of them but isn’t sure which ones will achieve his goal and which ones will kill the plane’s power, sending it to a crash. I’ll give you one guess as to which ones he snips…
The country’s leaders are all presented as honorable, fearless individuals and the sly fact of including a female vice president portrays the country as progressive and free-thinking. In fact, the American leaders in Air Force One are so great that seemingly everyone is dying to take a bullet (or heat-seeking missile) for them. Perhaps my favorite line of the movie comes during another heated scene inside the Situation Room, when an unnamed military officer is heard saying, “DAMMIT! Nobody does this to the United States!”
Of course, I’m only kidding about that being my favorite line. The best line from the film is the one everyone already knows going in. Harrison Ford’s crushing one-liner, which he delivers with the force of a right cross from Joe Louis. “GET OFF MY PLANE!!!,” is powerhouse as hell. Seriously.
Air Force One wants to be Die Hard at 30,000 feet. Its setup is nearly identical, both feature a rugged leading man who tackle foreign bad guys all by themselves using the element of surprise. However, this movie doesn’t have any of the sense of humor that Die Hard possesses and takes itself way too seriously to be rewatched like that film. It’s well-acted by a group of very talented actors and packs a few moments of great tension but comes off today as the kind of movie that launches parodies rather than tributes.