Air Force One — Audience Nothing

Air Force One
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe. Starring Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, and Gary Oldman. Opens Friday, July 25, at the Coronet and the Century Plaza.

An action flick that panders to aging baby boomers, Air Force One has a hero conceived of the people, by the people, and for the people. I use the word “people” loosely — to mean “Hollywood focus groups.” This picture's two-fisted president has both Bill Clinton's demographics and Ronald Reagan's image. He's got an equal partner of a wife, a poised, precocious daughter, and a female veep — and he talks as tough as the Gipper. The movie is geared to elicit retro-Reagan battle lust from thirty- to fiftysomethings who are growing thick around the middle. It's a rah-rah extravaganza that deserves a Bronx cheer.

At the close of a mission to Moscow to celebrate a joint Russian-U.S. operation that captured an ultranationalist communist warlord, Our Mr. President announces a get-tough policy against terrorist nations. For some reason, his advisers treat this impromptu statement as political dynamite. Anyhow, minutes into Air Force One's flight home, terrorists riddle the coach section with bullets and commandeer the plane. They demand the freedom of that commie would-be dictator in return for the release of their hostages.

Everyone thinks that the president has abandoned ship in his escape pod. Anyone who's seen the trailer knows he's stayed behind to save his family and compatriots and foil the terrorists' plot. Remember when each new action movie was described in terms of Die Hard? Under Siege, for example, was Die Hard on a ship. Well, Air Force One is Die Hard in a Plane, With the Prez. The chief executive may not be a street-wise New York City cop a la Bruce Willis, but he was a chopper pilot in 'Nam and a Medal of Honor winner. Unlike Reagan, he knows how to fight; unlike Clinton, he knows how to salute. This movie wants us to stand and salute right back at him.

Aside from some splashy (and none-too-persuasive) aerial special effects, there's nothing unusual about the bulk of the action: It's the stalk-and-surprise stuff moviegoers have seen staged in the corridors, elevators, and stairwells of office buildings, hospitals, and high schools. The sequences of non-pilots landing an enormous jet and of the hero covertly communicating with the good guys on the ground are familiar from disaster/adventure movies as different as Airport and Con Air. What's supposed to give this frantic farrago a charge is the audacity of the terrorists mounting a home invasion of that great White House in the clouds. The film never stops shouting, “Don't you understand? This is the president of the United States! This is the first lady and first daughter!”

Moviegoers with spicier appetites, or a smidgen of taste, might think it insane for a suspense film to yearn to be so presidential, even when it comes to the subliminal — the president roots for the University of Michigan's football team presumably because the yellow and blue school colors match the omnipresent presidential seal. But all this movie has to keep it afloat is the aura of Free World power triumphing over totalitarian evil, as in days of yore. There's something freaky about two German directors, Roland Emmerich in last year's Independence Day and now Wolfgang Petersen in Air Force One, producing successive panegyrics to American presidents who are also first-class fighting men. Perhaps the experience of imbibing Yankee pop from a distance, without any of our native skepticism or irony, enables them blithely to spit it back whole. Independence Day was jokey and clueless enough to pass for camp, but it's clear that Petersen wants us to pledge allegiance to Air Force One. In spirit, this movie predates Reagan: It time-warps to the '50s. When the soundtrack music alternates a resolute spirit-of-America theme with a heavy, melancholy Russian theme, you may flash back to The Ed Sullivan Show hosting a slew of Slavic fiddlers and dancers. Despite the body count and the R rating, Air Force One, too, is family entertainment: patriotic gore, hold the gore.

What more Pavlovian piece of casting could there be than Harrison Ford as the president and paterfamilias? In movie after movie, he's become Superfamilyman. Too bad he was more amusing when he was footloose and fancy free as Indiana Jones, and more believable as the emotionally evolving cop in Witness. Ford has won popular and critical acceptance for his mythic ease at bearing the weight of the world. Unfortunately, this Atlas doesn't shrug — he huffs and puffs in an eternal strain. You can see him turn on his glower the way more lighthearted leading men ignite roguish smiles. He's semianimated in Air Force One; he cries cascades of tears rather than quietly succumb to the apocalyptic glumness he assumed in The Devil's Own. But there's no longer any surprise to the gap between his regular-guy appearance and his extraordinary prowess. As a doctor in The Fugitive, as a CIA man in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and now as the president, he's swung from more high places than Tarzan ever did.

If you don't give in to the movie's president-worship, there's little to enjoy except for William H. Macy (best known as the car salesman in Fargo), who etches an electric profile even in the 1-D role of a stalwart military man. Otherwise, the cast is full of name players who deliver trademarks rather than signature performances. Glenn Close redefines “no nonsense” as “no fun” in the role of the loyal vice president. Gary Oldman generates a spurious and risible intensity as the chief terrorist. His self-destructive fanatic gets so caught up in mouthing anti-capitalist platitudes in a Lower Slobovia accent that he fails to notice when the president grabs a useful shard, or when the first lady (Wendy Crewson) prepares to prove that she's one boomer wife who's kept up her Jane Fonda exercise program.

At the core is a fiasco of a script. The screenwriter, Andrew W. Marlowe, must shoulder the blame when an actor as talented as Dean Stockwell, in the role of the secretary of defense, can't clarify whether his character is a power-grabber or just a stickler for hierarchy; or, for that matter, when a director as proficient as Petersen simply tightens the screws terrorist-style, by having people shot at point-blank range. Air Force One resembles six two-reelers strung together: a serial posing as a feature, a cliffhanger without a cliff to hang on. When a movie is all climaxes, the returns diminish early. By the end, every climax is anti.

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