“You’re gonna get yourself re-elected.” ~ Grace Marshall
“That’s what I keep telling them.” ~ James Marshall
“When you speak to the President, you might remind him that I am holding his wife, his daughter, his chief of staff, his national security advisor, his classified papers, and his baseball glove.” ~ Ivan Korshunov
“Nobody does this to the United States. The President will get his baseball glove back and play catch with this guy’s balls.” ~ General Northwood
“He’s not asking. Your commander in chief has issued a direct order. Do it!” ~ Kathryn Bennett
“You are a monster. And my father is a great man. You’re nothing like my father.” ~ Grace Marshall
“Peace isn’t merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” ~ James Marshall
The terrorists holding hostages action genre has been around for a good long while- Die Hard spawned not only sequels but also other takes on the concept. Some of those have been inferior and have shown it. Others have been inspired and taken the genre in new directions. Such was the case in 1997, with Air Force One, from director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm), a film that is considered a favourite action thriller of the 1990s.
The film begins with a joint operation by American and Russian special forces to capture the despotic Russian general Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), who has seized dictatorial control in Kazakhstan. Some weeks later, the American President, James Marshall (Harrison Ford) has come to Moscow for a summit with his Russian counterpart (Paul Woolf). Marshall makes a declaration of his own at a diplomatic dinner that Americans will never negotiate with terrorists, stating that it is their turn to be afraid. He and his entourage return to Air Force One for the flight home, and the President finds his wife Grace (Wendy Crewson) and daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews) waiting for him.
Along with the staff and American press boarding the plane are a small group of men passing themselves off as Russian journalists, and having inside help with their cover. Their point man is Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), and he has an agenda of his own- he’s a loyalist of Radek, and he has a mole within the Secret Service helping him out. It doesn’t take long before things go decidedly the wrong way for the President and those around him, and we find ourselves hip deep in an action thriller on the most secure airplane on the planet.
The story and screenplay come from Andrew Marlowe, who also wrote End Of Days and would go on to create the television series Castle, and the script moves things along briskly, leaving the odd plot hole unexplained (such as why the Secret Service mole decides to betray his country). That said, the plot holes are easily disregarded, because the rest of the story works so well. We have a protagonist of strong principle, a former military officer who has courage and conviction, and just happens to be the Chief Executive of the United States (a far cry from most of this year’s choices in that regard). The story also gives us a formidable antagonist who’s doing what he’s doing because he believes he’s in the right- and rather plausible given the state of the world.
Petersen was a good choice as director. His Das Boot is a classic, a film spent largely in the sheer claustrophobia of a submarine, and his later work on marine disaster films like The Perfect Storm and Poseidon reflect the skills of someone who knows how to tell a story told in tight places. His work also includes Troy and In The Line Of Fire- the latter being particularly of note here as it deals with presidential security from the point of view of the Secret Service. He’s more than capable with thrillers, and it shows here. His Das Boot influences show itself in the cramped dimly lit passages of the plane’s cargo hold, where Petersen is quite adept at making the most of the environment and staging desperate fights here. Petersen knows how to work tension into the film in just the right way- not only in and around the aircraft, but also home in Washington, where the senior cabinet, including the Vice President (Glenn Close) and Secretary of Defense (Dean Stockwell) find themselves sparring over what is to be done.
Petersen’s style ends up giving us a smart thriller, one that makes us more easily overlook those pesky plot holes in favour of a tense but fun caper. The film has the look of authenticity to it, even with locations that are anything but- a Situation Room that appears like you’d expect it to look, a Russian prison that in fact was also the prison used for filming in The Shawshank Redemption, and American architecture filling in for a Kazakh palace. The CGI comes into the mix, and for the most part works- even if it is a bit perplexing to see the ultimate fate of a CGI Air Force One (one imagines the Secret Service isn’t too keen on that). The music score, one of my favourites, is by the legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith, who was brought in at the last minute by the director when he wasn’t happy with the work of the previous composer. Goldsmith’s score is thunderous, suspenseful, and patriotic.
And the cast is all around ideally chosen. William H. Macy had just come off a career defining role in Fargo, a film that brought the character actor a good deal of fame, and here he plays the stoic military officer Major Caldwell, a man loyal to his country and to his president. Macy gives the character a basic decency throughout the film, so his final acts of course make perfect sense. Paul Guilfoyle, yet another character actor one has seen everywhere, gets the part of the White House Chief of Staff, Lloyd Shepherd, seemingly more interested in reactions and poll patterns than doing the right thing- until he surprises the audience by not living down to our expectations.
Xander Berkeley is another one of those character actors one has seen countless times in movies and television, often as an authority figure. While he presents himself as a leader among agents, his role as Gibbs requires him to play the character close to the vest- what with being a traitor and all, and Berkeley pulls that off. We might not know what makes him do what he does, but as a secret antagonist, he keeps the audience on the edge. Prochnow, who had worked with Petersen as the lead in Das Boot, gets the part of the deposed General Radek. While it’s largely a quiet part, you can see in Prochnow’s performance why people would follow him- he carries himself, even in prison garb, like a man of confidence.
Liesel Matthews got the role of Alice- this after previous work in theatre and the 1995 version of A Little Princess (incidentally, if the ending of that movie doesn’t get to you, you have absolutely no soul. Yes, I’m looking at you). She plays the role well, certainly coming across as a girl with the convictions of her parents, defiant in the face of a sociopathic zealot. One wonders why she didn’t continue to act- until one finds out that she doesn’t need to work. Wendy Crewson is good as Grace Marshall, the supportive and strong First Lady, also someone of conviction and integrity, and she and Ford have a good chemistry together when they share the screen- they do come across as a believable married couple in the way their characters interact.
Dean Stockwell is good as the Defense Secretary, Walter Dean. Early on in the crisis he finds himself taking one point of view- that with the President out of contact he is in charge. And yet things aren’t quite that clear. Most of the film he finds himself in disagreements with the Vice President over the situation, but he doesn’t play the character as if the disagreements are personal. This isn’t an opportunistic sort of character, but a pragmatic one, and the audience can certainly see his point.
Glenn Close gets an outstanding role as the Vice President, Kathryn Bennett. She’s loyal to the President, calm under pressure, striving to keep things in order in what seems to be the worst possible scenario. As the film goes along and she finds herself at the threshold of what could be an opportunity, her decision fits her character, and Close plays the character with great sympathy. As with Stockwell’s performance, we get the sense that Close is playing their disagreement as only one of different world views, and that there’s nothing personal beyond that. By film’s end, it’s not hard to imagine the two characters leaving as friends.
Gary Oldman, who’s played good men, complicated characters, and outright villains throughout his career, gets a terrific scenery chewing lunatic to play this time out. Korshunov is a man of his own convictions, absolutely certain of himself as he crosses a huge line. He’s an ultra nationalist who believes in his leader, and doesn’t care what he has to do in achieving his goals. In his mind, he’s not wrong- and that makes him a compelling villain, albeit a ruthless, merciless, and sadistic adversary. It’s a formidable role for the actor, and a memorable character in the history of action thrillers.
Harrison Ford brings the sense of gravity and authority to the lead role that it deserves, investing his character with integrity and principle (a rare thing in a politician, I know). Marshall is a character of courage and strength, finding himself in a situation where his time in the military comes right back. He must deal with his responsibilities as a leader and his worry for his family, but throughout forges his way forward. Would another leader in that position panic? Probably. Marshall doesn’t, and one of the great pleasures of the film is watching the two adversaries square off in more than one way.
Air Force One is unlikely in terms of such a scenario ever happening, and there are the odd plot holes that go unexplained. That said, however, it’s an immensely satisfying thriller that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the viewer, gives us sympathetic characters and ruthlessly vindictive villains, cranks up the suspension and tension as things go along, and even gives the odd hint of humour before it’s all said and done. It’s always well worth seeing again.