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Turning the standard summer blockbuster on its ear, Air Force One proves fantasies really can come true.

By Zak Weisfeld

AUGUST 4, 1997:  It's getting harder and harder to be the President of the United States; it used to the that your only worries were governing an unruly and often unsympathetic nation, whipping a recalcitrant Congress into gear, hiding the numerous pay-offs, hush money, and back-room deals required to become President from an antagonistic press--and the occasional lone gunman. Then, last summer the stakes were really upped when the President had to fly a fighter jet against an alien invasion. But this summer things have gotten a little personal; this summer some crackpot Russian ultra-nationalists have hijacked the President's plane, and the Prez is going to kick some ass.

How did we come to such a turn? When did it become acceptable to make the President of the United States an action hero? Strangely, I think Bill Clinton should get most of the credit. Not that Bill would duke it out at 30,000 feet, especially with the bad knee and all, but Clinton, with his hands-on campaign style, friendships in Hollywood, and pesky financial problems, has humanized the office in a new way.

There is clearly nothing special about being President anymore--it's quite obvious to anyone with a television that it doesn't take a genius to run this country. Now the President walks among us, knows our names, and feels deeply and personally for every one of us. Now the President is like that guy in the office who always meets his sales quotas, except that he can also order a nuclear strike.

It's also obvious to anyone who sees Air Force One that Harrison Ford would make a great President, as long as he got Wolfgang Petersen to direct and Andrew Marlowe to write the screenplay. Because the truth of the matter is, on a profound level, the President makes for a stupid action hero--we've seen far too much of far too many of them to easily suspend our disbelief of a President saving anything but his re-election chances. But somehow Wolfgang takes this rather strange choice of a hero and combines it with one of the modern action films' most tired sub-genres (Die Hard-on-a-________) and manages to make what is easily the summer's best thriller (not counting Jackie Chan).

And he does it not with brilliant special effects or breathtaking action sequences, but the old fashioned way--with character. Petersen and Marlowe give their characters' simple and credible motivations. Then they test those characters against a complex situation. Because the characters are coherent and believable, I found myself in the peculiar position of actually caring about them and hoping they would live--which was a rare feeling indeed for a summer action movie.

Air Force One begins with Ford as the Prez making a policy speech about hunting down foreign leaders who are bad and giving the terrorists no quarter. A policy that, if realized, would send our country, and probably the world, into a spiral of senseless and brutal foreign conflict that would make the Vietnam War look like Grenada. In fact it is so disastrous that throughout the film, I was torn between rooting for the President and hoping that he would die and save us all the horror of his foreign policy vision.

But I digress.

After the speech, his plane is hijacked by Russian ultra-nationalists who want their imprisoned leader, General Radic, released. In this single stroke, Petersen and Marlowe have added an entirely new dimension of conflict to the Die Hard-rescue-your-wife-and-daughter program. Now, Ford cannot allow negotiation for his life, or his family's lives, without sacrificing his and his country's honor--not to mention destabilizing Central Asia.

The role makes the most of Ford's skills. As beleaguered President James Marshall, he gets to be mature and macho, sensitive and savage, and as always, grim and determined. All of which must be nice for Ford since he's frequently forced to get by on the last two alone. And if Petersen was able to bring some new angles out of Ford, he did wonders with Gary Oldman, who plays the head of the Russian hijackers.

MOVIE GURU RATING: Enlightening

Until Air Force One, I had gotten more than little tired of Gary Oldman as the psychotic villain--and, indeed, the psychotic villain in general. But somehow Oldman manages to make the role live again. For the first time in a long while Hollywood has offered a villain who's actually motivated. Oldman isn't evil just because he likes being evil. He's evil because he believes, and because he's willing to sacrifice everything for his belief. While Oldman's character never quite brings me around to his way of thinking, he does manage to make his side understandable.

Petersen's magic is brought to bear not just on Oldman and Ford, but on the entire cast--even the smallest characters are clearly drawn, their plights painstakingly detailed. All this builds up to some of the most intense sequences in recent action film memory. Every death on the plane is felt powerfully and has a surprising gravity to it, as though (and this is a shocking thing to realize in the middle of summer) it actually mattered.

It is unfair to expect flights of artistic brilliance from Hollywood. Movie studios are, after all, businesses. But it isn't unreasonable to expect Air Force One. This is the kind of movie Hollywood should be turning out every week, the kind of movie we should demand--a trite formula with a slight twist, a solid script, well-defined characters, and a hefty dose of ass-kicking and special effects. Air Force One is the kind of movie that summers are for.


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