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'Air Force One' Is Another Film In The Growing Presidential Genre.

By Stacey Richter

AUGUST 4, 1997:  AIR FORCE ONE would be just another throw-away action movie if it weren't for the bizarre and disturbing fact that its hero is a hypothetical manifestation of the President of the United States. President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) is a grim, overworked family man with no discernible politic affiliation; he does, however, believe in honor, protecting his family, and sticking to his word. You may remember it was only last summer that Independence Day brought us Bill Pullman as a wimp-turned-tough President busting honey-glazed aliens. Could this be the birth of a new genre? The President Movie?

Ford's James Marshall is a fictitious commander-in-chief, a far cry from Oliver Stone's quasi-historical JFK and Nixon. Stone had to at least consult the facts, while screenwriter Andrew Marlowe and director Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot; Outbreak) take the freedom to completely invent whatever kind of president they want, and guess what? He's not paranoid or misunderstood, he's not a womanizer, he doesn't have a funny regional accent. Unlike certain real-life presidents, he is not under investigation for ethics violations or sexual harassment. No, James Marshall is a tough, free-thinking fellow who makes speeches off the top of his head without the advice of his advisors. Plus he has a tender side that makes him genuinely care for his family and all Americans. He's only human, so sometimes he vacillates, but when he vacillates, it's only for a second or two.

This rather amazing fellow (along with his family and a large chunk of his staff) is returning from the former Soviet Union on Air Force One when bearded Russian fanatics, aided by a bad Secret Service man, seize the plane and all its contents. President Marshall has just finished, rather conveniently, making a speech about how the U.S. will never negotiate with terrorists! While the terrorists do what they do best, namely terrorize, Prez Marshall (cleverly eluding their grasp) lurks about in the cold-storage compartment like a business-suited yeti, spooking the bad guys and planning a counter-attack.

Meanwhile his 12-year-old daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews) is in the clutches of the head psycho, who kisses her on the forehead and explains that somewhere deep inside his body, he's a nice guy just like her daddy. "You're nothing like my father. My father is a great man!" little Alice spits back.

There's an event, and then another event; something explodes. Wresting and counter-wresting ensue; before you know it (okay, maybe not before) President Marshall is at the controls of the plane (he's an ex-military pilot, just like Pullman in Independence Day). He brings her in, he saves the day. What more could a nation ask for?

Air Force One isn't a great action movie; the fight scenes are clunky and cramped, Ford looks worried the whole time, and the script is utterly devoid of humor; but the worst thing about it is that it's so cynical. Air Force One, and the budding Presidential Movie genre as is stands, takes what might be considered the legitimate longings of a nation--to have a leader who's at least somewhat brave, moral, clever and honest--and empties it out into a sentimental Hollywood cartoon that avoids difficult moral choices and feeds on cultural stereotypes. At least Frank Capra, in his classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, had the intelligence to temper his patriotic vision of America with some darkness and despair. But Air Force One isn't really about America, or patriotism, or leadership. Air Force One simply uses these loaded ideas in the service of better action and more thrilling adventure. How empty is that?

In the end Air Force One comes off as being as calculating and manipulative as the political system it implicitly criticizes. Yes, our politicians may check the opinion polls and image consultants before making decisions, but the makers of Air Force One have just as obviously consulted test audiences and marketing pros and oiled the wheels of the whole slick Hollywood machine before providing us with this particular motion picture experience. Ick. Let's hope this is the last President Movie for a while.

Air Force One is playing at El Dorado (745-6241), Foothills (742-6174), De Anza Drive-In (745-2240), and Century Park (620-0750) cinemas.

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