Air Force One

(Wolfgang Petersen, USA, 1997)


It is indeed a strange manifestation of American nostalgia when a blockbuster action movie has to revive the Russian Communist menace in order to demonstrate the US government’s heroic foreign policy.

The Iraqi-bashing which has permeated American action films since the Gulf War (and which lingers on in the abominable G.I. Jane [1997]) makes way, in Air Force One, for an airier, sillier, more dependable type of national, political fantasy: it brings back the Commies, and then merrily shoots them, beats them, or throws them out of airborne planes.

There is not much going on in Air Force One. Wolfgang Petersen’s epic joins a group of recent films (including Turbulence [1997] and Con Air [1997]) which eagerly explore the possibilities for action in confined, mobile spaces. All the familiar moves duly occur: scared passengers are locked up in a room; hostages are sacrificed according to the evil strategies and whims of a gang of terrorists; and our hero – Harrison Ford as the American President, no less – hides in a dark compartment, plotting his moves and waiting to exploit the element of surprise.

It has now become a favourite cliché of the movie industry to claim that certain action films – Face/Off (1997) is a contemporaneous example – can be proudly raised above the status of mere thrillers because of their human drama component of in-depth characterisation. Most of the time, this claim is specious nonsense, or pure hype.

In the case of Air Force One, the pretension to human drama comes in the form of several simple moral dilemmas facing our veritable super-hero, and a brief bit of Cape Fear-style business passing between the chief baddie (Gary Oldman) and the President’s daughter. Unfortunately – like much in the film – this line of intrigue goes nowhere.

As a mere action blockbuster, Air Force One is not in the same league as Speed (1994), Mission: Impossible Mission: Impossible (1996) or Assassins (1995). Its large plot moves clock over very slowly, and there are few inventive variations on the predictable clinches and situations. Ford – who can be a fine actor when challenged by an interesting part – here cruises on automatic; while Oldman, more restrained in his villainous accents and mannerisms than usual, is far less fun to watch than in the grossly underrated The Fifth Element (1997).

Air Force One is never exactly boring. It offers a few thrills, a few shocks, a few laughs. But, mostly, it had me shaking my head in sorry disbelief – especially during the bizarre sequence where a charismatic, former Communist leader is let out of prison, triggering a level of hysteria which suggests that the fate of the entire free world is instantly under threat. How do the makers of Air Force One quell that sort of hysteria? Take one guess.

MORE Petersen: In the Line of Fire, The Perfect Storm

© Adrian Martin November 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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