Air Force One was released twenty years ago. It is a movie that I return to every few years to see if it still holds up and each time the answer is a resounding yes. The premise is one that I’m surprised no one tried before 1997: terrorists hijack Air Force One and the only person who can stop them and take back the plane is the President of the United States. It’s such a fun premise that could have been very easily mishandled but instead produced one of the best action movies of the ‘90s and, for me, one of the best of all time.
A movie with this much unashamed sincerity will always make me go a big rubbery one. Recently, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman was such a delight because it wore its heart on its sleeve and never tried to undercut its epic moments with humour or cynicism. When Diana walked out onto No Man’s Land, I was in floods of tears and hugely grateful to see something so sincere on a movie screen during an age when movies seem to be terrified of pure moments of unfiltered emotion. Like Wonder Woman, Air Force One has no qualms about hitting those same, sincere emotional beats—and it’s delightful. Harrison Ford’s President Marshall cutting the wires to dump the fuel without severing the red, white, or blue wires is an incredibly broad a moment but, because it is played utterly straight, ends up being stirring instead of ridiculous. Compare it to recent action movies like the Fast and Furious saga which are trying to have it both ways with oodles and oodles of cheesy moments and speeches about family while also trying to make sure that the viewers know that these characters are the coolest and toughest people alive. Air Force One goes for broke on the sincerity with an abundance of lines that should make us roll our eyes but instead had this viewer reaching for the Kleenex.
A big factor in how well the movie sells these scenes and lines is its star. Harrison Ford will always be the best action star around for the simple fact that he can show weakness. He already knows he’s the coolest guy in the room so he doesn’t need to pose or preen. He’s happy to get a real kicking and have the cuts and bruises to show for it. As Indiana Jones, in one of his most iconic roles, he’s unlike any other contemporary action star. Unlike James Bond or Dominic Toretto, he doesn’t have all the answers and while he’s improvising a plan he’s also getting seven kinds of shite beaten out of him by the bad guys. In Air Force One, Ford isn’t full of quips or one-liners. He is a man terrified for his family and making it up as he goes along. He fights like a wild animal and everything he does is scrappy and on the spot. That is the appeal of one-against-many types of movies. THere is something so compelling and endearing about a hero who is capable—yet not too capable. Die Hard, for instance, remains so beloved in part because Bruce Willis wears the hardship of his grueling night on his face, whereas Steven Seagal in Under Siege is merely an unstoppable, unflappable killing machine, relegating that film to midnight movie curiosity status. In Air Force One and Die Hard, we think we know that our heroes are going to prevail but will they? They might get overwhelmed by the superior numbers of their enemy or they might just be too exhausted to continue the fight and it’s this kernel of doubt that keeps us watching.
In Air Force One, we also get to watch Ford go up against an actor in peak villain form—and Gary Oldman’s Ivan Korshunov is a villain for the ages. He is neither charming nor witty. Instead, he is a zealot and a fanatic and in every scene is both magnetic and terrifying. The sequence in which he executes the assistant press secretary is chilling. Compare it to Ellis’ death in Die Hard and Air Force One again offers the superior scene because the filmmakers haven’t undercut the victim by making her unlikable or in some way responsible for her own demise. She is a friendly, competent woman who has her life snatched from her in attempt lure out the hero. The scene in which Oldman first has her speak on the mic and then counts down to shooting her is the deeply disturbing act of a genuinely scary villain. When we finally get to the moment when the two leads meet up after the halfway mark we’ve seen both characters develop enough that we know we’re in for a great showdown between our scrappy, American hero and this psychopathic Russian extremist.
Speaking of Russia, it’s quite a surreal experience to watch this movie in 2017, considering who is in the White House. When this movie was released the President was Bill Clinton. I remember at the time saying to my friends who I saw it with that, ‘Yeah, I could imagine Clinton doing that.’ And then years later watching it again and saying the complete opposite about George W. Bush. It probably says a lot about my political leanings that a few years later I had switched opinions again and argued vehemently that Barack Obama would have taken back the plane. In actuality, the only president in my lifetime who probably would have put up much of a fight is war hero and former director of the CIA, George H.W. Bush.
Watching the movie now, with 45 in office, makes the movie take on an extra level of emotive power. For some of us in the world, 45 is not inspiring or someone we wish to see succeed, so watching a movie in which multiple characters sacrifice themselves to save the President and where his presence straightens everyone’s backs and inspires them to acts of heroism is like watching an episode of the Twilight Zone about a world so far removed from our own it might as well be an alien planet.
Outside of the emotional elements, Air Force One is a perfectly crafted movie that moves from set piece to set piece with ease and well-handled pace. Once the hijack begins there are only two speeds: creeping tension or breakneck. Director Wolfgang Peterson manages to give us a great idea of the space we’re going to inhabit for the next two hours, then uses all the tools at his disposal to ratchet up the tension and shoot us full of adrenaline. We are constantly aware that the action is taking place on a vehicle floating in the sky and how remote that makes our hero, giving us that itchy feeling of discomfort throughout. Peterson also does well to round out the cast with ringers to surround Ford and Oldman with. Glenn Close’s Vice President is a strong, ice cold character and could have easily taken back the plane herself if the roles were reversed. Pairing her with Dean Stockwell and Philip C. Hall makes the ground scenes almost as tense as those in the air.
Twenty years later, I still love this movie. I love its sincerity and its cheesiness. It is happy to go that few steps into ridiculousness and not apologise for it. In an age when movies panic at the idea of going all the way with something that might be considered corny, it’s affirming to see a movie wear its heart on its sleeve with no fear of being ridiculed, because they have crafted an incredible action movie. Filled with tension, excitement, and just the right amount of flag-waving, it says a lot about the movie that I get patriotic stirrings for America when I watch it…and I’m English.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures