"Air Force One" is not by Tom Clancy. Harrison Ford is not playing Jack Ryan.
Could've fooled me.
The movie, a slickly crafted action thriller, portrays the president as the now-familiar humble hero, a Vietnam veteran, Medal of Honor winner, Michigan football fan and family man. His unextraordinary yet stalwart name is James Marshall. By rights, he should be eating apple pie and listening to Elvis. Or maybe battling the aliens in "Independence Day."
He's so perfect, he's boring.
It's not Ford's fault. He's likable and intense and sometimes even funny. But every American character in this movie is a boring incarnation of White House cliches that we've seen repeatedly in contemporary Hollywood's version of Washington. Not that these archetypes bear any resemblance to reality: What Ford really embodies is wish fulfillment.
This is a president who isn't afraid of us. He trusts the electorate to support him in doing what is morally right. He actually strays from the speech that his poll-minded staff has created for him. In this case, after a U.S.-Russian mission to depose a bloodthirsty hardliner in a former Soviet republic, he's vowed to the Russians and the world that tyrants will no longer be tolerated and that we will never negotiate with terrorists.
Bad timing, that, because on Marshall's way home from Asia, a Russian terrorist team led by a neo-nationalist zealot (Gary Oldman) takes over Air Force One, putting the First Family and an assortment of hostages in peril.
As directed by Wolfgang Petersen, whose credits include the gritty submarine movie "Das Boot" and the suspenseful "In the Line of Fire," "Air Force One" cranks along with intensity and excitement.
As an action movie, it never fails, though its plot points are sometimes preposterous. From the chaotic and bloody gunfights the plane to the air battles outside, it hurtles forward with breathless speed, single-minded beast that it is.
But flaws in character development -- that is, the characters' lack of flaws -- suck the film dry of personality. The only guy who seems even a little complicated is Dean Stockwell's secretary of defense, who makes a subtle power grab while he's delivering sound military advice to the resolute vice president (Glenn Close).
The worst example of character collapse is the secondary villain on whom the entire plot turns, the adviser who betrays Marshall and arms the terrorists. This unlikely act might seem possible if we had a glimmer of a clue to his motivation. But there are no hints. Is it money? Politics? Power? Tight underwear? For most of the film, he lurks in the background like a plot device whose battery has gone dead.
Given what they have to work with, the actors are persuasive. Ford charms and inspires as the president. He has an image of accessible authority that Bill Clinton and George Bush can only dream of, plus he kicks major terrorist butt. He wears the executive mantle so well that it's genuinely shocking to see him beat up. We're simply not used to watching the president get the stuffing knocked out of him.
Close emanates strength, if not three dimensions, and Oldman is satisfyingly brutal. William H. Macy sheds the slimy ambiguity of his brilliant turn in "Fargo" to portray a reliable military officer who helps corral the whimpering American hostages.
Also notable is Liesel Matthews ("A Little Princess") as the president's daughter, who lends a sweet sadness to her underwritten part. And Petersen even sneaks in his "Das Boot" star Jurgen Prochnow in a cameo as the ousted tyrant.
If the roles are underwritten, the music is the opposite. Like the characters, the score by Jerry Goldsmith is a cliche, filled with pounding martial rhythms and swelling yet saccharine passages that are supposed to sound heroic but instead are just annoying. The soundtrack is symptomatic of the movie: filled with pyrotechnics and completely mechanical.
'Air Force One'
Starring Harrison Ford and Glenn Close
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Released by Columbia
Rated R (violence, moderate profanity)
Sun Score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 7/25/97