Monday 4 July 2011

Air Force One (1997)

What do people want in a leader? According to actioner Air Force One, what people want is someone willing to take action. In a world of terrorism, extremism and atrocity, many have lost faith in the diplomatic process. They long for the days when justice was swift and resolute… when all it took to restore order to the little town, overrun with bad men and fear, was a single man. A man who could look the do-badders square in the eye, unphased by fear or other such concerns. One guy to shoot first and never ask questions because he already knows the right thing to do. Wouldn’t it be great if the person holding the most powerful political office in the free world was such a man?

Whilst travelling back from Russia, Soviet terrorists hijack the Presidential plane, Air Force One. When everyone is taken hostage, James Marshall (Harrison Ford), current US President and former soldier, escapes into the baggage deck and then begins to fight back against his aggressors.

Andrew W. Marlowe’s script is one painted with thoroughly broad strokes, and is soaked through with cliché. Honestly, there’s barely an ounce of brains in the whole thing. Characters are, for the most part, wafer thin and seem to have been ordered straight from a catalogue for all of their complexity. This doesn’t necessarily get in the way of enjoyment, as such, because Air Force One doesn’t seek to bowl you over with originality. It’s the B-movie western transposed to the sky, the plane taking the place of little township under threat. Good guys are good guys, bad guys are bad guys and there’s little in the way of surprises. There are some holes that come from all this simplicity. Some character motivations are left completely untouched, which does affect the logic of the whole piece somewhat. For example, Secret Service Agent Gibbs’ actions are without any explanation, which is odd considering he’s a pretty big linchpin in the plan. Apparently, they did have an explanation for it, but decided to remove it for the sake of pace. A wise move (the film is already two hours long), but it’s still a hole in things.

Really, the whole film rests not on how clever the idea is or character depth, but on the technical capability of those bringing it to life. If they can do the film hard enough and fast enough, no one will notice the basic nature of the script… and even if you do, hopefully you’ll enjoy the ride enough to not care. Wolfgang Petersen directs proceedings, and seems to be somewhat at home with the concept. Having directed the superb 1981 war film Das Boot, he has shown himself very capable in evoking that sense of claustrophobic tension of high stress situations in confined spaces. In Air Force One, he’s got a full on action flick with gunfights, fistfights and hostages to play with. He does a fine job in setting the scene, much like he did in Das Boot. The camera follows characters as they walk the plane, establishing the geography and the closeness of the quarters. We do occasionally leave the plane, going to the White House and observing the Vice President’s efforts to help from the ground. Also, we get some aerial dogfights later on between the US F15s and Russian MiGs, which are very effective, too.

The real work, though, comes from the cast. If you don’t believe that this President can rise to the challenge, the film is lost before it gets started. Fortunately, they’ve got Harrison Ford. It seems so obvious for him to be Marshall, it’s a bit strange that the first choice was Kevin Costner. Ford carries himself with the kind of stature and charisma that’s served him so well all these years, and it easily translates to Presidential authority, and when it’s time to become the action guy, he’s more than up to the task. One of Ford’s great gifts in these kinds of roles is that he looks like he’d be good in a fight, like he can take a hit. In fact, when he had to fight with Gary Oldman, he told his co-star to actually hit him. How can you not respect that kind of dedication? He’s every ounce the guy to fill these shoes.

We’re in equally good hands with Gary Oldman’s Communist bad guy, Ivan Korshunov. His character suffers as much as anyone from the kind of weak stereotyping inherent in the script, but Oldman is an unrivalled master in the realm of bad guys. In the hands of someone else, Korshunov’s words would probably feel quite hollow, but Oldman imbues them with intensity and vitriol, which forces you to take them seriously. Oldman makes everything of his big villainous moments, and he’s also got that cold, hard, unyielding stare. He could win a staring contest with a rock. Korshunov’s just as much a man of action as Marshall, and Oldman carries this off beautifully.

The supporting cast is also solid as a rock, particularly from the female contingent. Glenn Close gives her role a great strength, with just a little vulnerability peaking through occasionally; Wendy Crewson holds a great defiant dignity and presence onscreen; and Liesel Matthews, who could so easily have just felt annoying, actually does very well, especially considering her scene partners are mainly Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. Other roles are filled with people who you will recognise from other films or TV shows, so there is a nice game of ‘What Was He In Again?’ to be had, too.

I know I shouldn’t really, because it’s not exactly the brainiest of movies, but I will talk a little about the politics of the piece. Again, this is an example of me looking into something a bit harder than is really necessary, but it is something that occurred to me during the watching. Just how much would people really want this kind of a leader? He certainly ticks all the right boxes as an action hero – soldier, family man, strong-willed, determined – and these can be attributes that go towards being a great leader of a country. However, look at other parts. When he gives a speech at the beginning of the film, he talks about how they can no longer sit behind the easy tactics of economic sanctions and diplomacy until their own concerns are threatened, that they must act immediately when they know the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t sit well with the rest of the political world… does this sound familiar to anyone else? This is the kind of broad political language that sounds like it’s impossible to disagree with, but has gotten people in a lot of trouble of late. And it’s probably not great for the President of the United States, or any democratic nation for that matter, to regard diplomacy as a kind of stall tactic or something to resort to when you don’t really want to get involved. The job of diplomat is tough, much more so than simply deciding to run in guns blazing. Sure, you want someone who can make that really tough call and send in the troops, but he does make it sound like it should be the first place to go, and that’s a little disquieting.

I don’t think the film is trying to make any kind of political assertion one way or the other, at least not intentionally, especially since we never actually know what party President Marshall represents. And again, the script is rife with this kind of broad-minded sensibility, so you can’t really take anything too seriously. The good guy says generally good things; the bad guy says generally bad things. The film is really just trying to be anti-terrorist or anti-bad-guy in order to establish a villain. If it speaks to anything, it's the idea that people are tired of a world in crisis. They watch the news and see the constant feed of atrocity, death, famine, economic downturn and other such miseries and they just want it to stop. They want someone to come in and solve everything because it's getting to be a bit much. I understand this, and so do you. And if this film offers some kind of escapism from these woes, that's fine. My concern comes if people start wanting the world to be more like the movies, and that's rarely a good idea. Anyway, I’ll end my minor political ponderings there, largely because I’m one of the least politically-minded people I know, and it’ll just devolve into ramblings… if it hasn’t already. I’ll let you all make up your own minds.

Overall, Air Force One is big and it’s pretty dumb, but it is very enjoyable. The action scenes are good, the pace is good, and the leading pair are absolutely spot on. There are some aspects of it that some may find disagreeable in light of what’s happened in the world since the film’s release, but that’s taking it more seriously than it really warrants. Just sit back and watch the big dumb movie play out its bangs and booms and such. The real world will be waiting for you when you’re done.

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